How Russia's war in Ukraine could crush Belarus


How Russia's war in Ukraine could crush Belarus

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In the summer months of 2020, an embittered Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was on the brink of losing his power amid massive domestic protests and Western sanctions. Then the Kremlin came to the rescue.

Now Lukashenko is returning the favor by allowing his country to be a staging ground for Russia's military foray into Ukraine — a move that has drawn a new wave of crippling sanctions and could reignite internal divisions that could plant the seeds for his political demise.

"The biggest thing is that Belarusians don't seem to want this war. And I think Lukashenka even knows that," Doug Klain, assistant director at the Eurasia Center, told the Washington Examiner. "I think that there are already real signs that if Lukashenka sends his troops into Ukraine — that could be the spark that reignites the domestic opposition movement to overthrow them."

NATO officials told reporters this week the Kremlin may soon turn to Belarus for added support as it faces military setbacks, and they believe Minsk is increasingly likely to deploy thousands of forces to Ukraine. Direct "involvement would destabilize Belarus," said on NATO military official, according to CNN.

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Already, there have been some indications of internal resistance within Belarus against the war in Ukraine. Last week, the head of Ukrainian railway Ukrzaliznytsia claimed Belarusian railroad workers sabotaged the railway connection between Ukraine and Belarus to frustrate the transportation of reinforcements to the Russian war lines.

Matthew Schmidt, professor at the University of New Haven and an expert on defense and intelligence, told the Washington Examiner that Belarus has a military that is in poor quality and has already provided the Kremlin most of the key advantages it has to offer by allowing Russia to launch attacks on Ukraine from its soil.

"Belarus allowed Russia to be able to envelop and circle Ukraine to a much greater extent and to create an invasion route directly north of Kyiv," Schmidt said. "The second big thing is that the Russians have been using standoff weapons, missiles, that they've been firing from Belarus territory, toward Kyiv. And it's been important for them to be able to defend their launching sites by, you know, being able to do that from a foreign country's territory."

Lukashenko, who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator," owes Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During his most recent election in 2020, he faced massive internal uproar and protests over allegations of election fraud. Western nations, including the United States and those in the European Union, roundly rejected his claim of reelection victory and issued sanctions. The sanctions threatened to tank Minsk's economy, but Putin stepped in and provided a $500 million loan. He also provided other aid such as increasing flights between Russia and Moscow to subvert restrictions on flights to Belarus. Ultimately, the protests subsided by mid-2021.

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Nelly Bekus, an associate research fellow at the University of Exeter, told the Washington Examiner that 2020 was the first popular election Lukashenko clearly lost.

"In 2020, Lukashenko remained in power largely because he received political and economic support from Putin," she said. "His dependence on Putin deprived him and the people of Belarus of any autonomy and possibility to impact the most important decisions such as those related to the invasion of Ukraine."

Days into Russia's war on Ukraine, Belarus became one of only four nations, along with Russia, North Korea, and Eritrea, to vote against a United Nations resolution condemning Russia for the invasion. Unlike North Korea and Eritrea, Belarus shares a border with Ukraine, making it strategically valuable to the Kremlin. Before the war broke out last month, Russian forces conducted joint military exercises with Belarusian forces near its southern border with Ukraine.

Western nations have levied severe sanctions on Belarus for its role in assisting Russia in the conflict. This time around, Russia is not as well-equipped to bail Lukashenko out from the West's wrath. Sanctions have wiped out over $30 billion from Russia's GDP, and the figures are only expected to worsen, according to Bloomberg. Lukashenko appears undeterred. 

"Sanctions are a time of opportunity for us. I am a Soviet person. You are a Soviet person, too. We were always under sanctions then, and we lived and developed normally," he said confidently sitting beside Putin two weeks ago. "If we get our bearings, people will forget this happened in six months."

Belarus's largest trading partner is Russia — with over 54.7% of its imports and 41.3% of its exports involving Russia during 2019, per WTIS. Sanctions on Russia are likely to have a ripple effect on Belarus due to its massive dependence on Russia, which has ample exposure to the West, and compound the squeeze of its sanctions on Minsk, according to Bekus.

"The sanctions are much stronger than those introduced against Belarus back in 2020," she said. "And because Belarus could only deal with the effect of those sanctions because of Russia's support, now that Russia is in such big trouble itself, you can only imagine this will have a domino effect."

In early March, the European Union imposed a ban on 70% of the bloc's imports and imposed specific sanctions on its eastern neighbor. The U.S. has levied a slew of sanctions against Belarus, targeting entities that have helped security and military sectors in Belarus as well as members of Lukashenko's inner circle. The West has also cut three Belarusan banks off the SWIFT payment system. These efforts have put Belarus on the cusp of default, World Bank Chief Economist Carmen Reinhart told Reuters.

 

Time will tell if the latest assortment of sanctions will help erode Lukashenko's grip on power in Minsk. Either way, people in Belarus are likely to suffer, Bekus said.

"On the one hand, they are suffering from repression of their own regime, but now they become guilty because this regime is compliant in the war on the side of Putin, which is criminal," she said. "They have no power whatsoever to change the situation because the repressive machine in Belarus has worked so hard so that almost anyone who had the courage to protest was arrested and put in prison or left the country."

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