Belarus and the Consequences of the Russo-Ukraine War

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its 1st year, both parties do not show any inclination to negotiate. Ukraine is emboldened after its autumn successes in Kharkiv and Kherson, with Ukrainian forces seemingly determined to retake more territory in Donbass, while Russian forces are digging in and preparing for a long winter. While many experts predict the breakup of Russia itself, [1] a more likely example of disillusionment will be with Russia’s longstanding ally Belarus. What do Ukraine’s survival and emboldened opposition mean for the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and his regime?

Europe’s Last Dictatorship

The Republic of Belarus with its population of around 9.9 million people, could be considered Russia’s closest ally or by those who are a bit more sceptical, a vassal. Its leader Alexander Lukashenko has been presiding as Belarus’s president for more than 26 years, since 1994. The nation, like many other states, was born out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet unlike others, it retained a majority of its communist principles, be that its secret service the KGB, its massive memorials, or its system of governance. [2]

Moreover, its use of many soviet emblems is not only symbolic. Belarusian authorities show minimal regard for human rights and the country’s leadership has facilitated sham presidential elections in support of the country’s ageing leader. The United Nations‘ annual report on human rights publishes evidence of massive police violence against protesters, forced disappearances, ill-treatment, torture of political opponents and more. [3]

Following the disputed presidential election in 2020 and subsequent crackdown on protests, which were some of the largest in the country’s independent history, many world leaders from the EU and the USA rejected Lukashenko as a country’s leader. Growing international isolation and sanctions were also introduced after Belarusian authorities artificially created a refugee crisis on its Western border with the EU. [4] This plan to help migrants to travel to Belarus and then push them over the border resulted in a wave of sanction and outrage by Poland which was forced to wall-off its border with Belarus. The Belarussian leader has at times claimed a plot by the Poles to annex Belarus. [5]

The Fraternal Brotherhood

Russia has in many instances defended Belarus from the international community. This should be no surprise. Research into Belarusian culture finds that as Russia has been the main force behind the Soviet colossus, its position as cultural donor vis-à-vis Belarus remained massive. Russia’s literature, music and other art forms are being organically accepted as part of the native cultural tradition of Belarus and lead many to consider Russians as their fraternal brothers. [6]

After gaining independence, the two nations remained much closer than any other in the post-soviet space and hold strong economic and political ties, the example of this is the Russo-Belarusian “Union State” initiative signed in 1999. On the economic front, Russia is of high importance to Belarus, accounting for 41% of Belarusian exports and Russian cheap oil and gas deliveries represent 15% of Belarusian GDP. [7]

Russia on the other hand, utilizes Belarus as a „middleman“ for the import of goods from the European Union, thus allowing for a flexible way to bypass sanctions from the West. [8] Belarus holds its importance due to it having the Yamal pipeline on its soil, which post-Nord steam sabotage remains the only viable root for the massive export of gas to the European market. Belarus is a crucial part of Russia’s security policy, as it holds a strategic position and allows for the shortest access route to the Russian Kaliningrad oblast through the Suwalki Corridor, a sixty-mile corridor on the Polish-Lithuanian border. This corridor is crucial for Russia’s supply of the oblast which houses its Baltic fleet and nuclear weapons. [9] Belarus also holds a long border with Ukraine and has served as a launch pad for the early Russian push on Kyiv at the beginning of the 2022 invasion.

Belarus and the Russo-Ukraine War

Despite Belarus’s strategic position, and the fact that it has already been used as a staging area through which Russia invaded Ukraine, no Belarussian regular forces have attacked Ukraine. As a result, a question comes to mind – is Belarus even able to effectively directly contribute to Russian military operations in Ukraine?

In spite of Belarus’s national defence spending amounting to USD 760 million, which is less than 1.2% of its GDP, [10] the Belarussian army has been trying to build up its readiness since the war began.

Although on paper the armed forces number 120,000 people, much of this number is made of conscripts and could only be used in wartime. This puts the real number of total available troops at 45,000. Belarussian high command established a new operational command „south“ in late June, with the deployment of seven Brigade-sized groups on the border with Ukraine. These should have some 4 500 personnel each, but in reality, their strength stands at around 50% of that number [10].

The lack of available forces within the regular army may be confirmed by the fact that a new „people’s militia“ was created by Lukashenko. The purpose of this force is to conduct security within towns and protect strategic infrastructure, some argue this force is made up of Lukashenko loyalists. [11] These would be most likely used to plug any holes in the potential new front, or engage in policing of other military units, to prevent desertions on mass.

Belarussian army conscripts guarding the presidential palace in Minsk during 2020 protests. Source: Wikimedia

Based on the Union State treaty, the Russian and Belarusian armies are to be formed into a Regional Group of Forces (RGF) in case of war. As such the RGF does not exist in peacetime and requires the unification of Russian command staff and the Ministry of Defence of Belarus. In principle, these forces should fall under the chief of the General Staff of Belarus, which in turn falls under the command of the security council of the Union State. [12] Interestingly the Russian contingent of this force was to be the “elite” 1st Guards Tank Army.

The same army was considered one of the most prestigious and prepared to fight NATO in case of war and even partook in the Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. [13] Yet this force is unlikely to be able to contribute to this force, as it has been deployed in Ukraine around Kharkiv where it suffered heavy losses and is currently „unfit“ for combat operations. [14]

These Russian forces were primarily used to fill capability gaps, e.g., electronic warfare, advanced air defence or simply having more professional troops with modern equipment who could take on the brunt of the fighting. Their destruction severely hinders the Belarussian ability to coherently contribute to the war, as they simply lack the assets needed to be an effective fighting force. The key asset for Russia is currently the Zyabrovka airfield near the border with Ukraine. [15] This airbase houses both Russia’s Iskander launchers and S-400 missile systems which provide air cover for the launching of Geran-2 (formerly an Iranian Shahed 136) drones launched at Kyiv in recent days.

A Reluctant Participant

Even with preparations of forces numbering tens of thousands of combat troops, Lukashenko has been reluctant to join the fray and march his troops to Kyiv while Russia fights Ukraine in the East. This reluctance is logical when one considers the public sentiments of his country’s population.

Even though his rule is authoritarian and public opinions do not usually play a big part in the government calculations, the reports of a staggering 80% of Belarussians being in opposition to sending their army to Ukraine [15] might have compelled some in government to causation against sending troops to aid their „fraternal brother“. Any operation would prove costly in both political and real terms, especially after months of Ukrainian fortification of its northern frontier, which would take a heavy toll to break.

Lukashenko and Putin meeting discussing sanctions. Source: Wikimedia

Resignation of the Deputy Defence Minister Viktor Gulevich, after his statement saying he is not willing to send his men to die as a part of Russia’s war in Ukraine along with the resignations of several Belarussian diplomats like Natalia Khovstova in Germany, shows that not all pro-Lukashenko Belarussians are in support of the war. These resignations among Belarusian elites can be the first shows of cracks within the structure of the regime. There are also reports of a wide demoralization among Belarussian conscript soldiers, who do not wish to be sent to Ukraine, and increased support for anti-war opposition among former soldiers may prove dangerous for the regime. [16]

This might worsen the domestic security situation as Belarus has also experienced a string of sabotages on its railway infrastructure, preventing the transport of troops and equipment during the spring. So-called „railway partisans“ claimed responsibility for these attacks, which led the Belarussian Attorney General to demand the closure of several rail worker unions and classify them as terrorist organizations, for their „anti-government“ activities. [17] Such acts may show how worried the Belarussian government is about the domestic backlash which may fuel further militancy of the Belarusian opposition, which may see the current situation as a real opportunity for regime change and a revolution.

A Chance for Free Belarus

Another danger for the Minsk regime comes from the outside as a meeting of 400 Belarussian opposition representatives on August 8th, in Vilnius, shows the growing militancy of the movement. [18] The conference in Lithuania timed to mark the second anniversary of the 2020 protests, has shown a change in outlook on the revolution after the outbreak of war in the spring. Many consider the regime to be severely weakened and heavily dependent on Moscow, which itself grows weaker by the day.

The newly formed United Transition Cabinet in Vilnius under Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is set to include more militant figures who had previously been seen as too radical. An example of this might be the inputs by certain cybergroups like the Cyberpartisant, Supracious, and even members of the Kalinoŭski Regiment who is participating in combat operations in Ukraine. The new national security representative of the new cabinet in exile will be a former member of Lukashenko’s armed forces, Valery Sakhashchyk, [19] a former army officer, who gained fame after calling on the Belarussian military to bring down the regime. [20]

A key part of the growing militancy of the Belarussian movement was the formation of the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment. A regiment founded shortly after the outbreak of war and made up of ethnic Belarussians fighting on the sight of the Kyiv government has been expanding rapidly, numbering in hundreds of volunteers and counting. [18] The regiment bears the name of a 19th-century Belarussian leader of the 1861 January uprising against the Russian Empire. Their manifesto on their website shows their intentions of: “Liberation of Belarus through the liberation of Ukraine”. [21] The regiment has seen combat operations both during the Kyiv offensive and the subsequent operations in the Donbas. Recent images such as the one below show them wearing western supplied armaments and body armour, with the group known to by utilizing heavy equipment like armoured vehicles such as BMP-2. [22]

Member of the Kalinoŭski Regiment armed with western supplied weapons. Source: Wikimedia

In their statements, Lukashenko himself is not their only target. The opposition movement aims to dismantle his entire system of government and the ruling elites helping him stay in power. This might prove problematic as such attempts could lead to some parts of the population rallying around Lukashenko to protect the status quo. This was shown during the attempted revolution in 2020 when, although massive, the protests did not manage to galvanize the full spectrum of people in the society, with reports of around 45% of Belarussians, being dissatisfied with the regime but fear the uncertainty that would stem from its removal. [23]

Regardless, there can be no denying the stark difference to the coloured revolution attempt in 2020, with many Belarussians actively training to fight with arms against the regime. Some experts argue that the reason why this attempt failed unlike the one in Kyiv in 2014, was the lack of a militant edge in the demonstrations. For better or for worse a new opposition is forming within the pro-democratic camp of Belarus, one which may be ready to take the revolution further than ever. [24]

The Consequence of One’s Actions

Lukashenko’s reluctant complicity with Moscow has caused Belarus great harm. Western-led sanctions, coupled with a loss of the Ukrainian market, which accounted for 13% of total exports, have led to a 10% fall in the national GDP. The IT sector, which was the main growth driver of the national economy, has seen a massive outflow of specialists numbering in the thousands. This has put the country under severe economic strain. [25] With further sanctions expected if it were to enter the war directly, and the Belarussian Army growingly showing signs of unwillingness to participate in offensive action in Ukraine, or the subsequent crushing of the anti-war protests, Lukashenko’s options are limited. [26]

Additionally, as its largest patrons‘ economic and military power continues to degrade, its neighbours like Poland or Lithuania seeking to weaken Russia’s influence in the region, be that by lobbying the EU on tougher sanctions or providing shelter for opposition leaders. This coupled with the historic sentiments of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth [I] played a role in both countries‘ calculation while denying access to Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad, thus degrading Russia’s defence strategy in the region. [27] The domestic economic downturn, coupled with growingly militant opposition, which is supported by Belarus’s angry neighbours, leaves Lukashenko between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps after 26 in power, Lukashenko’s regime may come to an end.

Article was reviewed by: Adam Sitko,  Jan Slánský

[I] Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – also known as the „Republic of the Two Nations“ – was a regional power situated in Eastern Europe, which has lasted over 200 years. Until the country was partitioned in three stages by the neighboring Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia, and the Habsburg Monarchy. By 1795 the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had been completely erased from the map of Europe.


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