In Belarus, Lukashenko is living on borrowed time

In Belarus, Lukashenko is living on borrowed time

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By allowing Russian troops to invade Ukraine from inside Belarus in February 2022, Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko sealed his fate alongside that of Russia.

This means that, when Russia’s fortunes decline, Lukashenko’s demise will also draw nearer.

Since first becoming president of Belarus in 1994, shortly after its independence from the Soviet Union, Lukashenko has continuously tightened his grip on power. As a result, he has had a strained relationship with the West. Since 1997, Belarus has been subject to various forms of European Union sanctions in response to recurrent human rights violations, fraudulent elections and political repression.

Following Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Lukashenko wasted no time in setting himself up to be the mediator between Russia, Ukraine and the West. He promoted his nation as the Eastern European equivalent of Switzerland, positioning his government as a neutral entity in regional disputes.

Consequently, this stance led to a thaw in relations, furthering the goal of maintaining an equilibrium between Russia and the West. The release of the remaining political detainees in 2016 by Lukashenko resulted in the European Union removing most of its imposed sanctions.

The Belarusian president was careful to tiptoe around Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, “refusing to give a final opinion on the legality of Russia’s 2014 land grab of Crimea.” Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Lukashenko also spoke out against allowing Russia to use Belarus as a launching pad to invade Ukraine. He seemed unwilling to allow Russia to gain a military foothold inside of Belarus.

Minsk also became the key location for extensive negotiations following Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which led to the Minsk Agreements

In 2014, Lukashenko delivered his first speech in the Belarusian language since the mid-1990s. The government’s stance on the use of national symbols softened, fostering a resurgence in Belarusian identity. This shift in the state’s ideological and cultural strategies has been termed “Soft-Belarusianization” by Belarusian scholars. It involved the rehabilitation and endorsement of unique Belarusian symbols and historical narratives previously suppressed. It was aimed to bolster Lukashenko’s policies of maintaining some level of autonomy from Russia through the strengthening of the Belarusian identity.

For many years, Lukashenko skillfully balanced engagement with the West against the Kremlin and its subsidies to propping up Belarus’s economy, all the while retaining a certain degree of autonomy from Russia. 

Everything changed in 2020 for Belarus. Following the fraudulent 2020 election and ruthless suppression of democratic protests, Belarus found itself increasingly isolated on the global stage, becoming the North Korea of Europe. It became increasingly dependent upon the economic and security lifelines provided by Russia. Lukashenko, in a desperate act to save himself, had to fully embrace Russia.

Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, allegedly established an exclusive Russian police unit designated to assist Lukashenko upon request. 

Furthermore, in response to the strike of Belarusian news personnel, Russia reportedly deployed journalists financed by the Kremlin to fill their positions to keep a steady stream of propaganda going as the Belarusian people aimed to remove “Europe’s last dictator.” Russia also provided a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus.

The repression was successful. The Belarusian president saved himself for the time being. 

Belarus has long resisted integration into Russia under the Union State. In recent years, that project is finally beginning to take shape as Putin wanted. Belarus has increasingly subordinated its long-term economic interests to those of Russia.

Another repercussion is what Lukashenko previously spoke out against — the rapid buildup of Russian troops inside of Belarus, which was ultimately used as a hub to attack Ukraine. 

Now Russia is firing missiles at Ukraine from Belarusian territory. This is because, toward the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, Belarus permitted Russian troops to initiate their attack on Kyiv from Belarusian territory. This allowed Russia to quickly dash toward Kyiv from the North, to try and surround Kyiv to ensure a quick collapse of the Ukrainian government. But that did not work out — Russian forces later lost the Battle for Kyiv and had to retreat. 

At present, Lukashenko has the support of around 20 to 30 percent of his population, following his brutal crackdown on democratic protests in 2020. Russia can and, as long as it serves Russian interests, will continue to prop him up. But that does not mean he will continue to stay in power.

Russia may decide to complete its takeover of Belarus into a Union State as previously envisioned. Russia has also reportedly deployed tactical nuclear weapons inside of Belarus, further intertwining the fates of the two nations.

In February 2023, there was a leaked document from the Kremlin that laid out Russia’s annexation strategy for Belarus by 2030. It will come as no surprise that Putin does not intend for Lukashenko to stay in power indefinitely. He could push to install a more loyal government at any point in the near future.

If things become dire for Russia on the battlefield, Russia could make a hard push for Belarus to join the war as a last act of desperation. If Lukashenko did deploy the troops, he could trigger civil society to rise up and attempt to overthrow him again while his forces are sent abroad to fight.

At this point, Lukashenko is cornered from all sides, including by his main ally in Moscow. In September 2023, EU lawmakers called on the International Criminal Court to indict and arrest Lukashenko for enabling “Russia’s unjustified war of aggression.” As a result, Lukashenko carries direct responsibility for the destruction and damage caused to Ukraine by Russia’s war. 

A sign of the times showed itself when Lukashenko promoted the idea of continuing to strengthen cooperation with Russia and North Korea. He is more isolated than ever and unable to carry out the balancing act that allowed him to leverage engagements with both Europe and Russia. 

In the event of a decisive Russian defeat in Ukraine, resulting in Putin’s political weakening, Lukashenko could find himself without a powerful ally, making him susceptible to his populace’s discontent and the ensuing protests. Conversely, if Russia emerges victorious in Ukraine, this could expedite Belarus’s integration into the Union State, with a Russian military presence in Belarus unlikely to end. 

Lukashenko’s best strategy seems to be to hope for a stalemate in the Russo-Ukrainian war, which could buy his regime more time. However, the prospects appear grim for Lukashenko. It seems inevitable that either an internal uprising will challenge his rule or Russia will assert more direct control over Belarus. Either way, the regime of Lukashenko is confronted with an impending crisis, irrespective of the war’s trajectory. It appears inevitable that, in due course, he will encounter his downfall.

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist and an associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.

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