By Eric Edelman, Vlad Kobets, and David J. Kramer
This article was published on February 7, 2023, in Foreign Policy.com
A Russian defeat in Ukraine could send Belarus’s dictator packing.
Rumors abound that Russia is planning a new wave of offensives in Ukraine. According to public sources and Ukrainian intelligence assessments, these may include another attempt to push its forces into Ukraine from the north, from Belarus. Whether this is a genuine possibility or simply a feint to clear Ukrainian forces from other parts of the front line remains to be seen. Either way, this prospect should remind Western decision-makers that they cannot ignore Belarus in their calculations about the war in Ukraine—and that the conflict will continue to have consequences outside its borders.
Belarus served as a base for Russia’s initial invasion of northern Ukraine last February. Since then, it has provided military stores and equipment to Russia, allowed mobilized Russian conscripts to train on its territory, and served as a launching point for missile attacks on Ukraine. Hajun, an independent Belarusian monitoring group, claims that Russia has launched more than 600 missiles at Ukraine from Belarus.
The sooner the West helps Ukraine win, the sooner Ukrainians’ suffering will end and reconstruction of their country can begin. A Ukrainian victory would also benefit the people of Belarus, who have for 29 years lived under Aleksandr Lukashenko, often referred to as the “last dictator in Europe,” and whose political livelihood is dependent on Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Russian defeat in Ukraine would weaken Putin significantly enough that he can no longer bail out his fellow dictator—and could embolden Belarusians to try their hand at removing Lukashenko once more.
While the Belarusian army has not formally fought in Ukraine, its ongoing military assistance to Russia makes Lukashenko complicit in Putin’s invasion. When accountability and justice for the war are served, the Belarusian dictator should be on the docket—right next to Putin.
Though he duly won the presidential election in 1994, Lukashenko has since lost all legitimacy as Belarus’s leader. He rigged subsequent contests and imprisoned those bold enough to challenge him, relying on force to remain in power. In 2020, however, things were different. Though official results showed Lukashenko winning by a large margin, most observers believed that democratic opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya had actually earned more votes. So did most Belarusians, who turned out peacefully to protest Lukashenko’s claims of victory. Neither the United States nor the European Union (EU) recognized the official election results.
Instead of conceding that his time was up, Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. He forced Tsikhanouskaya into exile; had his forces shoot, beat, and kill hundreds of protesters; and threw thousands of people in jail. Today, there are 1,450 political prisoners in Belarus, including 32 media workers and Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatski, according to the human rights organization Viasna.
In addition to rejecting Lukashenko’s claims of victory, the United States and EU responded with sanctions against Lukashenko and his regime. Still, some in the West harbored illusions that Lukashenko could be lured away from Moscow’s orbit. (Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk and met with Lukashenko just months before the 2020 election.) The problem, of course, was that Lukashenko had already sacrificed Belarus’s independence and sovereignty to Putin in exchange for the Russian leader’s support—as evidenced by the presence of Russian forces on Belarusian territory.
Lukashenko’s crimes did not stay inside Belarus. In May 2021, his government diverted a civilian airliner flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, through Belarusian airspace to detain a Belarusian blogger on board who had been critical of Lukashenko. The incident of state air piracy endangered the lives of all passengers and could have been much worse had the plane’s pilots not agreed to land in Belarus’s capital of Minsk.
Then, in the summer and fall of that year, Lukashenko weaponized vulnerable refugees and migrants to pressure the European Union. Lukashenko’s government lured people from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere to travel to Belarus and then tried to force them across the borders of neighboring states Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Belarusian security forces failed to provide migrants with food or water, and several refugees died as a result of the dire conditions Lukashenko created. The situation continues with less severity today.
In all this, Putin has supported Lukashenko. Without Putin’s backing, Lukashenko would likely not still be in power. Even though the two leaders reportedly don’t like each other, they have been co-dependent for years. Putin does not want to see his fellow autocrats bounced from power as a result of popular movements. Hence his support for the likes of Lukashenko and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Over the years, Lukashenko has sacrificed Belarus’s sovereignty and independence to Moscow to remain in Putin’s good graces. Though Lukashenko has not fulfilled some of the terms of a 1999 agreement between Russia and Belarus to officially form a union state—signed before Putin assumed the presidency—Russia has for all intents and purposes absorbed and annexed large parts of Belarus. This has left Lukashenko little choice but to allow Russian forces to use Belarusian territory to stage their invasion of Ukraine, including those who were involved in the atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.
Given his precarious grip on power, Lukashenko might sense that ordering his army to join Russia’s in Ukraine could renew the Belarusian pro-democracy protests. And if his security forces are bogged down fighting in Ukraine, they might not be able to maintain order inside Belarus. So far, Putin has not pressured Lukashenko to send forces to Ukraine—perhaps to avoid destabilizing Belarus. But if Ukraine were to succeed in driving Russian forces out of Ukraine, Putin might no longer be able to help Lukashenko.
If Ukraine wins the war, the West cannot simply cheer on Belarus’s democratic protesters from afar. Nor would it be sufficient to simply ramp up sanctions against Lukashenko’s government. Instead, Europe and the United States should actively support Belarus’s pro-democracy movement and seize the opportunity to rid Belarus once and for all of the menace who has hung over it—and Europe—for nearly three decades.
To prepare for Lukashenko’s ouster, the United States should be actively messaging that the Belarusian dictator’s days are numbered on platforms such as Voice of America and Radio Liberty—sources of information that many in Belarus with access rely on. We should also train Belarusian activists in peaceful resistance. If Lukashenko’s goons again resort to unprovoked violence against protesters, we should provide communications tools including social media apps to help demonstrators secure their interactions and plan without regime interference. We should also recognize Tsikhanouskaya as the legitimately elected leader of Belarus until new elections can be held.
In addition to a massive future assistance package for reconstructing Ukraine, the United States should put together one for Belarus, too. While not the victim of brutal Russian bombardment and destruction like Ukraine, Belarus has been weakened by Lukashenko’s neglect of the economy and Russian dominance over key industries in the potash and energy sectors. The West should also insist that Russia withdraw troops from both Ukraine and Belarus.
As long as Putin remains in power, he will remain a threat at home and abroad. The same is true of Lukashenko. While victory in Ukraine may not lead to Putin’s downfall, it may open the door for finally solving the Lukashenko problem. It is long past time for Europe’s last dictator to go. As the tide turns in Ukraine’s favor on the battlefield, the West should seize the moment to support democracy not only in Ukraine, but in Belarus as well.
Photo credit: Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko watches training launches of ballistic missiles as part of the Grom-2022 Strategic Deterrence Force exercise at the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow on Feb. 19, 2022.
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES