Why Belarus is important to the Russia-Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belarus this week raised concerns that he is trying to drag the country into his war in Ukraine.

Both Russia and Ukraine have acknowledged that they expect a long fight, and Putin’s high-profile trip to Minsk to meet Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko underscored the country’s role as a border state with both countries.

Analysts said Russia may actually be trying to push Belarus into war, or it may simply be using the threat of the country’s involvement to scare Western nations and Ukraine.

David Marples, a professor at the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, said Putin may have increased pressure on Lukashenko to send forces to Ukraine.

“Lukashenko has resisted that since the war started,” he said.

Marples said the visit was especially significant because Putin “never bothered to go” to Minsk in the past three years, including during the turmoil in Belarus in 2020.

“Now Lukashenko has a bit more leeway because Russia needs it too,” he said, adding that the Belarusian leader “could try to reach a deal that allows him to stay in power and maintain a sovereign state and then maybe commit troops.” . .”

At a news conference with Lukashenko on Monday, Putin said the leaders reviewed defense matters and “agreed to continue taking all necessary measures to ensure the security of our countries.”

These include the continuation of joint exercises and training, as well as a new effort to equip Belarusian air force crews with “special warheads.”

“These coordinated measures are extremely important in view of the tensions on the external borders of the Union State,” Putin said, referring to Russia and Belarus.

Russia used Belarus as a stage early in the war. Since then, Russia has trained troops in Belarus, conducted joint drills with the Belarusian military and fired missiles at Ukraine from the country as part of a wave of rocket attacks targeting Ukraine’s infrastructure and energy networks.

Experts say Lukashenko is unlikely to send troops to Ukraine at this point, largely because it would be a highly unpopular move at home, where he recently prevented an uprising against his government after 2020 elections.

A Chatham House poll in August found that more than 90 percent of Belarus were against joining the war on Russia’s side. Some 27 percent in the poll supported full neutrality in the war.

A Belarusian rebel brigade is also fighting for Ukrainian independence, so the Belarusian army could end up facing its own people if it enters Ukraine.

It is also unlikely that Belarus will be able to turn the tide of the war in Russia’s favor. As a much smaller nation than Ukraine and Russia, it only has around 10,000 troops to easily compromise.

The threat from Belarus alone is already a significant deterrent to Ukraine, said Mark Galeotti, chief executive of consultancy Mayak Intelligence.

“The irony is that Belarus is more useful as a threat than a military ally,” Galeotti said in an interview, saying the Belarusian army would be “chewed up” by Ukrainian forces. “It’s more about keeping Ukrainians worried. The threat can do that without actually doing it.”

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Putin’s meeting in Minsk was part of an ongoing Russian information operation to convince Ukraine and the West that Belarus would join the war effort.

“The Kremlin is likely seeking to convince the West to accept a false fait accompli that Ukraine cannot materially alter current front lines and that the war is effectively at a standstill,” George Barros, a Russia researcher at the institute, told The Hill. .

“ISW assesses that such a conclusion is inaccurate and that Ukraine has a good chance of reclaiming considerable critical ground in the coming months.”

Russia has faced heavy losses in Ukraine, but Putin has steadily escalated the war, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of reservists earlier this year who are now beginning to bolster Moscow’s army.

Due to aggressive Western sanctions, Belarus is highly dependent on Russia for its economy, including gas and product exports.

The European Council on Foreign Relations said in a blog post in October that Belarus may decide at some point that the cost of not joining the war effort outweighs the cost of joining.

Belarus also appears to be slowly giving in to Russia’s drive to establish military and political dominance over the country, ISW said.

On Monday, Lukashenko said he had placed an S-400 air defense system he received from Russia on combat alert, a defense system the Belarusian leader rejected in 2020.

ISW’s Barros said that indicated that Lukashenko’s “room to maneuver to resist Russian efforts to absorb Belarus is shrinking.”

However, Marples said Russia needs to show that joining the war would not be a losing proposition for the embattled Belarusian leader.

“I think he would like to see Russia do a little better in the war than before he did that, because nobody wants to join a side that is going to lose,” he said.

Marples said Putin is desperate for help and that a Belarus engagement in Ukraine would take the pressure off Russia’s own troops, some of whom have defected. Russia has also seen some protests at home after Putin’s partial mobilization order.

Belarus would also help by creating a threat from the north to potentially divert Ukrainian forces, which are fighting mainly in the southern and eastern Ukraine region against invading Russian troops.

But Galeotti said that Putin has become much weaker on the international stage since the war began and that before the Minsk meeting, Lukashenko had some influence.

Before the meeting with Putin, Lukashenko reaffirmed that Belarus was an independent nation and that Russia did not control the country, refuting what he called “whispering” in Belarus.

At the news conference with Putin, a reporter asked Lukashenko about suggestions that Belarus was being “swallowed” by Russia, noting the many meetings the leaders held in the past year.

“Today they will claim that Putin has come to scare someone here,” Lukashenko replied.

“You know, we’re both co-aggressors, the meanest, most toxic people on this planet. The only problem we have between us is determining who is bigger,” she added.

“President Putin tells me that I am, but I start to think that he is. So we decided to stick together, as equals, and that’s it.”

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