At a new meeting of experts, we analyzed current shifts in Belarus’ involvement in the war and evaluated the scenarios of possible escalation by the regime. What could and should the international community’s reaction to these be? And is it a challenge or an opportunity for the democratic movement?
Current State of Belarus. The extent of Belarus’ participation in the war
Lukashenka has been evading a full-fledged entry into the war up to now for two main reasons:
- Belarusian society doesn’t support this war. Split on almost all other issues; it has a monolithic consensus on Belarus’ non-participation in the military conflict. Both opponents of Lukashenka and his supporters, including the state apparatus and power structures, oppose sending the Belarusian army to Ukraine.
- The unsuccessful course of the war for Russia. Participation in a victorious war could bring political and economic dividends for the regime (for example, opening up of the Ukrainian ports for the sanctioned Belarusian products: potassium and oil refinery products). Now, it appears that Lukashenka realizes that Russia will not succeed in winning this war in the way initially planned, which works as a powerful deterrent.
Moscow’s pressure on Lukashenka
During this year, there were eight rounds of negotiations between Lukashenka and Putin, each lasting five hours or more. Some experts suspect that these negotiations included intense bargaining on the extent of Belarus’ role in the war. Putin needs an iron-clad contract that will inhibit Minsk from establishing any contact with the West.
Lukashenka’s tactics and maneuvers
Lukashenka’s current primary foreign policy tool is a demonstration of full loyalty to Russia. Moscow saved him in 2020 and turned itself into the decisive factor of the Belarusian regime’s political survival. In its present circumstances, Lukashenka’s regime has few viable options to get out of the war and take a more neutral stance in the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West. By deploying a regional Belarus-Russia military grouping, Lukashenka legitimizes the emergence of Russian troops in Belarus and their presence for an unlimited future. Hiding behind the Russian military, this show of military support could be aimed at discouraging Ukraine from attacking military infrastructure in Belarus that had been used to shell Ukrainian cities, and/or to protect real or perceived threats from Belarusian formations fighting on the side of the Ukrainian army, specifically the Kalinouski Regiment.
However, Lukashenka has not completely lost his political agency. He has substantial negotiation tools to use with Putin as they are interdependent. Meanwhile, Putin fears provoking an internal political crisis in his closest ally state.
This plays into the hands of Lukashenka, who invents new and new ways to evade dragging deeper into the war. His main argument is the demonstration of Belarus as a buffer zone from NATO, which allegedly “can spark an offensive in Smolensk and Moscow.”
At the same time, Lukashenka is trying to revive his dialog with the West pitching his non-participation in the war as a bargaining tool. He imitates the role of a peacemaker and calls for lifting sanctions.
The democratic movement faces three main challenges:
- Decrease of influence inside Belarus. Repressions continue and erase all types of political activity in the country, including anti-war movements. If the opposition fails to provide an appropriate response within the country to the next escalation by the regime, this will demotivate the society.
- Reduction of influence on foreign partners. Even though meetings with western partners continue, many countries impose restrictions against Belarusian citizens, including visa restrictions, ignoring the calls from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her government-in-exile not to do so. Western partners are also confused by the number of oppositional structures who claim leadership legitimacy and unclear communication from them.
- Difficulties in building relations with Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities and the Belarusian volunteers there are unwilling to communicate with the democratic representation publicly. It creates a poor image both for foreign partners and for the pro-democratic part of Belarusian society.
During the war, the democratic movement can find windows of opportunity in three layers of activities. The first is related to the conventional war in Ukraine. Support of Ukraine can be more vocal and practical (actively support the volunteer movement, call to join battalions under Ukraine’s command, fundraising campaigns). It is especially important after signals from the Ukrainian side regarding the hypothetical recognition of Belarus as an occupied country—democratic forces must show their agency and influence. The other two layers are an information war (promote the narrative that Russia is the aggressor and boost the reduction in support of the Kremlin) and humanitarian issues, especially in matters of stabilizing the issuance of visas for Belarusians.
The baseline strategy of western policy towards Belarus is related to tougher sanctions that should correspond to Belarus’ involvement in the war. If Lukashenka continues doing everything he is doing now and does not send troops to Ukraine, highly likely there will be no further sanctions. Currently, there is an ongoing dialog that the current sanctions package against Belarus is insufficient and does not reflect the current actions or lack of action taken by the regime, which contributed to the escalation of the war. Western political elites consider new sanctions against Belarus as a way to maintain pressure on Russia too.
The visa issue is in a different position—there is no consensus on it. Different countries hold different positions, and one of the most foremost positions among supporters of visa sanctions is that Belarusians who need a visa for political reasons could get it much earlier. As there is no consensus, the current situation within the country, and how the Belarusian society reacts matters in the view of visa-issuing states.
- Lukashenka will hesitate to fully participate in the war due to the lack of support in Belarusian society (both pro-democratic and pro-government sides) and the losing nature of the war for Russia. Despite the recent rhetorical escalation, there are no prerequisites for the new offensive from the territory of Belarus.
- At the same time, the West believes that the introduction of Belarusian troops could potentially happen. A fresh look at the situation is needed: what if Lukashenka really wants Putin to win the war at any cost? Then sending troops is not the red line it is assumed to be.
- There is pressure on Lukashenka from the Kremlin that wants to destroy the paths for his political retreat.
- Democratic forces should help Ukraine in a more practical way; rhetorical support is not enough.
- Democratic forces should focus on people, not on structures, and articulate requests to western partners more clearly.
- The West is planning to tighten sanctions so that Lukashenka does not feel impunity and continue pressure on Russia through Belarus.
- There is no consensus on the visa issue, so the reaction of the society inside Belarus is important.