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Four reasons Belarus isn’t likely to send troops to Ukraine

Fighting Russia’s war would not help Lukashenko stay in power

Russian military vehicles prepare to exit railway platforms after arriving in Belarus in January. (Russian Defense Ministry/AP)

Ukraine’s counteroffensive continues to reclaim territory held by Russian troops this week. It’s also a week when Belarus is conducting military drills with the support of Russia. The maneuvers fueled speculation that Belarus might expand its support for the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

Throughout the conflict, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has allowed Russia to use Belarus as a launchpad for hundreds of airstrikes against Ukrainian targets. But Lukashenko has abstained from sending Belarusian troops into Ukraine.

Would Lukashenko change tack, and send Belarus troops to aid the Russian invasion? Here are four reasons the likelihood of a military advance from Belarus, or the Belarusian army invading Ukraine, remains low.

A permanent Russian military presence isn’t in Lukashenko’s interest

Any Belarusian troops sent to Ukraine would rely on the Russian command infrastructure. With the Russian army already on Belarusian territory and deepening integration between Russia and Belarus moving toward uniting the two countries’ economies and military and political structures, losing control is not in Lukashenko’s interests.

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In 1999, Lukashenko signed an agreement with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to create a political and economic union between the two countries. The agreement was never fully implemented. However, Belarus’ integration with Russia has deepened considerably since 2020, when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent assistance to aid the harsh crackdown on large-scale election protests in Belarus. Lukashenko’s acceptance of Russian assistance in putting down the protests marked a turning point in his attempts to balance between East and West.

In November 2021, alongside wide-ranging agreements on economic and regulatory issues related to taxation, banking, industry, agriculture and energy, Russian and Belarusian leaders approved a new joint military doctrine. Then in February, Russia and Belarus held joint military drills close to the Belarusian border with Ukraine — which served as a pretext to move some 30,000 Russian troops onto Belarusian territory in preparation for the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

But Lukashenko has been actively demilitarizing the Belarusian army since the invasion, by handing over military equipment and ammunition to Putin. In August, Russia received over 12,000 tons of ammunition from Belarus. These steps relieve pressure on Lukashenko to mobilize the Belarusian army to intervene directly in the war against Ukraine on the side of Russia.

Such measures probably reflect Lukashenko’s wariness about allowing the Belarusian army to fall under Russian command, if troops are dispatched into Ukraine. That would give Russia an opportunity to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, which would weaken Lukashenko even further and place Belarus firmly in Putin’s pocket.

The E.U. continues to sanction Belarus. Some Belarusians approve.

Sanctions have weakened Lukashenko’s support from domestic allies

Lukashenko continues to hang on to power. However, some of his close political insiders appear to oppose the decision to back Putin’s war against Ukraine. The protracted military conflict in Ukraine has led to ongoing sanctions pressure on the Belarusian economy and on business leaders — including sanctions that specifically target Belarus military leaders.

In April, Lukashenko unsuccessfully attempted to conduct secret negotiations with the West. On April 6, the Belarus minister of foreign affairs sent a confidential letter asking European Union countries to abandon the sanctions policy and restore dialogue with the Belarusian regime. The E.U. did not respond, and the letter was leaked to the media.

Russia’s war is not popular in Belarus

A majority of Belarusians do not want their country to take part in the war against Ukraine. According to a Chatham House poll conducted in August, only 5 percent of Belarusians favored sending troops to support Russia, while 2 percent wanted Belarus to side with Ukraine. About 70 percent of Belarusians indicated their refusal to engage in the conflict.

Lukashenko’s calls for peace reflect the preferences of a majority of the public. Keeping Belarusian troops out of the war allows Lukashenko to defuse some of the widespread anger that followed the 2020 presidential election — reflected in the months of protests over his fraudulent claim of victory.

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At the same time, Belarusians have also been expressing solidarity with Ukraine. For example, on March 26, some 200 Belarusian volunteers joined a battalion named after Kastus Kalinouski, a 19th-century Belarusian writer and revolutionary, and took an oath to join Ukraine’s Armed Forces. Two months later, on May 21, the Kalinouski battalion announced its expansion and transformation into a regiment.

Belarus can’t actually spare the troops

A majority of the troops who serve in the Belarus army are conscripts doing compulsory military service — many soldiers are probably interested only in serving out their term. Belarus’s active personnel count is around 45,500 (less than 1 percent of the total population), with about 25 percent serving as contractors.

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A conscripted army remains largely a citizen army — which means many conscripts share the public dissatisfaction with the Lukashenko regime. It’s likely the Belarus military is well aware that any troops dispatched to join the fight in Ukraine might well refuse to serve, or seek to defect.

Belarusian special operations forces, an estimated group of between 4,000 and 6,000 officers, serve an important role at home. In 2020, together with the police, these forces took an active part in the suppression of mass protests after the presidential election. Two years later, Belarus special forces offer a strong deterrent to public protests. Lukashenko cannot afford to give up these troops as they ensure his grip on power.

With little room to maneuver between East and West and Belarus’s military far weaker than Russia’s, Lukashenko appears to have little choice but to follow Putin’s orders. However, the reluctance of Lukashenko to send Belarusian troops into Ukraine reflects his desire to continue his 28-year rule — and a keen awareness of the need to maintain distance from Russia and the military setbacks suffered by Putin’s army.

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Tatsiana Kulakevich is an assistant professor of instruction in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and research fellow at the Institute for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @DrKulakevich.