Will Belarusian troops join Russia in the campaign against Ukraine?
For several weeks, thousands of Russian troops have been relocating to Belarus, a country in Eastern Europe that borders Ukraine to the south and several members of NATO to the west. Last week, the Russian and Belarusian defense ministers met for high-level talks. This week, authorities in Belarus announced certain restrictions on civilian road travel in some parts of the country, citing emerging “terrorist threats” as the reason.
Something is clearly brewing in Belarus.
The country has already played a useful role for Russia as a staging point for its troops during the initial stages of the invasion of Ukraine in February. For months leading up to the invasion, Belarus hosted tens of thousands of Russian troops and thousands of tanks and other military vehicles that eventually crossed the border into northern Ukraine.
Some of the worst atrocities during the war, in places such as Bucha and Irpin, were committed by troops that invaded Ukraine from Belarusian territory. During private conversations with Ukrainian officials, the question is not “if” but “when” another attack will be launched from Belarus.
In February, only Russian troops crossed the border — there are concerns that Belarusian troops could join them the next time.
In addition to hosting the tens of thousands of Russian troops that participated in the initial invasion force 10 months ago, Belarus provides a base for Russian fighter jets that have been used in air strikes across Ukraine.
Belarus also hosts Iranian suicide drones, and the Iranians who operate them, that have been used in recent weeks to harass Ukrainian civilians across the country. The short distance between Belarus and the Ukrainian capital Kyiv means there is very little time to warn civilians of an incoming air attack launched from Belarusian territory.
Now there are growing concerns that Belarusian authorities could raise their complicity in the Russian invasion to the next level by ordering their own armed forces to attack Ukraine.
This is a real fear among many policymakers in Ukraine, and in response the government has produced informational videos directed at Belarusian citizens calling on them to refrain from participating in any military action against their neighbor.
There is some evidence to suggest that not all Belarusians would support a direct attack by their country’s forces on Ukraine. Reports of sabotage of trains transporting military hardware within Belarus appear from time to time on social media, for example. There is also a small but determined group of Belarusian volunteers fighting on behalf of Ukraine.
Belarus has already played a useful role for Russia as a staging point for its troops during the initial stages of the crisis.
If Belarusian authorities did decide to attack Ukraine there are two likely scenarios. The first would involve an assault on Kyiv but the goal would not necessarily be to capture the capital. The Ukrainian victory during the first battle of Kyiv this year makes it clear that the Belarusian military would not have the capability to take the city. In addition, Ukrainian authorities for the past several months have been preparing defensive positions between the capital and the border with Belarus that include numerous anti-tank measures and minefields.
However, simply threatening the capital could be enough to lure Ukrainian forces from other locations in the conflict back to Kyiv to aid its defense. This would be a suicide mission for the Belarusian armed forces but a shift of Ukrainian forces away from the front lines elsewhere could create opportunities for Russia to launch a new offensive.
The second scenario is an attack by Belarus on areas of western Ukraine that have been mostly shielded from the fighting over the past 10 months. Many of the major supply routes used to deliver humanitarian aid and military assistance to Ukraine from around the world are located in this region, close to the border with Poland.
It is shocking to consider that Russia or Belarus has not already made any meaningful attempt to disrupt these supply lines, which crisscross western Ukraine. In fact it is so shocking that it leads one to the logical conclusion that surely they will try soon.
Again, Belarus would not necessarily have to hold large chunks of territory in western Ukraine to make an impact; merely slicing through the region that the supply lines pass through, or even threatening the key city of Lviv near the border with Poland, could create no end of problems for Ukraine.
Deep down, President Aleksandr Lukashenko must know that any attack against Ukraine would be devastating for his Belarusian armed forces. They have no real-world combat experience, while the Ukrainian soldiers they would face across the border are seasoned combat veterans armed with some of the most advanced battlefield weaponry the world has to offer.
Even so, it might be the case that Russia has such a hold and influence on Belarus that Lukashenko will have no choice but to comply.
Therefore, though the focus of the war remains for now on southern and eastern Ukraine, policymakers must not ignore the border with Belarus. As we head toward 2023, it could be the next focal point of the conflict.
• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey