Matthew M. Ployhart
The Russo-Ukrainian War has gained significant global attention since the renewed Russian invasion of the country in early 2022, yet most are well aware that hostilities have been present since 2014. That year marked Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, situated in the North of the Black Sea. Since then, the conflict has evolved into a series of the largest land-grabs and instances of open fighting on the European Continent since the Second World War, and invites a renewed look at the larger political circumstances that have long been present in Eastern Europe in general. More specifically, unresolved political crises and a distinct lack of stability appear to persist in Eastern Europe when compared to the West.
To be clear, however, this is in no way to imply that Western Europe is even remotely stable, even if it is generally more so than its Eastern counterpart. Especially in recent decades, the continent as a whole has been host to many and various events of political significance that have in some way tested even the most-established of governments. If the recent riots in France against police violence (as well as the police violence itself) is not enough to convince one of the illusory status of total stability, then one could also point to the 2015 immigration crisis, horrifying climate disasters, and an increasingly-polarized and tumultuous European political situation. According to a Politico article published in September, 2022, for instance, “a right-populist wave washed over the European Union from 2015 to 2020,” with a second, more-recent wave likely underway. This has seen the rise of controversial and highly-nationalistic groups, from Spain’s VOX party to Italy’s Brothers of Italy to France’s National Rally, which have pushed radical agendas, threatening many aspects of stable, democratic life in Western Europe.
Nevertheless, despite rioting, political turmoil, police violence, controversies surrounding immigration, and climate catastrophe (almost 62,000 Europeans perished in the 2022 heatwaves, alone), these countries are still distinctly more stable, functioning, and democratic than many of their Eastern neighbors. Turn to Moldova, for instance: their president, Maia Sandu, is pro-Western, anti-Russia, and hopes to bring Moldova into the European Union (EU), as well as being her country’s first female president. At the same time, however, despite her progressive political agenda, Moldova remains in one of the most serious territorial disputes in the Northern Hemisphere, with the Eastern region of Transnistria (officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) having been de-facto independent since 1992.
The difficulties caused for Europe by the existence of this dispute between Moldova and the pro-Russian separatist state are less concerning, however, than the Serbia-Kosovo recognition dispute, which resulted in much more violence than occurred between Transnistria and Moldova, causing widespread fighting and culminating in an American-led NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) bombing campaign against the Serbian capital of Belgrade in 1999. Furthermore, this was ultimately only one part of the recent Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s to early 2000s, which resulted in the deaths of well over 100,000 people and displaced as many as two million. And, with similar climate-related disasters, immigration difficulties, and worsening political situations to Western Europe, to some it may seem that the comparatively-recent Russo-Ukrainian War is but the latest of many examples of relative instability and a lack of conclusiveness to old problems in the East.
In reality, of course, the war in Ukraine is far from being merely the latest event along a propagated chain of never-ending European disasters, particularly in Eastern Europe. In fact, between 1999 and 2014, the region had been relatively stable compared to just the previous decade. Nevertheless, the current war is indeed extremely important, and notably extraordinary – managing to make the list of events which have garnered global attention and, in some sense, indirect involvement, from a funding perspective. Even as Ukrainian soldiers continue to carry out the bulk of the fighting on the front lines (save, of course, those serving in the Ukrainian International Legion), their weapons and supplies, to a large degree, come from American, German, Polish, Czech, and other arsenals, as countries in Europe, North America, and Asia make it clear that their allegiance continues to remain with a pro-Western Ukraine.
However, Russia is not without her allies. It should be noted that mild signs of loyalty have seeped out of significant countries such as South Africa, India, and China. Recently, South Africa allowed Russian and Chinese military personnel to hold naval drills off of their coast. Meanwhile, as of January, 2023, while somewhat critical of Putin’s violent actions in Ukraine, India had “increased imports of crude oil and natural gas from Russia since the war began,” according to euronews. And China – easily one of the most-important players on the global stage, has still neglected to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, as it stands, these countries are nothing more than cooperative with Russia, at most – they are far from actually endorsing Russia’s actions in Ukraine, or aiding them on the battlefield. Russia’s greatest friends when it comes to its European foreign policy are perhaps the two most-significant countries who, of course, also oppose NATO: Belarus and Iran. And as far as the Russo-Ukrainian War is concerned, Belarus has been far from silent.
Belarus, led by Aliaksandr Lukashenka (often spelled “Aleksandr Lukashenko”), has been exceedingly cooperative with Russia throughout the latter’s violent foray into Ukraine. In the first weeks of the war, Russian troops launched an offensive movement towards Kyiv from Belarus, utilizing the country’s strategic position to the North of their adversary. Russia and Belarus have also participated in joint military exercises over the last year, according to a recent article by CNN. Many fear that Belarussian soldiers may even be deployed along those of Russia in Ukraine. This is because, of course, Lukashenka is arguably Russian President Vladimir Putin’s biggest ally and staunchest supporter.
When the private military company of Wagner, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin – which had been carrying much of the fighting for Russia in Ukraine – barreled towards Moscow in open rebellion in June, 2023, Lukashenka was the one who brokered the peace deal that, as far as can be determined, resolved the incident (at least for Putin), and Belarus had repeatedly offered their capitol (Minsk) to be used for international peace talks between Russia and Ukraine earlier in the war, according to the Wall Street Journal. Currently, in fact, as part of the current Wagner peace deal, Lukashenka has claimed credit for the placement of thousands of Wagner forces in Belarus, forces that are raising particular alarm along the country’s Northern and Western borders, with Lithuania and Poland.
Citing both the Wagner threat, as well as “threats to national security and possible provocations at the border,” Lithuania has shut down two of its six border-crossing checkpoints with their pro-Russian neighbor, according to Aljazeera. Poland has likewise deployed a significant amount of military personnel to their East, near Belarus, going as far to state that they “will bolster [their] eastern border with 4,000 troops supporting the national border agency and another 6,000 in reserve.” And this was only as of late August. Latvia, which also borders Belarus, has likewise taken increased security precautions along its border. Belarus, predictably, has decried these measures, claiming Lithuania’s actions as “an ‘unfriendly step’ based on ‘far-fetched reasons.’” Evidently, the actions of Belarus in Eastern Europe are not trivial, even in the context of the war continuing to unfold between Ukraine and Russia. Belarus, furthermore, has been a crucial Russian ally, and has “a key role in Russia’s war in Ukraine,” notes CNN. Yet, to understand Belarus, one must understand Aliaksandr Lukashenka…
Belarus declared its independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union (USSR) was collapsing, yet its history goes back further. It existed briefly as a republic after World War One, before it was absorbed into what became the Soviet Union by the Bolshevik Red Army, as noted by the American Department of State (curiously, the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic of 1918 still technically exists as a government in exile - the world’s oldest, in fact - and is extremely opposed to the current Lukashenka regime). After the fall of the USSR, however, elections were held to determine the leader of a newly-free Belarus. Portraying himself as tough on crime and an enemy of corruption, Lukashenka was elected in 1994 as Belarus’s first (and currently only) president. Since that time, however, “president” Lukashenka has enacted many policies that are seen as excessively authoritarian and a callback to Soviet-era policymaking.
Once known as “Europe’s last dictator” (though it is unlikely that anyone will hold to this belief anymore), Lukashenka has proven himself to be a ruthless ruler with very autocratic and, occasionally, violent tendencies as a decision-maker. In 1995, for instance, a hot air balloon carrying two American balloon racers was shot down in Belarusian airspace after they had crossed the border from Poland, despite being cleared to fly there by Belarusian authorities, according to a 2020 article by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. As noted in the Chronicle From Belarus, from the Institute for Human Sciences, this event went relatively overlooked by both the United States and the European Union, yet “Belarus has neither apologized nor offered compensation for the [balloonists’] deaths.”
Much more recently, in 2021, opposition journalist and blogger Raman Pratasevich was flying over Belarus when his flight was forced to land, at which point he was arrested. The civilian flight had been one of the airline, Ryanair, and Belarus had threatened to shoot it down via fighter jet if it did not descend. According to the Institute for Human Sciences, Lukashenka claimed to have made the decision to force the landing due to a bomb threat, as Belarus’s only nuclear power plant was near its flight path. As Lukashenka himself stated: “…isn't one Chernobyl enough?” Pratasevich is not the only opposition subject who has fallen victim to autocratic Belarusian aggression in recent times, either: as of June, 2021, eight accused opposition leaders had died in Belarus, several under suspicious circumstances.
This comes as no surprise, of course, given Lukashenka’s political history. Since becoming Belarus’s president, he had modified the 1994 constitution to increase his own political power. He had also dissolved the old parliament, replacing it with a new one…And all of this before 1996. In 1999, several opposition leaders died under highly-questionable circumstances, and as of today, Belarus is the only country in Europe, aside from Russia, to still use the death penalty (via “a shot to the back of the head,” according to The Guardian) for criminal punishment (even Russia, in fact, has, at least legally, suspended the use of capital punishment as of 1996). Belarus has even been refused access to the Council of Europe (an organization that, among other things, strives to “protect democracy and human rights,” according to Britannica) partially for this reason.
Nevertheless, despite the tyranny of the Lukashenka regime, Belarus has been surprisingly below the political radar of much of the world, being viewed as relatively unimportant when compared to other global actors and situations. In 2020, however, interest in the country was renewed when an election that resulted in Lukashenka’s victory – which both political opponents and Western powers claim was fraudulent – led to a wave of protests and demonstrations that rocked the country. More intense than this was the official government response: Lukashenka retaliated with mass arrests and imprisonment, and through the shutting-down of opposition media. The Human Rights Watch called it an “unprecedented crackdown,” citing the use of widespread arrests and torture against peaceful protesters.
Huge Williamson, the Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia director, even went as far as to state that, over the course of that “…year, the Belarusian government shattered its own horrendous record for brutality and repression.” The 2020 protests – and the Belarusian government’s response – were immensely significant. “In the lead up to and aftermath of the vote [for president], the authorities jailed dozens of journalists, political opposition figures, presidential candidates, civic activists, and human rights defenders.”
Lukashenka, however, largely has Russia to thank for his maintenance of power. It provides Belarus with cheap energy, has helped to support its struggling economy, and generally plays the role of a helping friend when it comes to the smaller Western neighbor. According to The Economist, “Russia treats Belarus…as a satellite – in effect an extension of its own territory.” Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, today, Lukashenka’s loyalties to Russia – and thus the loyalty of Belarus – are practically unending in devotion, and this extends to taking Russia’s side in the Russo-Ukrainian War.
The Economist also notes, that, before the reintensification of the conflict in early 2022, “Russia sent 30,000 soldiers—along with a host of military gear, including jets, air-defense systems and missiles—to Belarus, ostensibly for joint military exercises.” Of course, this was really a disguise of the troops being moved in advance of the actual renewed invasion of Ukraine, as Belarus’s northerly location was judged as a suitable position to launch an assault on Kyiv.
Despite plummeting public support due to sanctions and lower incomes, Lukashenka’s Belarus has continued to defend Russia’s claims in Ukraine, and Russia still maintains troops and military equipment in Belarusian territory, and has even trained their soldiers with Belarusian troops, as well as fired missiles into Ukraine from Belarus, according to an article by Bloomberg. Additionally, “Belarus borders on Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all members of the western NATO military alliance, ensuring its strategic importance for Moscow.”
The war, however, has also potentially opened doors for Lukashenka. University of Alberta Professor David Marples, with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, stated in an article by The Hill that “now Lukashenko has a little bit more leeway because Russia needs him as well.” Marples suspects that Lukashenka will attempt to negotiate his way to retaining his power over a sovereign state, in light of the fact that Russia needs him as an ally. However, Marples also speculated what many others fear: that Belarus may actually commit troops in Ukraine.
