Belarus joining the war in Ukraine could be risky, even for Putin

The mobilisation and deployment of Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine could destabilise the regime in Minsk. And that would be bad news for Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin after arriving at the Vostochny cosmodrome.
Russian President Vladimir Putin walks with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin after arriving at the Vostochny cosmodrome in Russia's far eastern Amur region on April 12, 2022 [File: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP]

For the past eight months, Belarus has managed to stay away from direct involvement in the war in Ukraine, although it has served as a springboard for Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour. In February, Russian forces started their unsuccessful march to Kyiv from Belarusian territory.

Minsk has also provided logistical support, supply lines, medical care for Russian soldiers and airfields to launch air attacks on Ukraine. There have also been reports that shipments of Belarusian tanks and ammunition have been made to occupied Donbas and Crimea.

But earlier this month, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko indicated that his country may join the fighting in the Russian-Ukrainian war. On October 10, the Belarusian leader announced the deployment of a “joint Belarus-Russia military group” in response to the alleged threat of attack from Ukraine.

This step represents a significant escalation in Belarus’s role in the war to date. It signals that Lukashenko is preparing the Belarusian public – which since the beginning of the conflict has stood strongly against the deployment of the Belarusian armed forces to fight in Ukraine – while also looking for a formal justification, however unrealistic, for Belarus’ greater involvement in the conflict.

Direct involvement in the war, however, may be too risky for the regime in Minsk and even for the Kremlin itself and may be too difficult to carry out.

Activating the union state defence doctrine

Russia’s recent annexation of four Ukrainian regions has squeezed Lukashenko’s space for manoeuvre vis-à-vis Russian demands to help the war effort. The Kremlin could now effectively claim that the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the occupied Donbas and Kherson regions are attacks against the Russia-Belarus union state, an arrangement between the two countries which foresees close political and economic integration.

The joint military doctrine of this alliance, which Lukashenko signed under pressure from the Kremlin last November, states that any military action against one of its members is an assault on the union state as a whole.

The joint Belarus-Russia military group is part of the union state common defence policy. By announcing its deployment, Lukashenko effectively declared that Belarus is in a “pre-war situation”.

It is unclear what exactly this could entail in military terms and how big the force would be. But a “rapid deployment”, which Lukashenko referred to, usually involves bringing troop numbers up to full strength, intensifying intelligence activities, setting up communication and operational systems, and strengthening combat readiness, among other things.

It may also lead to partial mobilisation of reservists and putting on combat alert the territorial defence troops, which have participated in frequent exercises on Belarusian soil in recent years.

Currently, the Belarusian army has some 65,000 troops, about 20,000 of whom are support staff and cadets. That means that about 45,000 regular forces. Their combat readiness, however, may not be that high, given that in peacetime only a part of the available troops is serving.

However, according to media reports covert mobilisation, under the cover of testing the troops’ military capabilities and readiness, has begun. At this stage, it might include support staff and target men in small towns and villages. Belarusian soldiers have been reportedly banned from travelling abroad.

Deploying Belarusian troops in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has enough leverage to pressure Lukashenko into sending Belarusian forces to the battlefield. The question is whether it is reasonable to do it.

The Belarusian leader’s political fate has been in the Kremlin’s hands since the fraudulent 2020 presidential election when its backing helped hold his regime together and crush the mass anti-government protests.

Since then, Lukashenko’s ability to resist Russian demands has diminished. He has conceded large parts of economic and defence sovereignty to the Kremlin by signing various “integration” documents and aligned Belarus’s foreign policy with Russia’s.

Putin could also press for the creation of a joint Belarus-Russia military command – something Belarus has never agreed to before. If that happens, Belarus would retain a say in decision-making only on paper, particularly as far as the deployment of the Belarusian troops across the border could be concerned. In practice, however, decisions are likely to be taken by Russian generals.

But how useful Belarusian troops, which lack war experience, could be to Russia is unclear. They will not only be small in number but also would likely be low in morale, which could make them more of a liability than an asset.

Russia itself also lacks large numbers of well-trained and equipped troops to open a new front line along Belarus’s border, which Ukraine, from its own side, has now fortified and mined, and blown up its bridges.

Ukrainian military experts have also warned that Ukraine might strike pre-emptively if it were to spot an armed force moving from Belarus, and its targets could include critical Belarusian infrastructure. That would also hold Lukashenko back from getting his troops cross the border.

Popular unrest

With civil society structures in Belarus crushed and protesters and opposition leaders in jail or abroad, the chances of immediate popular unrest, if Lukashenko announced mobilisation or sent Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine, may be slim.

Yet a general draft would still pose high political risks for Lukashenko. Russia’s war in Ukraine has been highly unpopular among the Belarusian public since the very beginning. According to a recent Chatham House survey, just 9 percent of respondents support sending Belarusian troops to Ukraine.

Doing so could dwindle Lukashenko’s already low levels of public support and destabilise his regime. Sending troops to the border or to fight in Ukraine would also leave the Belarusian president with no properly trained and equipped army in Minsk to protect him. After all, a number of Belarusian army units had to be mobilised in 2020 to help put down the mass protests.

The Belarusian opposition could try to use this to its advantage. Some opposition forces have already been showing more appetite for less peaceful resistance after civilian protests failed to bring about political change.

In its newly created United Transitional Cabinet, two positions have been taken up by members of the Belarusian security services and prosecution who have defected. They are now setting up a network of volunteers ready for a mass uprising against Lukashenko’s regime and the “Russian occupation”.

Apart from that, according to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 1,500 Belarusians are fighting on the side of the Ukrainian army and more are training to join.

If Lukashenko were to mobilise troops and send them to Ukraine, the West would most definitely impose even harsher sanctions, which would harm the already struggling Belarusian economy. That, combined with the president’s unpopularity, would make it easier for the opposition to encourage defections from the Belarusian political elite and could trigger popular unrest.

Lukashenko would demand more political, economic and security support from Moscow, which could distract Putin’s attention from Ukraine. A popular uprising in Belarus could also be highly dangerous for the Russian president, as it could eliminate one of his closest allies and inspire political turmoil in Russia itself.

In short, the deployment of Belarusian troops to the war theatre in Ukraine might not be very effective on the ground and may hasten Lukashenko’s downfall – something the Kremlin is likely aware of and taking into consideration when making decisions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.