Won’t Get Fooled Again: Is Lukashenko Trying to Distance Himself From Russia?

ОКРЕМА ДУМКА 20.05.2022 Коментарі 0

Навіть якщо Лукашенко всерйоз займеться спробою нового балансу, спочатку йому доведеться заслужити право бути почутим / Even if Lukashenko gets serious about attempting a new balancing act, he will first have to earn the right to be heard.

Пропонуємо текст Артьома Шрайбмана, який вийшов на ресурсі Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

We offer a text by Artyom Schreibman, published on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s strongman leader, has started signaling his unease over how the war in Ukraine is unfolding. Despite being Moscow’s only ally in Europe, Lukashenko has lamented that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign is “dragging on.” He has also urged the West not to lump Belarus in with Russia as a co-aggressor. 

It is not clear exactly when Lukashenko learned that Russia planned to use his country and military facilities as a staging ground for its invasion of Ukraine. Back in January, Russia publicly claimed that it had moved troops into Belarus for a joint military exercise. In normal times, Belarus’s participation in such an exercise would have been a no-brainer. For Lukashenko, displays of loyalty to Russia in the military sphere have always been the quickest way to Putin’s coffers. 

This time around, the exercises turned out to be a pretext for a very real war. Given Putin’s obsession with secrecy, it is plausible that Lukashenko was kept in the dark about Moscow’s actual plans until the very last moment. From February 24, when the invasion began, it was clear that Lukashenko was hoping for and predicting a quick Russian victory. 

As the invasion stalled, Lukashenko resumed his traditional balancing act. He still parrots many of the favored Russian narratives, such as claiming that Ukraine was preparing to attack first, and that Moscow merely preempted it. Yet Minsk is also trying to shape its own messaging, which departs—a little—from the Kremlin’s official line.

The first element of Minsk’s new position is avowed pacifism. On every possible occasion, Lukashenko reiterates that he has always been against the war and wants it to end as soon as possible. The contrast between this position and Russian warmongering cries to “keep going until the bitter end” is vivid, even if, predictably, Lukashenko puts the blame for the conflict on the West and Ukraine. In a recent AP interview, he even said he had not expected the war to “drag on” for so long, directly challenging the Russian mainstream position that everything is going according to plan. 

Lukashenko seems particularly anguished about the fact that he is being described by the international community as a “co-aggressor.” In 2015, he had cultivated a whole new regional identity for himself by facilitating the talks aimed at ending the conflict in Donbas and by providing the venue for the signing of the Minsk agreements that were supposed to lead to a durable ceasefire and political resolution of the conflict. Seven years later, Belarus’s diplomatic contributions are forgotten. Instead, new packages of Western sanctions keep piling up. 

Even before the war, Minsk was already heavily sanctioned for its violent crackdown on post-election protests in 2020, the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in order to arrest a dissident on board, and the creation of a migrant crisis on the EU’s eastern borders in 2021. Recent trade restrictions have effectively put a stop to most of Belarus’s exports to the West through EU territory and ports. 

In addition to claiming he is somehow actually pro-peace, Lukashenko has repeatedly vowed not to send troops to Ukraine. There are good reasons for this reluctance. According to military analysts, the Belarusian armed forces could probably generate five to ten battalion tactical groups, should Lukashenko make the political decision to send them across the border. However, such an intervention would not fundamentally change the situation on the battlefield. The Belarusian army has mediocre equipment and no combat experience. Considering the heavy casualties that even elite Russian forces suffered in the north of Ukraine, Belarusian units would likely have fared even worse if they had joined the initial phase of the war.

Moreover, and contrary to what polls appear to show about Russian society, the prospect of direct military involvement in the war with neighboring Ukraine is highly unpopular in Belarus. Available polls suggest support for sending Belarusian troops to Ukraine is between 6 and 11 percent, depending on the survey method. 