For many, this is not only a scary thought, but a genuine possibility. For one, Belarus already poses a security risk in Eastern Europe, and to the EU. The aforementioned recent security precautions taken by Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia occurred with the background knowledge of the existence of what is known as the Suwałki Gap: the 96 kilometer (60 mile) border of Poland and Lithuania that sits just between Belarus and the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. Although this has no land connection to Russia, according to ABC News, it is heavily militarized, and, should Russia and Belarus operate a joint venture to capture this border, it would effectively isolate the three Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania from the rest of their NATO allies. Despite this “gap” being heavily guarded by Poles and Americans on the one side, and Germans and Canadians on the other, notes ABC News, the prospect of its closure still has many worried.
In addition to its mere threat as a military opponent, however, many of Belarus’s s antagonisms against the West and the EU have already been realized, namely in the form of weaponizing immigration. In 2021, Forbes magazine observed that Belarus appeared to be forcing migrants who had arrived from the Middle East and North Africa to cross the border into Poland, in an effort to flood the EU with migrants in response to sanctions. Belarus has recently begun to entice migrants and refugees by offering visas upon arrival in the country, and, as Forbes notes, “E.U. officials have reported that air traffic to Minsk from the Middle East has more than doubled since October 31 [of 2021], including a new daily flight from [Damascus, Syria].”
These migrants – hoping to gain access to the EU – were often provoked across the border with Poland through brutal methods that included intimidation and beatings. (Poland, it should be noted, has responded to the illegal crossings of refugees and migrants poorly – with cases of exceedingly harsh treatment being delivered to migrants who were ultimately and literally beaten back across the border into Belarus – and has been criticized by the Human Rights Watch for these actions, as was Belarus). Although the so-called Belarus–European Union border crisis has deescalated significantly since 2021, it is still a contributing factor of Belarusian aggression against the West, and one committed through inhumane means.
However, as repeatedly mentioned throughout this article, many are more concerned with the potential for Belarus’s direct involvement in the war in Ukraine. Although the reality may seem far-off for some, concerns that Belarussian troops could themselves contribute to the conflict are not entirely unfounded. On February 16, 2023, for instance, Lukashenka affirmed to journalists with the BBC that he would not only be willing to once again allow Belarusian territory to be used as a staging ground for Russian troops invading Ukraine, but also that he would be “ready to wage war, alongside the Russians, from the territory of Belarus.” However, Lukashenka did make it clear that participating in Russia’s invasion would only be under strict circumstances that concerned the defense of Belarus, stating that his country would commit troops “…only if someone – even a single soldier – enters our territory from [Ukraine] with weapons to kill my people.” And – despite the fact that Belarus has not yet committed any soldiers in Ukraine since this interview took place – tensions continue to climb, notably due to the fact that Belarus now harbors nuclear weapons.
In 1992, US president George H. W. Bush was instrumental in the creation of the Lisbon Protocol of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was signed by the former-Soviet states of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. At the time, individuals such as Bush believed that juggling the nuclear capabilities of four separate countries could potentially be quite cumbersome, so the Lisbon Protocol essentially ensured that only Russia would have nuclear weapons. Article V of the protocol reads as follows:
“The Republic of Byelarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan, and Ukraine shall adhere to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1 July 1968 as non-nuclear weapon states Parties in the shortest possible time, and shall begin immediately to take all necessary action to this end in accordance with their constitutional practices.”
Although there has been some doubt in regards to whether this was the right decision (Profesor Dragan Zivojinovic, of the University of Belgrade, Serbia, stated that “Russia would never have invaded Ukraine if Ukraine had nukes”), it has been the rule for some time. Recently, however, concerns have been raised following Russia’s claiming to have provided Belarus with nuclear warheads in June of 2023, according to CNN. Still, Lukashenka maintained that he would “never get involved in this war [with Ukraine]” unless Ukraine provoked Belarus. Yet, as CNN noted, “he also warned that if provoked – especially by neighboring NATO countries like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – Belarus would ‘immediately respond with everything we have,’ including nuclear weapons.”
