What Russia’s Hold Over Belarus Means for Ukraine, and for Syria
With Russian forces pouring into Ukraine, Moscow’s use of Belarus to launch its campaign is as much a test for Minsk’s independence as it is for Kyiv’s. As the Kremlin begins what looks like a large-scale operation against Ukraine, the former Soviet republic’s role in facilitating Russia’s attack could have far reaching consequences.
For now, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is trying to balance Moscow’s pressure with the interests of his own country. Belarus, Russia’s only ally in Europe, has not recognized Moscow’s incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation in 2014, and Minsk refuses to launch direct flights to the peninsula, aware that doing so would amount to de facto recognition of Crimea as part of Russia.
Belarus is also, for now at least, trying to avoid its own forces being dragged into the conflict. On Thursday, as smoke rose from the Ukrainian capital, Belarus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted a quote attributed to Lukashenko: “The Belarusian army is not taking part in the Russian special operation in the Donbass.” Lukashenko has not officially recognized the self-proclaimed Donbas republics in eastern Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin did earlier this week. Instead, Lukashenko has only said that the issue of recognition would be “mutually beneficial,” while Belarus’s foreign ministry has said it “respects and understands Russia’s decision.”
But Lukashenko’s decision to host thousands of Russian troops on Belarusian territory makes Belarus a party to Putin’s actions. Previously, both sides had said the troops will return to Russia once military drills are over, but Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin recently conceded that the Russian forces will remain in the country indefinitely. It is now clear why the earlier assurances were rolled back.
Despite the claim that there are no Belarusian troops currently assisting Russia’s “special operation” in eastern Ukraine, Lukashenko has not ruled out the possibility. He said previously that if Kyiv was to launch a military offensive against the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, the Belarusian armed forces would act in concert with the Russian army. Such a statement demonstrates Lukashenko’s loyalty to the Kremlin.
According to open-source intelligence reports, most Russian troops in Belarus were stationed in the south of the country, not far from the Ukrainian border – and just 260 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital. Putin’s decision to send them in poses a political challenge for Lukashenko. Belarus is expected to hold a constitutional referendum on February 27, and the draft document “excludes military aggression from Belarus’s territory against other states.” While that could give Lukashenko reason to resist any future efforts to use his country’s territory to wage war against Ukraine, it would also give opposition leaders ammunition. Prior to Russia’s invasion, Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called the presence of Russian troops in her country a threat to Belarusian independence.
And yet, Lukashenko may have little choice but to play Putin’s game. Ever since the Kremlin helped Lukashenko stay in power after the controversial election and mass protests in 2020, Belarus’s president has had to end his multi-vector foreign policy and increasingly cede to Russia’s wishes. In early January, following unrest in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, the Belarusian leader sent troops to Kazakhstan to help Russia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) members “stabilize the situation in the Central Asian country.” Allowing Russian troops to strike Ukraine from Belarus may have been another non-negotiable decision.
To demonstrate his loyalty further to Moscow, Lukashenko may even have to deploy a symbolic number of Belarusian troops to Syria, where Russia’s military foothold is also growing. The Russian government recently instructed its ministries of defense and foreign affairs to hold talks with Belarus and to sign a joint declaration on providing “humanitarian aid” to Syria. Once a new constitution is adopted, and clauses about Belarus’s neutrality are scrapped, Minsk may have no option but to start playing a more active role in Moscow’s engagement in Syria.
For Lukashenko, entering the fray in Syria has certain appeal. Belarus has already begun to develop close economic ties with Syria and is assisting in post-war reconstruction. In November 2021, Belarus’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Borisevich met with Syria’s ambassador to Belarus, Mohammad Al Umrani, to discuss political, economic, and humanitarian cooperation. Belarus is actively exporting medications to Syria, and leaders have expressed interest in expanding business in the region. Moreover, Minsk is supporting Syria in international forums, at least rhetorically, by expressing solidarity for President Bashar Al Assad’s “war on terrorism.” But Belarus, pressured by Russia, may soon have to move from words to deeds.
Finally, having a Belarusian military contingent in Syria could be a way for Russia to increase its influence not just in Belarus, but in other CSTO countries as well. If Minsk agrees to deploy its troops to the Middle East, Moscow will likely start looking for others to join in protecting its geopolitical interests in Syria.
For now, the situation in Syria is subordinate to the Ukraine crisis, but the two are connected. Russia’s regional military presence, and its hold over its allies, will limit Western-led efforts to bring the Kremlin back to the negotiating table. The die has been cast, and Belarus’s sovereignty, like Ukraine’s, hangs in the balance.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds the copyright.