08.11.22 Review

A Passing Casualty: the build-up of a "regional grouping" In Belarus indicates rather the dismantling Of Belarusian sovereignty than preparing for war

Will Belarus engage in the war and will its territory be used for a new stage of invasion? The Russian Defense Ministry has just published footage of the Russian military equipment arriving on the territory of the republic, but Belarus is unlikely to enter the war, and if it does, it can hardly have a serious impact on its course, experts say. Participation in the war on Russia's side is extremely unpopular in the republic and threatens Lukashenko with aggravating the internal political situation. The growing Russian military presence in Belarus is rather a demonstration of the republic's loss of its remnants of sovereignty. In addition, Lukashenko is losing his traditional monopoly on contacts with the Russian leadership: the Moscow bureaucracy is more often doing business with its Belarusian counterparts directly, over his head.

Alexander Lukashenko announced the creation of a certain "regional grouping" of troops back on October 10th, and on November 8th the Russian Ministry of Defense published a video showing the arrival of an echelon of military equipment to Belarus and joint exercises. The Russian military presence in the republic is growing, but the number of Russian troops is low so far, experts say. "Gayun" civil monitoring project claims that the soldiers arriving in Belarus are Russian conscripts sent for training. In this case, the Kremlin's Belarusian maneuvers look more like staging, designed to distract the forces of the Ukrainian army.

A sharp deterioration of Russia's position in Ukraine and a weakening of Moscow may also threaten the existence of the Lukashenko regime, according to a review by the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Therefore, theoretically, Belarusian troops could invade the northern or western regions of Ukraine, where the routes for the supply of Western weapons to the Ukrainian army pass. Lukashenko is currently conducting a hidden targeted mobilisation and a new propaganda campaign, the independent Belarusian newspaper "Nasha Niva" points out. Ex-servicemen and retired police officers are receiving drafts. Military medics are also being trained, and some civilians have been told they will be mobilised in the first wave of conscription, if necessary. 

However, Belarus can hardly influence the course of the war, even if it joins it, analysts say. The Belarusian army simply does not have the resources for that, military analyst Konrad Muzyka wrote a month ago. Currently, the Belarusian Armed Forces have 50,000 soldiers and officers, but its combat-ready core — the so-called Special Operations Forces — has no more than 4,000 to 6,000 men, according to the report of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies for 2020. According to the same report, the Belarusian army have slightly more than 1,200 tanks, but not more than 450 of them are in service. The effectiveness of the Belarusian air defense system is also questionable: it is mainly equipped with Russian S-300 long-range anti-aircraft systems, which turned out to be ineffective against HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Finally, the Ukrainian army has mined roads and fields on the border with Belarus, destroyed several logistically important bridges, and is now much better prepared for an attack from the north than at the beginning of the war.

It is difficult to judge the attitude of Belarusian society towards the war and possible participation in it — no independent sociological surveys are conducted in Belarus. Online surveys of Belarusians organized by the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chattam House) in the spring and summer of 2022 show an ambiguous picture. About 20% of respondents think that Belarus should side with Ukraine or condemn the Russian invasion without engaging in the conflict; about 30% are in favor of declaring complete neutrality, and 25% are in favor of declaring support for Russia but not engaging in the conflict in any way. Only 3-4% of the respondents were in favor of participating in the conflict on Russia's side.

There is no doubt that the research sample is biased toward the more advanced and opposition-minded population. At the same time, even among the survey participants, every fourth offered to express support for Russia, and every third (34%) agreed with the statement that the Russian military does not use weapons against civilians in Ukraine, which indicates the influence of Russian pro-war narratives on the Belarusian audience. At the same time, given such a breakdown of opinions, the actual engagement in the war and the inevitable mobilisation threaten Lukashenko with an aggravation of the domestic political situation.

However, the Russian military maneuvers in Belarus may have more to do not with its direct participation in the war, but with the "creeping" change of the actual republic's status and the balance of power within it. As the authors of the ECFR review note, the fact that Russian troops can now move freely through the territory of the republic shows that Belarus has de facto lost a significant part of its sovereignty. This also affects Alexander Lukashenko's position. According to Grigory Nizhnikov, an expert at "Carnegie Politika", in the new realities, Lukashenko has lost his "monopoly on Russia": Russian officials are establishing more contacts and "solving problems" with Belarusian officials and influential figures directly, bypassing Lukashenko, which he would never have allowed before. Indeed, given Belarus' complete economic dependence, this arrangement becomes a way to finally undermine the remnants of Belarusian sovereignty and to directly subordinate the Belarusian bureaucracy to its Moscow counterparts. Belarus, therefore, seems likely to become a collateral victim of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.