By Amanda Coakley
Russian President Vladimir Putin has told Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko that any strike on Belarusian territory would be considered an attack on Russia, an ominous sign that Moscow intends to drag Minsk into a war in Ukraine that most of its people likely do not support. “I promise you that any attack against or just one step across the border into the Belarusian territory would mean that they attack Russia,” Lukashenko cited Putin as saying.
Although Lukashenko claims Belarusian troops have not joined the escalating conflict, Russian troops in Belarus have been allowed passage into Ukraine by Belarusian border guards, and Belarus’s air defense and traffic control systems, along with the country’s fueling stations, have also been made available to Moscow. Furthermore, the Belarusian strongman has said his troops will partake in military action “if it is necessary for Belarus and Russia.”
On Thursday, Russian troops also entered the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone north of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, via Belarus and seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant—a concerning development due to the plant’s proximity to Kyiv, the fact that the road connecting the two is in relatively good condition, and the potential for nuclear dust to spread across the region should radioactive remains be mistreated.
According to Belarusian state media, Lukashenko spoke to Putin at 5 a.m. local time on Thursday, just after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. The two have also discussed strengthening Belarus’s western flank with military equipment, such as Iskander and S-400 missile systems, a move that will set off alarm bells across Europe.
Concerns over Russia’s plans to use Belarus as a staging ground peaked on Sunday when Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin announced that Minsk’s joint military exercises with Moscow would be extended and the approximately 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus would remain in place. In recent days, satellite imagery showed a further buildup of military equipment. Despite this, some analysts believe Lukashenko’s soft refusal to follow Moscow’s lead and recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics on Tuesday might have been a signal that Minsk wasn’t going to placate all of Russia’s demands.
“I don’t think it was the political will of the Belarusian leadership to keep Russian troops in Belarus,” said Olga Dryndova, a Belarusian analyst. “The Belarusian people want to have a neutral status in this conflict. They just cannot go out on the street and show their opposition because of the crackdown on dissent.”
Belarus’s exiled opposition was also taken aback by Minsk’s involvement in Russia’s military plans. “I woke up today understanding that my country has become an aggressor for the first time in its history,” Franak Viacorka, a senior advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told Foreign Policy. “I don’t know if Belarus will survive this war. What we are witnessing is the beginning of something very dangerous. We need tough sanctions and a refusal [from Western leaders] to recognize Lukashenko and his supporters.”
“This war could lead to a bigger war, or even a world war,” Viacorka added. “But if we work quickly, I think we can have an opportunity [to stop the fighting].”
Earlier on Thursday, Tsikhanouskaya accused the pro-Russian government in Minsk of “high treason” and announced the formation of a government-in-exile. “I’m taking on the responsibility to represent the Republic of Belarus [and its] people,” she announced at the Lithuanian Embassy in Paris.
Belarusians are also going to the polls on Feb. 27 to vote in a constitutional referendum that will change the country’s concept of nuclear neutrality and open up the opportunity for Russian nuclear weapons to be housed on Belarusian soil. The proposed changes to the constitution—which would be the third raft of constitutional changes since Lukashenko came to office in 1994—would omit the wording, “The Republic of Belarus aims to make its territory a nuclear-free zone, and to make the state neutral,” from Article 18 and replace it with, “The Republic of Belarus excludes military aggression against other states from its territory.”
Such a move flies in the face of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Belarus’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for its nuclear disarmament following the Soviet Union’s collapse. (Under the agreement, Ukraine was also supposed to have the same security and sovereignty guarantees.)
Further changes include reducing the power of the country’s parliament; giving sweeping powers to the All-Belarus People’s Assembly, a parallel political structure of pro-government, handpicked elites; and giving Lukashenko the option to stay in power until 2035.
Minsk now faces a new package of sanctions from the European Union and the United States over its involvement in Thursday’s invasion of Ukraine. The country had already been reeling from sanctions following the illegitimate presidential elections of August 2020 and the subsequent crackdown on opposition protesters. Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, warned that Minsk would face “massive” sanctions if it aided Russia’s plans to attack Ukraine. He also added that the country is “in a process of satellization with respect to Russia.”
(c) Foreign Policy, 2022