Two days before the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian Defense Minister spoke on the phone with his Belarusian counterpart, who assured him that no attack against Ukraine would come from Belarusian territory. A day before the Russian invasion, the head of the Ukrainian border guards was similarly informed by his counterpart in Minsk. “Unfortunately, we really thought there would be no attack from […] Belarus,” senior Ukrainian officials recently admitted.
This harsh episode illustrates the importance of paying more attention to the actions than to the words of the Belarusian authorities. It may therefore be worth going beyond official statements when considering recent military activities inside the country.
At the start of the war, the Belarusian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, expressed his support for Russia. But the longer the Russian offensives stagnated and the more losses Moscow suffered, the less belligerent Lukashenka’s rhetoric had become. The early days of the war saw him promise to send Belarusian troops to Ukraine upon request to fight alongside Russia. This has now evolved into Lukashenka saying Belarus simply wants peace – which some observers interpret as an attempt to distance himself from Moscow.
Yet, in the face of a looming economic crisis and sustained domestic resistance, Lukashenka’s best bet for clinging to power is still to stay close to Moscow. And Russia’s influence — alongside Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on dissent — could quickly push him to act in a way that belies his new conciliatory tone.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of military activity in Belarus, reigniting fears that the Belarusian military may join hostilities in Ukraine. The Belarusian authorities have announced the creation of an operational command in the south of the country. They justified this action by referring to the threat posed by the war in Ukraine and the need to “defend the southern borders”. In addition, Lukashenko created a “people’s militia”. These troops will reinforce the Belarusian army of 45,000 men and the territorial defense forces – which only come together in times of war or in tense military-political situations – and can number up to 120,000 people. The functions, training principles and tasks of this “people’s militia” remain unclear. But from the confused explanations of the officials, it seems that the main characteristics of the conscripts should be ideological purity, devotion to the regime and at least some experience in arms.
In the southwestern regions of Belarus, the army inspects and prepares its rapid response forces for combat readiness. Along with this, in the southern region near the border with Ukraine and in the west near the border with Poland, territorial defense troops are conducting training exercises. According to statements by the Belarusian Defense Ministry, these include “combat coordination, […] measures for the protection and defense of installations and for combating sabotage and reconnaissance groups”. Likely due to the drills, Belarusian authorities imposed restrictions preventing the entry of ordinary Belarusians into three districts of the Homiel region – which borders Ukraine – from June 1 to August 31. Authorities say the restrictions are necessary to “ensure border security”.
The Civil Oversight Project, Belarus Hajun, reports that Russian troops may participate in the training exercises. The surveillance project gathers information from citizens across Belarus, enabling it to timely warn of military aircraft sorties and missile launches, and record the movement of Russian military equipment. Since the start of the war, Belarus Hajun has become an essential source of information on the joint military activities of the Lukashenka regime and those of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And information sharing is not the extent of Belarusian resistance to Lukashenka’s collusion with Russia. Since February 24, the partisans have carried out more than 80 acts of sabotage on the railway lines, which have significantly hampered the logistics of the Russian army in Belarus. To prevent freight trains transporting troops and equipment to Ukraine, the Belarusians blocked or delayed the movement of Russian military equipment by burning relay boxes and causing railway track alarm systems to malfunction. In addition, Belarusian cyber partisans attacked databases, train management systems and websites of state institutions. This significantly disrupted Russian supply chains and hampered troop resupply. According to some sources, this even prompted Russia to switch to greater use of trucks and planes.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka has continued to clear all structures and people who – in the regime’s view – pose a threat to his power. To counter the anti-war resistance, Belarusian security forces have taken a very punitive stance. They opened fire on unarmed supporters and introduced legislation under which even an attempt to commit a “terrorist act” will be punishable by death.
In Belarus, where the law is only decorative, this means that the lives of thousands of people currently held hostage by the regime in Belarusian prisons are in danger. Some of their “offences” are already being reclassified. Others are accused of terrorism, including prominent opposition activist Maria Kalesnikava. It is entirely possible that in the near future Lukashenka will attempt to use the lives of Belarusian political prisoners as a commodity to be traded with the West.
The Lukashenka regime is also in a desperately difficult economic situation. Its only savior from a full-scale crisis may be Moscow, which itself lacks financial resources and faces significant economic decline in the coming year. Lukashenko is likely to further increase the volume of repression as the risk of social unrest and strikes escalates in the coming months.
Lukashenka’s opponents sense their vulnerability and prepare to act. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s team has opened its first foreign affairs office in Kyiv. They expect to synchronize their efforts with the Ukrainian authorities to put pressure on both Lukashenka and Putin. Moreover, the Kalinouski Regiment – a unit of Belarusian soldiers fighting for Ukraine – has promised that after helping Ukraine to victory, its goal is to overthrow the Lukashenko regime.
It is perhaps then the presentiment of difficult and dangerous times which explains the recent military activity of the Belarusian authorities. Following the shift of Russian attention from northern to eastern Ukraine, the risk of invasion by the Belarusian army has decreased significantly. With the current deployment of Russian forces in Donbass, there is no point in sending the Belarusian army alone to capture Kyiv – because such an operation would fail. However, the situation at the front can quickly change. And if Putin redeploys Russian units to take Kyiv on the second attempt, the current military maneuvers in Belarus might not be defensive after all.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.