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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 has already given a huge amount of help to Russia. He allowed Russian troops to enter his country for military exercises and then attack southward toward Kyiv. The Russians are also using Belarusian roads and rail to supply their invasion forces, launching missiles and airplanes from Belarusian territory, treating wounded soldiers in Belarusian hospitals and using Belarusian morgues for the growing number of Russian dead.
“If they come to us with severe injures, we treat them. What’s wrong with that? We will provide treatment and we will support,” Lukashenko told journalists in late February.
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.
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 that 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.
“The excellent work of the Ukrainian forces is the most important factor” that had prevented Belarus from joining with Russia, said Sakhashchyk, now living in exile in Poland. “Nobody expected such a rebuff. The actions of the Ukrainian army, territorial defense [forces], and the population have exceeded all expectations.”
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukrainian defense minister in 2019-2020 and a former adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, believes Belarusian troops would not be a serious problem for Ukrainian forces.
“They are not going to send a large force, they won’t deploy 20,000 troops. They will rather send a few battalions. Belarus is not in a position to send any substantial grouping,” he said. “Besides, there is no hunger for war — not in the army, not among civilians. And propaganda doesn’t work there like it does in Russia.”
There are increasingly dire warnings from Kyiv that Lukashenko will succumb to Kremlin pressure and join with the Russians. Late last week, the government alleged that Russian jets would attack a Belarusian village to provide a pretext from an invasion — something that didn’t happen.
On Sunday, Oleksiy Danilov, the chief of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said, “The Russian Federal Security Service and special services are persuading Belarusians to change into Russian uniforms and to enter our territory under Russian banners.”
For now, Lukashenko is limiting himself to logistical and florid verbal support for Putin.
“People are beginning to understand what is what, and who is right,” he said during his Kremlin visit, denouncing Western sanctions against Belarus and Russia as “illegal piggery” and accusing Ukraine of planning to attack Belarus before Russia launched its invasion on February 24.
On Thursday, Lukashenko told the country’s military command that Minsk is going to limit its actions to protecting Russian forces in Belarus from a Ukrainian attack.. “[We need to act] so that they cannot cut off the supply line of the Russian army so that they cannot get to the rear of the Russian army and stab them from behind,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, hundreds of Belarusian exiles have formed a battalion to join the Ukrainian defense against Russia.
The opposition is warning of the consequences if Belarus joins with Russia.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader who ran against Lukashenko in 2020, called in a BBC interview for any Belarusian troops forced to join Russia’s invasion “to defect, to go on the side of Ukrainian troops and fight for Ukrainian people.”