By Dr. Vitali Shkliarov*
(FPRI) — The Belorussian ambassador was recently kicked out of Ukraine. Lukashenka has fully surrendered to Putin – his country’s debt is in the red – and he will not receive one cent more from Moscow until he throws his troops into the Ukrainian furnace.
Lukashenka seems to believe that there is a Russian ground invasion of Ukraine underway, for which he must prepare and fully participate. It seems a Belorussian ground invasion of Ukraine will almost certainly take place. And what must we understand in this context? There is no major difference between Lukashenka entering the ground war or not, from whatever point of view you choose to take. Because arguably, Belarus has already invaded Ukraine and has been defeated.
Military aspect: A small, poorly-armed, poorly-trained, and completely demoralized contingent of the Belorussian army will not be able to break the Ukrainian resistance. In the worst-case scenario, Belorussian suicide bombers will prolong the agony of the invading army by a week or two.
Legal aspect: Both de facto and de jure, Belarus is already a party to the Ukrainian conflict, supporting the Russian aggressor: it provides its territory, infrastructure, and assistance to injured Russian soldiers. Additionally, all the legal consequences associated with its involvement can already be applied. If Belorussian boots land on Ukrainian soil, the list of war criminals will include Belorussian surnames; however, little will change for Belarus as a country. It is time to point out the elephant in the room – Belarus has already attacked Ukraine in the war on February 24th! This war is by Belarus against Ukraine.
Foreign policy aspect: Belarus’s participation in the war is already a fact of life for the international community. No living soul on Earth believes Lukashenka’s words. One way or another, sanctions will be imposed on him, without pity.
Domestic political aspect: Participation of Belarus in the ground war will only speed up the collapse of the Lukashenka government; however, even in the absence of a ground invasion, the fate of the usurper has already been decided. The Russian army will be defeated in Ukraine – perhaps in a couple of weeks, perhaps six months. Russian victory is no longer in Lukashenka’s hands; all he has left is a small stratum of riot police and other members of his regime. They will abandon him as soon as they recognize that he cannot escape the people’s righteous wrath (and now even that of Ukraine).
The humanitarian aspect is most significant to consider in this case. Of course, the participation of Belorussians in Putin’s war will result in senseless casualties and a greater gap between the two fraternal nations. Unlike Russia, Belarus was indeed a “good neighbor” to Ukraine until February 24th. Since 2014, when the fighting began in the now “temporarily occupied areas of Ukraine,” Belorussians – even if they took part in the fighting – would privately rather be on Ukraine’s side. Lukashenka did not even recognize the occupied Crimea and constantly falsely affirmed that Russian troops would never have access to Ukraine via Belarus.
Now that Belarus is at war with Ukraine, with hundreds dying as a consequence of Lukashenka’s complicity, relations between Ukraine and Belarus are already damaged. Fortunately, this is countered by Ukrainian support from the Belorussian government-in-exile, including the “Rail war” and the participation of Belorussian volunteers in the fight against the Russian aggressors. But this does not mitigate the responsibility of Belarus as an international actor.
Nevertheless, we can venture a guess as to the consequences of the war for the parties to the conflict.
Consequences for Belarus, from the point of view of Belarus
1. Severe political destabilization.
Unlike Putin, who enjoys considerable support in Russia – according to various estimates, public approval of 60–80% – Lukashenka has the support of barely 20–30% of Belorussians, a consequence of his administration’s brutal suppression of protests in 2020. Therefore, even if Russia’s participation in the war might not be fatal to Putin’s regime, for the Belorussian dictator, it will be deadly for sure.
2. Economic woes.
If the Russian Federation, despite the sanctions regime, still has some strategic reserves of oil to maintain stability, then Belarus has nothing left. As long as the Lukashenka regime remains in power and economically tied to Putin, the Belorussian economy will not exist. The postponement of Russian loans will not be sufficient.
