Politics
What's next for Belarus? Russian troops and the Belarusian domestic crisis
November 4, 2022
  • Yan Auseyushkin

    Analyst at iSANS
    (International Strategic Action Network for Security)
Representatives of the Belarusian democratic opposition demand the withdrawal of the Russian army from Belarus, while official Minsk maintains that the Russian troops are needed to ensure the country’s security. Yan Auseyushkin writes about how this situation might affect the political crisis in the country.
Most of the Russian troops that had been deployed on the territory of Belarus for the invasion of Ukraine were withdrawn after the Russian retreat from Kyiv, but since October 15 they have begun to return.

The Russian army’s arrival was preceded by a statement from Alexander Lukashenka that a joint group of Union State troops had been created. This gave rise to much speculation about the goals of the new unit. Currently, there is clearly not enough manpower to invade Ukraine from the territory of Belarus – according to estimates of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Intelligence, there are now just over 3,000 Russian soldiers in Belarus. The monitoring project called Belarusian Hajun, which analyzes the Russian presence in Belarus, also confirms that there aren’t enough troops for an offensive. But this doesn’t mean that the situation can’t change.
Russian and Belarusian defense ministers Sergei Shoigu and Viktor Khrenin during a working meeting in Moscow; June 2022. Source: VK
Belarus in the Ukraine conflict

Discussion around the presence of Russian troops in Belarus has been going on for more than a year. While two Russian military installations (a communications center in Vileyka and a radar station near Gantsevich) have been permanently stationed in the country, they can hardly be considered full-fledged bases.

The establishment of such bases was discussed back in 2012-15 on various levels, including by Russian President Putin, but the matter never got as far as implementation. At that time, there was a warming in relations between Belarus and the West, which intensified especially after the annexation of Crimea, and Lukashenka managed to reject the proposal that had been imposed on him from Moscow. That in turn provided Lukashenka with a bargaining chip. In 2018, Mikhail Babich, then Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, finally admitted that a military base wasn’t needed, and the issue was closed.

Everything changed after the 2020 presidential election. In August, as protests raged across the country, Lukashenka asked Putin for support and got it – a parade of propagandists from Russia Today replaced the resigning and striking employees of Belarusian state television. Russian propagandists rewired the regime's creaking media machine and got it through a critical period.

In addition, a special reserve of the Russian National Guard was formed to help Lukashenka if needed (with Putin openly stating that such a force had been created).
"Russian units were amassed at the border and preparing to invade Belarus if the police and internal troops couldn’t cope with the protesters."
No Russian reinforcements were needed in the end, but the payback for the Kremlin’s support was inevitable, and Lukashenka had nothing to offer Putin but the remnants of Belarus’s sovereignty.

In spring 2021, Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu unveiled a decision to create combat training centers for the air force and air defense. The first aircraft arrived in Belarus in August 2021. Further deployment of military infrastructure took place under the pretext of military exercises: for example, the Zyabrovka Air Base was restored, where Russian air defense systems and other equipment are based. In February, it was used in the invasion of Ukraine.

There are still debates about the degree to which the Belarusian regime is involved in the war. Lukashenka has sought to create distance for Belarus, emphasizing that Belarusian troops didn’t cross into Ukraine. He has tried to paint Belarus as a potential victim of aggression from Ukraine and even talked about where exactly they were planning to attack Belarus. Meanwhile, the first hints of possible Russian aggression against Ukraine were heard on Belarusian state television in summer 2021, while a few weeks before the invasion Lukashenka stated that the war with Ukraine would last 3-4 days.

The complicity of Belarus in the aggression is beyond doubt: Belarus allows Russian troops on its territory and provides Russia with logistical support and assistance in supplying troops, treating the wounded and repairing equipment.

The European Union issued a statement calling the Lukashenka regime an accomplice to the aggression sharing responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine and imposed corresponding sanctions on Minsk. Yet Ukraine itself still hasn’t broken off relations with Belarus. The main reason is that the Ukrainian authorities don’t want to risk provoking Lukashenka – even with symbolic moves – into taking real action against Kyiv.

Divisions in Belarusian society

Currently, the Russian military presence in Belarus is growing. On October 31, Lukashenka approved a draft agreement on establishing combat training centers, though it isn’t clear whether it is about creating new ones or adding on to the existing ones. The Ministry of Defense is making statements and releasing videos of trainloads of arriving troops, but neither their number nor whereabouts has been disclosed. As mentioned above, Ukrainian intelligence estimated their number at several thousand, while the Belarusian defense department puts the figure at 9,000. Currently, both the Russian and Belarusian regimes are interested in maintaining an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Minsk is justifying the military preparations underway in Belarus by pointing to the need to protect the state. Lukashenka repeats that he isn’t going to attack anyone. As for society, polls – such as those conducted by Chatham House in August – indicate that most Belarusians don’t want war, with approximately 30% of respondents definitely supporting the actions of Russia in Ukraine versus 45% not supporting them. Still, it should be borne in mind that people who don’t support Russia's actions don’t necessarily unambiguously support Ukraine.

As for the deployment of the Russian military in Belarus, about a quarter of Belarusians have a positive view, while 43% view it negatively. Because the survey was conducted online, it is very likely that supporters of the war and of Russia were underrepresented in the survey. In any case, however, there is no mass support for the war across Belarusian society.
"Both camps – those who support Russia in Ukraine and those who don’t – oppose Belarus's entry into the war."
Joint group of Union State troops; October 2022. Source: VK
Only 5-10% would like Belarus to take part in the hostilities in Ukraine, and Lukashenka has to take this into account.

