Russia increases military presence in Belarus

In October Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and president Vladimir Putin announced to deploy a new regional group of joint Russian and Belorussian forces in Belarus. What is behind this move? In a piece for Carnegie Politika the in Minsk based political analyst Artyom Shraibman argues that it's part of the ongoing erosion of the sovereignty of Belarus.

 lukashenko putin sochi 26 sept 2022 President Lukashenko and Putin in Sochi 26 September 2022. Photo

By Artyom Shraibman

Since the invasion of Ukraine, predicting the actions of Russia and Belarus has been a fool’s game, given how pointless and self-destructive their leaders’ wartime moves have been. It is futile, therefore, to ask whether a renewed offensive on Kyiv might be launched from Belarus with the participation of the country’s army, a question raised by the recent deployment of thousands of Russian troops in Belarus, Minsk’s increasingly militaristic rhetoric, and rumors of imminent mobilization in the Belarusian press.

Based on the military balance and the political risks facing the contested Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in the event of Belarus’s full entry into the war, a joint Russo-Belarusian attack on Ukraine from the north should not occur in the foreseeable future. Yet rational analysis fails to entirely reassure, given what the world learned in February: that Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin inhabit their own reality, with its own risks and opportunities.

Deployment of joint military group

On October 10, Lukashenko announced that he and Putin had decided to deploy a regional group of forces comprising troops from both their countries in Belarus. Lukashenko called the deployment a response to NATO provocations on the border, the formation of sabotage units staffed by Belarusian émigrés, and Ukrainian plans to attack Belarus.

The regional group of forces—a dormant institution of the Union State comprised of Russia and Belarus that is to be mobilized in the face of a military threat to the two countries—had only existed on paper since its creation by Putin and Lukashenko in the early 2000s. According to Lukashenko, the core of the unit will be drawn from the Belarusian armed forces, while the Russians will act as reinforcements.

It’s hard to know what Moscow is up to in Belarus

Russian troops, equipment, and MIG-31 fighter jets began arriving in Belarus on October 15. The Belarusian Defense Ministry has said that it expects to receive up to 9,000 Russian soldiers. Russian sources have not specified how many will be deployed, and have said little overall about the maneuvers. The State Duma defense committee chairman, Andrei Kartapolov, indicated only that the unit would not fight in Ukraine, adding that troops were being deployed to Belarus to allay Lukashenko’s concerns.

It’s hard to take either Minsk or Moscow at their word. Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February from not only its own territory but also Belarus’s, the maneuvers are easy to interpret as preparations for a renewed offensive on Kyiv from the north: an attempt to retake the initiative following a series of Ukrainian victories on the battlefield. Ultimately, however, it’s impossible to draw firm conclusions without knowledge of how many troops and what equipment Russia will deploy and where in Belarus they will be positioned.

Offensive in northern Ukraine not very likely

Since the start of the war, Ukraine has been securing its northern border. It is therefore doubtful that the numbers Russia is expected to deploy in Belarus will suffice for another attack on Kyiv, even with the addition of the Belarusian army.

Since the spring, there are now even fewer reasons for Lukashenko to enter the war fully

Military experts estimate that in peacetime, Lukashenko can call up as many as 10,000 contract soldiers, who will primarily come from the ranks of special operations forces. Even if a mobilization campaign sees this force double or triple in size, it will still be too small to conduct a successful offensive in northern Ukraine.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry has said that the Russians will bring with them 170 tanks and 200 infantry fighting vehicles, though there is as yet no visual confirmation of this. What footage does exist shows the transportation of dozens of Soviet T-72 tanks from Belarus to Russia, their reported destination being Donbas: another indication that a renewed offensive on Kyiv from the north is not in the cards, for why deplete your only ally’s arsenal if it is planning an attack?

Risks for Lukashenko

Since the spring, there are now even fewer reasons for Lukashenko to enter the war fully, while the risks of doing so have not diminished in the slightest. The first and most obvious risk is the prospect of the routing of Belarus’s most combat-ready forces, which would bode ill for Lukashenko, given how autocrats have historically fared after suffering military defeat and the fact that he is already past his peak of popularity.

loekasjenko in brestLukashenko visits training ground in Brest province, October 21. Photo

Second, there remains a consensus among Belarusians, measured at about 90 percent by phone and online polls, that the Belarusian army should not take part in the war. Belarusian servicemen, then, are unlikely to be highly motivated. Their Russian counterparts are fighting for ideas that are widespread in their own society, while Belarusians would have to die for completely alien ideals of imperial expansion. Under such circumstances, draft dodging and desertion are certain to be normalized.

There is consensus among Belarusians that its army should not take part in the war

In light of the risks involved, Lukashenko can be expected to prevaricate for as long as possible. His best argument against full entry into the war will be that for the Kremlin, the small military boost provided by the Belarusian army would not be worth the serious risk of destabilizing Belarus, which has become a reliable military springboard for Russia.

Militarization of Belarusian opposition

Still, the fact remains that Lukashenko has presided over an escalation, real and rhetorical alike, and it cannot be ruled out that he genuinely fears a military or diversionary attack on Belarus. Hundreds of Belarusian volunteers are fighting on the side of Ukraine, and some of them are open about their determination to bring down their country’s pro-Russian dictatorship after the war.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian opposition based out of Lithuania and Poland is undergoing something of a militarization of its own: in August, former senior police officer Alexander Azarov and retired lieutenant colonel Valery Sakhashchyk joined Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s cabinet in exile as ministers.

Tikhanovskaya’s men in uniform have admitted to preparing for various regime change scenarios, including Lukashenko’s removal by force. To this end, Azarov and Sakhashchyk have built ties with Belarusian volunteer fighters in Ukraine and offered military training courses throughout Eastern Europe for Belarusians.

Moscow uses Belarus to train its reservists and to shift Ukrainian forces to the north

Such steps are seen by Lukashenko and the KGB as part of Western intelligence preparations for something unsavory, prompting not only the deployment of Russian troops to Belarus but also the conduct of counterterrorism exercises simulating the takeover of border towns by units of armed oppositionists.

Lukashenko’s worldview has been deeply shaped by the conspiratorial reports of his spymasters, which may have combined with Russia’s defeats on the battlefield and chatter about where NATO might retaliate to a Russian tactical nuclear strike to convince him of a coming assault on Belarus.

Russia’s increasing military presence 

Moscow’s reasons for seeking to deploy its forces to Belarus are more straightforward. First, it provides an opportunity to train the reservists it has mobilized at a time when, in Russia, there is a shortage of officers and equipment for training purposes. 

Most military experts believe that Russia is also calculating that the deployment will force Ukraine to shift some of its reservists to the north or maintain a meaningful presence there, limiting its progress on other fronts as part of a counteroffensive Russia is bent on slowing down at all costs.

The erosion of Belarusian sovereignty is anything but imaginary

The military threat to the Union State invoked by Moscow and Minsk to deploy the regional group of forces is not going anywhere anytime soon, not least because it is by and large imaginary. Yet the erosion of Belarusian sovereignty that the deployment marks—a process that began in 2020 and accelerated in 2022—is anything but imaginary.

Russia’s military presence in Belarus is increasingly seen by the latter’s neighbors as the new normal and a key feature of the regional security situation. All sides—Moscow and Kyiv included—will plan around a state of affairs in which, militarily, Lukashenko is either without agency or in control of Belarus’s armed forces but not its territory.

In these conditions, Russia’s plans for its military springboard to the West may go from being relatively tame at this stage of the war to becoming much more ambitious by the next.

This article was first published by Carnegie Politika.