This means that even among Lukashenko supporters (25–35 percent of the country, according to the same polls), who are generally pro-Russian, there is no majority in favor of entering the war. Even for a brutal strongman, it is risky to defy the will of such an overwhelming majority, especially when it comes to life and death decisions. In addition, the army’s loyalty to Lukashenko in the event of an unpopular and ill-fated war would be far from guaranteed.

Minsk is also making clumsy diplomatic attempts to gain once again some independent standing in the region. Lukashenko and his foreign minister Vladimir Makei have demanded that Belarus be included in the Russia-Ukraine talks. According to them, Belarus—just like Russia and Ukraine—is seeking its own post-war security guarantees. In early April, Makei sent a confidential letter to a number of European counterparts asking the West to lift sanctions against Belarus. He insisted that his country was not a direct party to the war and would not become one in the future. The letter was met with little understanding in the EU and was leaked to the media by one of its recipients. 

Lukashenko’s special pleadings were hardly convincing. Nor should one expect a positive Western response going forward. There are too many obstacles to overcome in the foreseeable future. First, in the wake of the contested August 2020 presidential election, neither the EU nor the United States recognizes Lukashenko as a legitimate president, focusing instead on supporting Belarus’s opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has sought refuge in neighboring Lithuania.

Second, even the most ardent advocates of the realpolitik approach to Belarus cannot ignore Lukashenko’s abysmal human rights record. The country of 9.5 million has more than 1,000 political prisoners, including dozens of journalists and opposition leaders. There are credible reports that Belarusian security services have routinely engaged in torture and the beating of detainees. Several opposition activists have died at the hands of law enforcement since 2020. Until these practices are in some way curtailed and the remaining people in custody are freed, Lukashenko will remain toxic. No leading Western capitals are likely to engage with him in the meantime.

As is often the case with autocratic regimes, any prospect of liberalization frustrates the hardliners, who usually hail from the security and law enforcement agencies. With popular support already low, Lukashenko must think very carefully whether he is prepared to alienate the leaders of the special services. Needless to say, any concessions from Minsk to the West would not go unnoticed by the Kremlin and such a prospect would not sit well with Putin.  

Third, even if Minsk is given the benefit of the doubt, there is considerable skepticism over how independent it can be. Russian troops, jets, and missile systems have not been fully withdrawn from Belarus. Even in the event that Russia removed its forces, they could easily return on a whim. This perceived loss of sovereignty is a huge challenge for Lukashenko if he wants anyone in the West to take his words seriously. 

The fourth problem—and arguably the most important—is somewhat banal. Short of becoming a neutral territory with no Russian military presence (which is unlikely to happen anytime soon), Belarus has very little to offer the West. 

The main venue for Russian-Ukrainian peace talks moved from Belarus to Istanbul, and negotiations have now effectively stalled out altogether. The main battleground of the war has also shifted from the Kyiv region, which is close to the Ukraine-Belarus border, to the east and south of Ukraine. Belarus is becoming less relevant as a transit route for Russian petrochemicals as the EU reduces its energy dependency on Moscow. Trade issues are also losing their salience amid the effects of numerous rounds of sanctions on Belarusian raw materials, fertilizers, wood, and oil products. European consumers have already found alternative suppliers.

Even if Lukashenko gets serious about attempting a new balancing act, he will first have to earn the right to be heard. Such a high bar could in itself be a major constraint on Minsk, which would risk irritating the Kremlin by openly flirting with its enemies once again. 

In the long run, this pessimistic outlook may change, depending on how the war ends for Russia. If Putin’s regime somehow is weakened to the point where it cannot subsidize its remaining allies and project military power in its immediate neighborhood, Belarus may well repeat a process seen in the region in the late 1980s. Just as Central European communist regimes fell apart when the Soviet Union showed itself unable to prop them up, Belarus will be forced to reform and Westernize if Putin’s Russia becomes weak enough. Provided, of course, that Minsk has managed to keep its statehood intact up until that moment arrives.

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