3. Collapse of support for Lukashenka.
The last argument that supporters of Lukashenka could make for him was the maintenance of peace. The dictator has confidently bragged that he has managed to keep Belarus a beacon of order and stability. However, on February 24th, this rhetoric disappeared – Belarus is now at war with Ukraine. No portion of the electorate has any reason to support Lukashenka.
4. Maintenance of Putin’s power and continued threat to Ukraine from Belarus.
After being defeated, Russia will nevertheless sign a peace treaty with Ukraine. It may not return Crimea or cease its infamous project in Donetsk and Luhansk. Most likely, this will allow Putin to maintain Russia under his yoke. But striking a peace deal with Russia will not mean the end of conflict in the region! Lukashenka’s regime will remain a constant threat to Ukrainian security, as will Putin’s regime. A decision to deal with this problem expediently and not leave it to future administrations would be a prudent political move for Ukraine – but deadly for the Belorussian regime. After achieving a peace deal with Russia, it will be that much easier for the victorious Ukrainian troops to wipe Lukashenka’s regime off the face of the earth. There would be no need to capture territory or wage war against the civilian population of Belarus: just one “special operation” to eliminate the gangster Lukashenka.
5. Return of field soldiers with combat experience to Belarus.
Even if Ukraine refrains from using direct military force to eliminate Lukashenka, many highly-motivated Belorussian volunteers with experience from the war in Ukraine. They can begin rebellion against Lukashenka on their own, attracting more and more Belorussians to their side. Alternatively, they can enlist the help of the Ukrainian military, whose homes have been attacked and ransacked with the help of Lukashenka’s regime. Of course, victory for such an insurgent movement, is far from guaranteed. But its chances are substantially higher than ever before, especially in the likely case of Russian noninterference.
6. Annexation of Belarus.
During or immediately after the Russo-Ukrainian War, Putin still may decide to eliminate Lukashenka and annex Belarus directly. Even under current conditions, Lukashenka is no longer needed by Putin. It is not through Lukashenka’s legitimacy that Russian troops are stationed on the territory of Belarus – they are thereby force of law. Especially after adopting the new constitution, the Security Council, a collegial body, can make decisions favorable to Putin in Belarus, and Lukashenka himself is no longer obliged to do so.
Also, the attempt to annex Belarus will not have costs for Russia as before – it is unlikely that any international sanctions will be added for this, and it is unlikely that the Belorussians will sacrifice their lives to protect the country against Russian annexation. Lukashenka is already an outcast, no one will stand up for him, and little attention will be paid to what happens to him.
7. Deprivation of Belorussian sovereignty.
Let me remind you that the Kremlin is trying to create its Russian sphere of influence and capture Ukraine; consequently, it also intends Belarus to be part of its “Slavic Union,” the basis of a future ersatz Soviet Union. This means that depriving Belarus of its sovereignty is an integral part of the same project that began the invasion of Ukraine. Lukashenka would have to work hard to find a place for himself in this plan. In Putin’s dystopian vision, Lukashenka has almost no chance of surviving as an independent sovereign – which means Lukashenka has no chance of survival: whether at the hands of Ukrainians, Russians, or the new generation of his people. The latter is the most likely.
Consequences for Belarus, from the point of view of Russia
1. End of idea of peaceful Belorussian Union.
Likely forfeiting allglobal economic and political influence due to the war, Russia has lost its opportunity to advocate for the peaceful integration of Belarus into Russia. If two months ago many Belorussians had looked to Russia as a kind of older brother who provided support and stability, this image is forever tarnished. We see the wolf, even though it’s clothed in grandma’s clothes.
2. Inability to effectively back Lukashenka’s regime.
Unlike the situation in 2002, after its defeat in this war, Russia will not be able to interfere in Belarus’s internal affairs as it has before – especially in the case of another uprising. Russia will be distracted by internal tensions, with significant weakening of its power base – eviscerated by war – and the potential for his overthrow, which many within the Russian military are now considering.
3. Idea of the Russian sphere of influence fails.
The stillborn idea of the “Russian world” is now buried forever. The Putin regime has lost not only Ukraine but also Belarus forever. There will be no promised restoration of the Soviet Union – the end of the Soviet era has long come and gone. Power in Russia will likely change, even if not in the immediate future. Its people will grow suspicious and sour on its government. Then, perhaps after many years, Russia’s relationship with its neighbors will finally be restored.
This relationship will look quite different; there will no longer be any “big brothers” or “spheres of influence.” These countries will meet one another as sovereign equals.
4. Necessity of the forceful subordination of Belarus.
If the Putin regime resists this tide of history, full subordination of Belarus will be its integral first step in mounting a renewed attack on Ukraine (or, as an intermediate “Crimea 2” for its domestic propaganda use and exploitation). A prop for Russia’s half-dead economy, a labor force and market for Russian goods, and a pool for future conscription – this is the only way the Kremlin is capable of seeing Belarus. This being the case, Putin will have to change some of the elite composition after the war with Ukraine. Many of Lukashenka’s current lackeys will not survive this change. Lukashenka, whose administration will not survive in any case, has become far too expensive, inefficient, and outdated for Moscow to hold onto.
Consequences for Belarus, from Ukraine’s point of view
1. Putin must fall.
The war in Ukraine will only end when Putin’s regime is toppled. So long as Putin rules Russia, Ukraine will never be safe. Therefore, the ultimate overthrow of Putin is one of Ukraine’s long-term military goals. Lukashenka is an actual – albeit not very loyal – ally of Putin. The Lukashenka regime is incomparably weaker than Putin’s. To rid the country of Lukashenka and liberate Belarus will inevitably weaken Putin’s grip on power and therefore strengthen Ukraine. After all, a free New Belarus is a reliable ally in the fight against the Kremlin and no longer a launching pad for a dangerous “northern front.”
2. Necessity of regime change in Belarus.
Implementing a plan to change the Belorussian regime will by no means be a difficult task for Ukrainian forces, especially after they conclude the war with Russia. Having eliminated a detachment of Russian troops in the North of the country, Ukrainians have every right not to stop at the Belorussian border. Indeed, they are entitled to move only in one direction – to Lukashenka’s residence. In this case, the dictatorship will fall in days, if not hours; the dictator’s closest friends will race to hand him over, even before his enraged countrymen or Ukrainian battalions reach him.
3. Lack of support for Lukashenka: an opportunity for change.
No country in the world (except Russia) would, in theory, try to help keep the Lukashenka regime in place. Likewise, no one would condemn those who eventually rid the world of this tired dictator.
4. Support for Ukraine Among Belorussian people.
Some nationalist Russians view Ukrainians as “enemies” and “Banderites.” There is no such preconception in Belarus. Indeed, for most Belorussians, Ukrainians are still fraternal and neighborly people. One must try quite hard to find a Belorussian who wants to “denazify” Ukraine at the cost of Ukrainian lives.
5. Russian eyes on Belarus.
Regime change in Belarus will sober the population of Russia. Whatever Russian propaganda may say, real examples of freedom and democracy in Ukraine – and especially Belarus – and real economic growth in these countries post-war will be the strongest factor in weakening Putin’s domestic support. Therefore, the liberation of Belarus may be the most important strategic goal for Ukraine once the war concludes.
6. Western support.
Naturally, efforts by Ukraine to eliminate authoritarian or totalitarian regimes will be met with support from the West. The “monkey with the grenade” is the most powerful destabilizing factor in modern global politics. Ukraine can thus demand any concessions it wants from the West in pursuing its fight against Putin. Eliminating Lukashenka will be a necessary step for which neither the United States nor the European Union should spare any expense.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Translation by Griffin Perrault
*About the author: Dr. Vitali Shkliarov is a Harvard University fellow, an expert in U.S.-Russian relations, an award-winning political strategist, and a campaign manager. He was senior adviser to many opposition and presidential candidates in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Source: This article was published by FPRI