The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Suspicion swirls over Russia’s plans for Belarus after minister’s death

Members of an honor guard carry a portrait, awards and the coffin containing the body of longtime Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei during his memorial service in Minsk, Belarus, on Tuesday. (AP)
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RIGA, Latvia — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met with his security ministers on Thursday, days after the sudden death of the country’s longtime foreign minister, and he warned of attacks from external enemies: NATO, Ukraine and even exiled Belarusians fighting in Ukraine against Russia.

Lukashenko said those fighters in exile could try to seize power by force.

The Belarusian dictator, who has been in power since 1994, is known for unfurling alarmist, far-fetched baseless claims. His latest warning comes amid swirling rumors of plots and intrigue, many dismissed by analysts as unlikely, following the unexpected death last weekend of Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, a close ally and confidant of Lukashenko’s.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin warned on Thursday that anti-Lukashenko Belarusian regiments fighting for Kyiv had serious combat experience and could be used to seize power in Minsk.

“Ukraine, under any pretext, is most likely trying to draw the troops of NATO member states into the conflict,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarusian state media. Without evidence, he also warned of increasing “provocations” on the border.

Ukraine has consistently denied Lukashenko’s accusations of any plan to attack and is building defensive trenches and a fence along the border.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei dies ‘suddenly,’ state says

“Increasing calls are made by the fugitive opposition, our bandits, to seize power by force and commit terrorist acts on the territory of Belarus,” Lukashenko said, calling them “not just traitors, but extremists. They do not hesitate to call for strikes against targets on the territory of our country.”

In fact, Lukashenko might have cause for paranoia these days, but not necessarily for the reasons he cites.

Dependent on Moscow for promises of security support after protests that began in 2020 nearly tipped him out of office, Lukashenko allowed his country to be used as a staging ground for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarus has served as a base for Russia to launch attacks, to provide medical care for wounded soldiers and, more recently, to train thousands of newly conscripted Russian troops.

But Lukashenko has irritated Moscow by refusing to send his military forces into Ukraine to bolster Putin’s depleted army there. Such a move would be deeply unpopular in Belarus and potentially stir new protests.

Lukashenko’s choices are narrowing as the war drags on. He is under pressure from Russia for increased military commitments while also sanctioned by the West for his role in enabling the invasion of Ukraine, as well as for his brutal crackdown on opposition activists since his fraudulent 2020 reelection. Nearly 1,500 members of the opposition are now imprisoned.

Makei’s death, meanwhile, means there is one less pragmatic, rational voice in Lukashenko’s ear, advocating maximum independence from Moscow, without risking a Ukrainian-style invasion.

Lukashenko placed red roses at Makei’s coffin before his burial Tuesday and briefly touched the dead man’s arm, gazing at him for a few moments, dry-eyed, before condoling with Makei’s family.

Makei, a wily regime loyalist, had appeared to be in good health before he died at home on Saturday, aged 64. His death provoked a blizzard of speculation that he might have been clandestinely killed by Russia, with myriad competing theories on motive.

But mundane explanations may be more likely. Liberal media outlet Nasha Niva reported that Makei died of a heart attack after failing to seek medical assistance.

Mistaken by some as a pro-Western figure, Makei was a former Soviet military intelligence colonel who sought to maximize authoritarian power in Belarus and preserve the stability of the regime, according to analyst Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“What everyone should understand about Makei is that for him, loyalty to Lukashenko is paramount and the stability of the regime is paramount,” Shraibman said.

Setbacks in Ukraine war diminish Russia’s clout with regional allies

Makei was also one of the few Belarusian officials capable of communicating with Western officials and who could explain Minsk’s view that Belarus must always account for a threat from Moscow, he said.

“He was in a very unique position of being very close to Lukashenko and trusted by Lukashenko since the beginning of the century but also having connections with the West and an ability to talk to the West,” Shraibman said. “He was a perfect amplifier of signals from Lukashenko to the West and from the West to Lukashenko.”

Speaking to journalists last week at a meeting of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, Lukashenko warned Ukraine to stop fighting or face “total destruction.”

He has repeatedly accused Ukraine and the West of plotting to attack Belarus, with no evidence. By emphasizing the supposed threat to Belarus, he creates a justification not to send his army to Ukraine.

Last year, Lukashenko claimed, without evidence, to be the target of a U.S.-led assassination plot.

In resisting Moscow’s demands, Lukashenko presumably recognizes that his small, untested army of 45,000 troops would be likely to see heavy losses if sent to fight Ukraine’s battle-hardened military.

Makei, formerly head of Lukashenko’s administration, had long been a firm voice within the regime in favor of resisting Russian military and political dominance, Shraibman said.

“He was always in favor of an authoritarian regime conducting itself smarter, engaging some of its critics,” he said. “Probably his only ideological leaning is not being pro-Russian. He spoke harshly about the Russian state and Russian political culture in private conversations.”

Despite Lukashenko’s reluctance to send forces to fight, Belarus is being pulled deeper into Moscow’s military embrace as the war goes on, in ways that will be difficult to untangle in the future.

In October, Lukashenko announced that a joint Russian-Belarusian force of 9,000 men would be based in Belarus, without explaining its role — although Russian officials said it would not fight in Ukraine.

Makei’s death was followed by a report from a little-known think tank that Putin was plotting to assassinate Lukashenko in a bid to take over the Belarusian military, a claim discounted by analysts.

In Ukraine’s capital, Putin’s attacks don’t dim the resolve to fight Russia

“It’s very hard to see how the Belarusian army could be expected by anyone to have any effect on the outcome of the war against Ukraine,” wrote Ruth Deyermond, an expert on post-Soviet security at King’s College London, in comments on Twitter, adding that such a move could trigger significant domestic unrest.

The military tensions in Belarus over the war have overshadowed Lukashenko’s harsh political crackdown since 2020 that was designed, like a similar Kremlin operation, to crush the opposition.

Lukashenko’s regime has relentlessly pursued people who took part in the peaceful 2020 protests, dragging people from their homes, beating them, recording forced confessions and jailing them.

Maria Kolesnikova, an imprisoned opposition leader who jointly led the 2020 presidential campaign against Lukashenko, was on Tuesday admitted to intensive care requiring emergency surgery after she was put into a punishment cell.

Kolesnikova’s lawyer had previously been denied access to her, and her family was denied information on what occurred to necessitate surgery.