This has, reasonably, stirred discomfort in the West, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Russia is speculated to still retain complete control over any nuclear weapons in Belarus. Nevertheless, there are still reasons to suspect that Belarus’s role in the Russo-Ukrainian War may be far less involved – perhaps even mildly de-escalatory – as portrayed by much of its recent history. For one, as far as nuclear weapons go, Lukashenka has proven surprisingly hesitant (at least on the surface) at the potential of their use. Although taking Putin’s strategy of blaming the west for the war, he encouraged the de-escalation of the conflict (though by the West, of course), stating that, “if a nuclear war starts, Belarus will cease to exist. We need to sit down at the negotiating table, because nuclear war will wipe out the USA too. No-one needs this.”
Lukashenka has even offered to broker peace. Although this is almost undoubtedly merely a surface-level gesture with little possible progressive implications, he has nevertheless at least claimed to call for an end to hostilities. In February of this year, Lukashenka even invited President of the United States Joe Biden, who was soon to be visiting Poland at the time, to Belarus, for talks with Putin. Unsurprisingly, this offer was not taken up by the U.S. president, as the chances of this event actually delivering any form of peace or ceasefire in Ukraine that would be in any way favorable to the West were slim; yet, despite this false outwardly façade, there are certainly reasons to believe that Belarus may not be nearly as threatening as they would like to imply.
As mentioned by The Hill, “a Chatham House poll…found [that] more than 90 percent of Belarus was against joining the war on the side of Russia,” and although the survey was conducted back in August, 2022, there is little reason to suspect that opinions have changed very much. In fact, given the 2020 uprising that lives in recent memory, “experts say Lukashenko is unlikely to send troops to Ukraine at the moment,” as such a move would be extremely unpopular with the population of Belarus. Furthermore, there are ethnic and national Belarusians currently fighting in Ukraine, against Russia, which could pose a problem if Belarus joins the war on the opposite side, not to mention that Belarus only has around 10,000 committable troops – those that could be easily and immediately deployed – to begin with.
It is also worth mentioning the history that Belarus has shared with Ukraine prior to the re-intensification of the conflict in February, 2022. As outlined by New Eastern Europe, “Belarus and Ukraine are of great strategic, economic and symbolic importance for each other.” Prior to the war, there had been relatively little security on the Belaruso-Ukrainian border, which had the effect of essentially mandating good relations. And as Belarus has become more and more pro-sovereign, having a “safe southern border and good relations with Ukraine” served as a good way to counterbalance unwanted Russian influence. There is also the fact that, in 2018, Lukashenka was “the most popular foreign politician among Ukrainians.” Furthermore, at least prior to 2022, both countries were extremely economically important to one another. If the EU is not counted as a single unit, Ukraine stood out as the second-largest trading partner of Belarus, and Belarus was likewise an important trading partner of Ukraine. In fact, before the war, trade was growing between the two countries.
Nevertheless, despite the importance and significance that these two countries have had for each other, Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine has provoked increasing division between them. Ukraine, for one, which is lobbying for EU support, has been forced to take an increasingly anti-Lukashenka approach to Belarus. Belarus, likewise, has grown further and further from the West: a remarkable accomplishment, given that Lukashenka is already not recognized as Belarus’s legitimate ruler by the US, EU, and the United Kingdom (UK), and heavy sanctions have been applied to his country as of 2020.
Currently, given Lukashenka’s close allegiance with Putin, and the support he needs from Russia to keep both himself in power and his country running, it is highly unlikely that the Belarusian president will engage in any constructive efforts to resolve the violence in Ukraine, at least from the perspective of the West. “If you continue this escalation, you will get nuclear weapons, and Russia has more than anyone,” he stated to the BBC. Nevertheless, given the country’s inability to lend any truly decisive aid to Russia, as well as popular domestic opposition to Lukashenka’s regime, “…Belarus is more useful as a threat than a military ally,” affirmed Mark Galeotti, executive director of the consulting firm, Mayak Intelligence, in a statement to The Hill. In other words: “It’s more about keeping Ukrainians worried. The threat can do that without needing to carry through with it.”