Will he or won’t he? With Russian regulars getting an unexpected beating in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has grown desperate for reinforcements — so much so that he’s recruiting Syrian mercenaries. Meanwhile, Aleksandr Lukashenko keeps playing Hamlet, as Politico reports, because Putin’s toady in Minsk isn’t sure he wants to commit his own troops to a Ukrainian meat grinder.
In the end, Lukashenko may not have much choice:
Alexander Lukashenko owes a massive debt to the Kremlin, and that check might be coming due.
The authoritarian leader of Belarus only survived in power thanks to financial and military support from Russia, which allowed him to ride out massive public protests following 2020’s fraudulent presidential election. But now Russian President Vladimir Putin is hunting for more troops as his invasion runs into growing trouble thanks to determined Ukrainian resistance. …
Lukashenko visited Moscow on Friday, where he was promised updated military equipment. The Belarusian military has also said that it is beefing up its troops along the border. But despite growing alarm from Ukraine that Belarus will join in the Russian attack, so far the 48,000-man-strong Belarusian military is standing pat.
“The movement of troops is in no way connected with the preparation, let alone participation of the Belarusian military in a special military operation in Ukraine,” said Viktor Gulevich, chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian military and deputy defense minister.
Toady or not, Lukashenko is in no rush to bail out his buddy in Moscow. In fact, Lukashenko pointedly avoided taking the bait over what looked like a false-flag operation from Russia-occupied Ukraine to drag it into the war. Lukashenko personally reassured Belarusian soldiers that they would not get sent to Ukraine — a message carried by Minsk state media to the rest of the country as well:
“I warned you that they would push us into this operation, into this war,” Lukashenko told Belarusian soldiers, according to the state news agency BelTA.
“There’s nothing for us to do there, and we haven’t been invited,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying. “I want to emphasise again … We are not going to become involved in this operation that Russia is conducting in Ukraine.”
Lukashenko did leave the door open somewhat by declaring that his patience was not inexhaustible. However, that sounds like a rhetorical flourish rather than a real threat. The time to throw in with Russia was two weeks ago, when it looked like they’d have a three-day walkover and sack Kyiv. Now, with the Russian army looking like an empty shell and its leadership hopelessly incompetent, Lukashenko certainly can’t be encouraged to sign up — especially since he’d have to turn his troops over to the Russian command that’s botching the war already.
Lukashenko has problems closer to home, too. Unlike Putin, the Belarusian dictator is deeply unpopular at home, and so is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The military is what’s keeping Lukashenko in control of Minsk, and it’s almost certainly not going to survive long if deployed into the field:
There’s a good reason for that caution. Joining the attack against Ukraine would be hugely unpopular — a survey found that only 3 percent of Belarusians support such an idea, according to Ryhor Astapenia, who leads Belarus Initiative at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program — and it could break the military, which is one of the key pillars keeping Lukashenko in power.
“The Belarusian army has never fought anywhere, the army is not prepared for external conflicts,” said Valery Sakhashchyk, a retired army lieutenant colonel and former commander of the 38th Airborne Brigade based in the city of Brest near the border with Ukraine. “Lukashenko is far from being a fool. He understands that there is a large risk that the Belarusian army will not succeed, that it will suffer heavy losses, and then his last supporters could very well turn away from him — and that would be a disaster [for Lukashenko].”
Ukraine’s unexpectedly strong resistance has mauled the well-equipped Russian military and would pose a huge problem for the smaller and less war-ready Belarusian army.
That’s why Putin was promising to modernize Belarus’ military last week:
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus have agreed on the supplies of modern models of military equipment to Minsk, press secretary of the Belarusian leader said.
“During the talks, [the sides] focused on the development of the military-industrial complex and the defense of the Union State. In particular, we agreed on the supply of the most modern models of military equipment from Russia to Belarus in the near future,” the BelTA news agency quoted Eismant as saying.
Bear in mind, however, that Putin had bragged for years about the advancement of Russian military modernization, the funds for which appear to have disappeared into oligarchical coffers. Lukashenko is getting a ringside seat into how well Putin developed his “military-industrial complex,” and it’s not impressing anyone. And Russia at least has had its military in the field at times over the last dozen years with people firing back at them.
The Belarusian military has taken a good look at that too. Reportedly, Lukashenko was at first inclined to join Putin’s crusade, only to be met with resignations at the top of the army structure, along with desertions among the rank and file:
One of Tikhanovskaya’s senior advisers, Franak Viacorka, confirms that Putin had planned for the Belarusian military to join his invasion (which Minsk denies). But the plan was foiled by a series of resignations by senior military officials, who fled the country and contacted the opposition-in-exile. Moreover, hundreds of young Belarusians of draft age have also fled across the closed borders, which is “dangerous and expensive.”
Viacorka commented, “We know there is a high degree of demoralization among officers in the military. 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.”
He continued, “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.”
Like most intel in wartime, this is rather murky and perhaps somewhat speculative. However, we know that Lukashenko hasn’t ordered troops across the border thus far even when it looked a lot more promising than it does at the moment, and that’s notable enough. He’s probably concerned that he’d be ordering up a coup d’etat from the military, a revolt that might be as popular now among Belarusians as it would be infuriating in Moscow. If the biggest effect of Putin’s Ukrainian adventure would be a popular revolt in Belarus and a new West-leaning government in place of Lukashenko, even Putin’s oligarchs might decide enough is enough. And Putin’s likely smart enough to recognize that and keep from forcing Lukashenko into a suicidal move … for now, anyway.
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