Belarusian dictator poses growing threat to Ukraine

The Belarusian dictator Aljaksandr Lukashenka observes joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises. September 12, 2021. (Andrei Stasevich / BelTA via REUTERS)

Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka has announced plans to deploy Russian S-400 air defense systems along the Ukrainian border and fears he is poised to play a more prominent role in Russia’s ongoing hybrid war against Ukraine.

Speaking on September 12 during joint Belarus-Russian military exercises, Lukashenka said the S-400 systems were part of an expected $ 1 billion armaments package agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his recent summit. The two post-Soviet leaders met in Moscow on September 9 to discuss deepening integration between Russia and Belarus, with nearly half of the eight-hour negotiations reportedly devoted to defense and security issues.

It appears that a significant part of these security talks has centered on Ukraine. “We should get ready,” commented Lukashenka on Sunday. “Our border with Ukraine is 1,200 kilometers. And we discussed [with Putin] that we could use the S-400. “

The militarization of the Belarusian border with Ukraine is viewed by many as an ominous step in Kiev, where there is already considerable concern about the increasing Russian military presence in Belarus and Lukashenka’s increasingly open dependence on the Kremlin. With the undeclared Russo-Ukrainian war now in its eighth year and little progress towards a viable peace settlement, the prospect of an extensive new front line in northern Ukraine is a major headache for the country’s military planners.

Russia and Belarus have so far held a record number of joint exercises in 2021, effectively creating a permanent Russian military presence in the country. In the meantime, a new joint training base has been set up in the west of Belarus, which further increases Russia’s military presence. Lukashenka also appears ready to drop his earlier objections to a Russian air base on Belarusian territory.

In parallel with the Russian militarization of Belarus, the Kremlin is also strengthening its control over Belarusian economic and foreign policy. A 28-point roadmap outlined in Moscow last week would bring the countries together much more closely while severely limiting Minsk’s ability to pursue a policy independent of Russia. Many commentators now believe that Putin is on the verge of secretly taking over Belarus without a single shot being fired.

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Lukashenka’s apparent willingness to sacrifice Belarusian sovereignty in exchange for his own political survival is a new phenomenon that reflects his increasing international isolation over the past thirteen months. Prior to August 2020, the Belarusian dictator had spent much of his 26-year reign playing Russia and the West off against each other in a diplomatic balancing act that grudgingly earned him respect.

When the Russian attack on Ukraine began in 2014, Lukashenka first made great efforts to underline his neutrality. He refused to recognize Russian claims to Crimea, demonstratively declared that he would not allow attacks on Ukraine from Belarusian territory, and even ridiculed the historical arguments put forward by the Kremlin to justify the invasion of Ukraine, arguing that Mongolia was just as well claim to large parts of Russia itself.

This attitude paid off, strengthened Lukashenka’s international reputation and enabled him to host international peace talks in Minsk to defuse the conflict. Belarus also benefited from the conflict in other ways: Minsk became a hub for air traffic between Ukraine and Russia after the ban on all direct flights between the two warring countries in 2015.

Lukashenka’s great balancing act finally failed in August 2020 when his brutal reaction to nationwide protests against a rigged presidential election made him an international pariah. When mass demonstrations against the regime broke out across Belarus on August 9, after the incorrect vote, Lukashenka appeared to be in immediate danger of a loss of power. However, Putin intervened to shore up Lukashenka, providing his fellow dictator with a financial lifeline, planeloads of Kremlin propagandists, and a public promise from Russian security forces if things get “out of control”.

From that point on, Lukashenka’s dependence on the Kremlin grew steadily as he launched a sustained crackdown on domestic opposition and led an increasingly bitter confrontation with the West. Notable milestones were the May 2021 incident, in which an EU commercial plane was crashed while crossing Belarusian airspace, and the subsequent kidnapping of a breakaway Belarusian journalist among the passengers.

Lukashenka has increased the stakes even further in the last few months. He is currently accused of causing an EU border crisis by importing migrants into Belarus from across the Middle East and directing them to the country’s borders with neighboring Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

Since Lukashenka’s declining domestic political position has forced Lukashenka to take a firm stand on Russia’s side, Ukraine has largely joined the Western critics of the Belarusian dictator. Given the choice between foreign policy pragmatism and values, Ukraine opted for the latter. In the past year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi has become louder and louder in his criticism of Lukashenka’s internal actions, while Kiev has joined the West in imposing flight restrictions after the air piracy incident in May 2021.

Lukashenka has struck back by accusing Ukraine of engaging in all sorts of far-fetched foreign conspiracies to destabilize Belarus. While most of the Minsk strongman’s wrath has been reserved for his country’s NATO neighbors, he has also frequently included Ukraine on the list of nations allegedly secretly working to bring him down.

Sometimes these allegations were both very specific and potentially explosive. In August 2021, President Zelenskyi felt obliged to directly repudiate Lukashenka’s unfounded allegations that militants were trained in Ukraine before they were sent to Belarus to foment unrest. For Ukrainian audiences, such lurid claims are no laughing matter as they inevitably bring to mind the disinformation the Kremlin used to justify the 2014 occupation of Crimea and the military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Lukashenka’s latest announcement of the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft missile systems on the Ukrainian border is the latest indication of a deterioration in bilateral relations. It also suggests that Belarus is quickly becoming a new front in Putin’s ongoing campaign to undermine Ukrainian statehood and force the country back into Russian sphere of influence.

The Ukrainian authorities now urgently need to try to raise the alarm about the deteriorating security situation on the country’s northern border. The international community has not yet grasped the full impact of Putin’s takeover in Belarus, which has largely been spared the geopolitical radar and is now at an advanced stage. This has to change. Russia’s increasing military presence in Belarus will have a significant security impact across the region, but the country most directly at risk is Ukraine.

The democratic world cannot afford to be surprised again. Instead, Western leaders should immediately seek a series of precautionary measures that will strengthen Ukraine’s military capacity while preventing Putin and Lukashenka from playing dangerous games.

Lisa Yasko is a Ukrainian MP for the Party of the People.

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The views expressed on UkraineAlert are only those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its employees, or its supporters.

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