The last the world paid attention to Belarus before the buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders was in May of 2021 over Alexander Lukashenko’s arrest of the dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. Not only was it another example of his crackdown on free press in Belarus, but it also showed the length’s he would go to arrest journalists who reported things that disagreed with him. When the plane Protasevich was in crossed into Belarussian skies, Belarussian MiG-29’s intercepted the passenger jet and forced it to land. Once on the ground, security officials boarded the plane and arrested Protasevich and his wife. The incident would be labeled as air piracy. Condemnation immediately came forth from the international community with Europe’s leaders advising their airlines to avoid Belarussian airspace because their safety was no longer guaranteed.
The 65-year-old Lukashenko is often called Europe’s last dictator. He has ruled Belarus for most of its 30 years of post-Soviet independence. He often played Russia and the West against each other in a crafty game of blackmail to extract money and benefits from one side or the other. But in August of 2020, Lukashenko’s game came to an abrupt halt when he was forced to rely completely on Vladimir Putin after a hair-brained power grab. He held a sham election where he jailed opposition candidates or forced them to flee the country while barring independent observers. Not surprisingly, Lukashenko was declared the winner of the election with 80 percent of the vote. His authoritarian rule was seriously threatened when the largest protests since Belarus’s independence erupted over the election results. Lukashenko, with Putin’s desperately needed help, greeted the protesters with rubber bullets and stun grenades. Putin even shipped in Russian state journalists to replace the journalists that resigned in protest of Lukashenko’s actions.
Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old schoolteacher who ran in place of her husband with a popular vlog who was jailed and sentenced to 18 years in prison to prevent him from running. She promised to release all political prisoners and to hold authentic free and fair elections within six months if elected. The government said she lost with only 9.9 percent of the vote but given the sheer size of the crowds she had attracted during her campaign stops around the country, that number was a complete and utter fiction. At the few polling stations where rigging was prevented, she won 70 percent of the vote. Tikhanovskaya fled after the election to neighboring Lithuania where other opposition figures joined her.
Putin’s aid for Lukashenko came with a price. Where Lukashenko at times kept Russia at a firm distance, he now had to become, what the New York Times called, “a docile Putin satrap.” It was not long before Putin asked for a favor in return for his help in keeping him in power and that was to allow the Russian military to buildup and stage on Belarussian soil. Together with the two countries performed military exercises in an attempt to fool the world that the buildup of forces was for peaceful purposes. The West was not buying it. A week before the invasion of Ukraine began, Lukashenko ridiculed the United States for spending billions on its intelligence services that, according to him, had wrongly predicted an invasion was imminent. “There will be no invasion tomorrow,” he told reporters gathered at the joint military exercises with Russia. But the invasion did soon come. And while it is clear Belarus aided and facilitated the invasion of Ukraine from within its own borders, it is a mystery what role the Belarussian military was supposed to play or may still yet to play.
Possible signs of what is perhaps currently happening inside Belarus’s borders came on March 7th, from Franak Viačorka, a senior adviser to the exiled Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Viačorka told the newspaper Israel Hayom that Putin’s original plans were for the Belarussian military to join the Russian invasion in the opening days of the war. That plan fell apart when several Belarussian military officers resigned and fled the country. Upon fleeing, they contacted Lukashenko’s opposition in exile to share what they knew.
“We know there is a high degree of demoralization among officers in the military,” Viačorka told Israel Hayom. “In addition, there is a great deal of demoralization among conscripted soldiers, who are fleeing the country’s borders en masse to any destination possible, including Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic states.”
In recent days, we have seen growing pressure from commanders of military units not to intervene in the fighting in Ukraine. There are officers who took sick leave, others who have asked to end their contracts with the military, even at the price of reimbursing all the expenses from their military service. We’re talking about thousands of dollars…. The biggest problem for them is that they have no practical way of leaving Belarus. In the past, they could have left for Georgia, but now all the flights there from Belarus have been canceled for the next six months. There are no flights to Western Europe, and it’s very difficult to get flights to Istanbul. So the only way to defect is to cross the border with neighboring countries illegally. Many officers are still unwilling to risk this step.
Charter 97, an opposition news site, reports regular rank and file members of the Belarusian armed forces “do not participate in ground military operations against Ukraine.” In fact, according to the opposition, senior officers are telling the General Staff that if Belarusian forces enter Ukraine “the lives of the officers will be in great danger, because the soldiers will take up arms against them.” Not only is there great resistance in joining the Russian invasion, Israel Hayom also reports that “…many Belarusian fighters—the equivalent of around five military units—have joined the Ukrainians to fight the Russians.” This reporting seems to echo social media posts that Belarusian fighters are joining Ukraine in the fight against Russia.
However, these reports have not been independently verified. Noting that, these reports do seem to explain some of the bad intelligence emanating from allied intelligence agencies about the participation of Belarusian forces. American administration officials repeatedly told the press in the days immediately after the war began that Belarusian forces were preparing to send troops into Ukraine to support Russia, only to turn around to say forces were not being readied to move into Ukraine. On March 11th, Ukrainian officials said Russia had a performed a false flag operation to lure Belarus into the invasion. A spokesperson for Ukraine even went so far to say they expect Belarus to begin their invasion at 9 pm that night. Nothing happened. Intelligence can be difficult in the fog of war, but the narrative beginning to flow from exiled opposition members who are in touch with people still inside Belarus, does seem to lift the fog some.
If the opposition reports are indeed true, Putin grossly misjudged how much help he could depend on from Lukashenko, and Lukashenko’s grip on power may be still more tenuous than the two might acknowledge. The first weeks of the war with Ukraine have gone no where near as planned for Putin. It is not beyond the imagination that Lukashenko may become more of a hinderance to Putin’s war effort than an asset. Both leaders have found themselves in a circumstance neither had predicted, much less, planned for. Their schemes have quickly unraveled.