Belarusians in exile are much more categorical. Having been forced to leave the country (according to various estimates, at least 150,000 have left Belarus), they oppose Lukashenka and have repeatedly condemned Russia's actions, calling for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of troops. But their influence is inevitably limited by the ongoing repression inside Belarus.

Regular people, though they feel the economic consequences, don’t always associate the deterioration in their quality of life with the war. However, the sanctions have delivered a considerable blow to the country's economy, primarily exports to the West. In addition, the Ukrainian market, which Belarus supplied with oil products, has been lost. The IT sector, which had previously seen rapid expansion, has declined amid a significant outflow of specialists and sanctions.

As long as the regime manages to meet its minimum obligations under the “social contract,” a significant part of society (according to various indirect assessments, it is about 30%; it should be borne in mind, however, that amid the permanent repression it is almost impossible to assess actual support for Lukashenka) will continue to support Lukashenka, as he promises to guarantee peace and order. Even though in reality, he has brought the country to the brink of war.

The Lukashenka regime is actively using the issue of the war to whip up people and cement its power vertical. Regime propaganda talks about the threats from Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine and from NATO while calling on Belarusians to rally around Lukashenka. Meanwhile, officials constantly emphasize that Belarus isn’t going to attack anyone.

In addition, with the political crisis triggered by the 2020 presidential election still unresolved and the opposition signaling that it no longer rejects the idea of armed struggle, the limited presence of Russian troops in Belarus serves as a guarantee of security for Lukashenka.

Shift to violent opposition

In September of this year, Lukashenka, apparently expecting to start a dialogue with the US and the EU, began to send signals about his readiness to grant amnesty to political prisoners and released several people ahead of schedule, including Radio Liberty correspondent Oleg Gruzdilovich.

However, the West made it clear that such concessions aren’t enough. As a result, political prisoners – there are more than 1,500 in Belarus – weren’t included in the final draft of the amnesty. Moreover, several other prominent activists who had remained at large were arrested. Thus, Lukashenka no longer counts on a de-escalation or talks.

This is also confirmed by the amendments to the Electoral Code and the law on the All-Belarus People's Congress that were submitted for “public” discussion in October, which exclude free participation in political life and hence quash hopes of resolving the political crisis.

The 2020 protests were mostly peaceful, and until recently Lukashenka opponents didn’t accept the idea of violent protest, at least not publicly.
"However, after the start of the war in Ukraine, the commitment to nonviolent resistance in Belarus is gradually giving way."
Protests in Minsk (Belarus) near the Hero City Obelisk; August 16, 2020. Source: Wiki Commons
The first signs appeared as early as March, when railways were the target of sabotage, which made it difficult to move Russian reinforcements during the fierce battles for Kyiv. Several groups were suspected of being involved in the partisan movement and arrested. In one of the videos published by the siloviki, the detainees appear beaten, with one shot in the legs. (Later it was revealed that his case had went to trial and that he is charged with terrorism and several other offenses.)

In addition, Belarusian volunteer units fighting in Ukraine have emerged as a new threat to the Lukashenka regime. Currently, they are not too numerous (according to various estimates, they number from several hundred to a thousand), while it is unlikely that they could defeat the Belarusian army. But supporters of more decisive action against the Lukashenka regime are becoming more determined. Belarusians are being trained in Ukraine and gaining combat experience, which the Belarusian armed forces don’t have. In the future, a civil conflict could evolve into something much bigger.

Opposition forces have begun to seriously consider the prospect of an armed uprising and resistance. In August, the so-called United Transitional Cabinet was created, in which not one, but two silovik representatives appeared: Lieutenant Colonel Valery Sakhashchik, the former commander of a paratrooper brigade, was appointed "Minister of Defense,” while Alexander Azarov, a former lieutenant colonel in the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption and head of the Association of Security Forces of Belarus (BYPOL), also received a seat in the shadow government. BYPOL has created a mobilization plan named Peramoga (“victory”) – a network of sleeper cells within the country. Some of these cells were activated during the rail war. BYPOL also conducts special training for Belarusians abroad.

Despite official claims that the opposition forces are small, Lukashenka's regime is taking the threat of an internal blowup seriously. This is evidenced by such an initiative as meetings between the leadership of the security agencies and workers at Belarus’s largest factories. Workers are told about external threats and the need to counter them.

For example, at a meeting with the staff of the Minsk Tractor Works, the head of the Belarusian KGB Ivan Tertel said that insurgents could invade from the territory of Ukraine and occupy a small regional capital while they wait to be joined by "mercenaries from other countries" for a joint push toward Minsk. (Note that the siloviki have long been strengthening the border with Ukraine and conducting counter-guerrilla exercises.)

At the same time, checks and the re-equipment of bomb shelters are being carried out all over Belarus, while mobilization orders are being issued to men. Teachers at schools are warning parents against their kids filming passing military equipment, while at state-owned enterprises counterintelligence is looking for the disloyal.

So far, these activities have been aimed at the domestic audience and are designed to provide a "rally-around-the-flag” effect.
"For Lukashenka, the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus primarily represents a 'strategic reserve', similar to the one that stood ready in August 2020, only this time on the territory of Belarus."
The presence of Russian troops in Belarus thus is in line with his interests; however, the Kremlin has its own interests, which are not limited to supporting Lukashenka. The situation could change at any moment if the Russian army again launches massive strikes against Ukraine from Belarusian territory. In addition, the possibility remains that the Russian military could sharply boost its presence in preparation for a new offensive. That would dramatically increase the risks for Lukashenka, both externally and internally, with Russian troops, instead of being guarantor of stability, turning into a threat. Lukashenka will have nothing to face that threat down.
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