Lukashenko has got himself into a difficult position where he on the one hand wants to ease tensions with the West, and on the other hand needs to show support for Kremlin propaganda narratives and ramp up his war rhetoric against Ukraine and the West. Belarus' latest troop increases along its border with Ukraine should therefore be seen in the light of Lukashenko attempting to please Putin while also avoiding a larger geopolitical escalation.
Belarus’ latest troop movements
On May 4, Belarus suddenly announced a "surprise inspection" of its armed forces and began moving more troops closer to the border with Ukraine. According to Belarus’ Defence Ministry, the aim is “to evaluate the readiness and ability of troops to react rapidly to a possible crisis."
On Tuesday, 10 May, Belarus’ Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin announced that Belarus is taking the “second step” of its "surprise inspection" of its armed forces, noting that "The United States and their allies continue to increase their military presence near the state borders of the Republic of Belarus."
Today, the State Secretary of Belarus’ Security Council Aleksandr Volfovich told Russian media that “the military and political situation at the western borders of the Union State of Belarus and Russia will remain a crisis in the near future.”
According to Volfovich, Belarus is strengthening its military presence along the border to counter future possible provocations from troops amassing “in the direct vicinity of Belarus.” Such provocations could lead to “various border incidents, including unintended ones, and may involve national armed forces and Nato reinforcement forces.”
Most likely, this rhetoric pertains to the Russian propaganda narrative that Poland (and thereby Nato) is going to invade Ukraine. This propaganda narrative was repeated by Lukashenko in an exclusive interview with AP last Thursday.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Ukraine’s presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych said Ukraine sees “no signs of preparations for an attack on Ukraine” from the Belarusian armed forces. According to him these are regular and scheduled military exercises, and all the troop movements were of a planned nature.
As bne IntelliNews has previously reported, the Russian military activity in Belarus has today notably decreased since beginning of the invasion.
Locals are currently not seeing any large new deliveries of military hardware. While single Russian military vehicles and soldiers can be seen at hotels, cafes or shopping centres, most Russian military transports have been reduced to damaged equipment being taken out of Belarus for repairs.
While some Russian weapon systems remain in Belarus, Arestovych noted during his press conference that these are not landing or mechanised units which can perform ground assaults. He also called it unlikely that Russia would place a new large number of troops in Belarus.
What is Lukashenko aiming for?
As Arestovych said, the exercises are most likely just exercises.
Independent analysts also speculate that this move was co-ordinated with Putin during his and Lukashenko's phone conversation on May 3, with the aim of having Belarusian troop movements draw Ukrainian attention from the eastern frontlines. If this was the plan, it does not seem to be working.
However, Lukashenko would never move his troops into Ukraine, as he doesn’t want to make the situation for himself on the world’s political arena more difficult than it already is.
Lukashenko has his sights set on political survival more than anything. In his pursuit of this, he’s drawn himself so close to Putin that he now doesn’t know how to pull himself away.
The official state propaganda is trying to portray Lukashenko as a person pursuing peace; and in his interview with AP last week, Lukashenko gave what could be called a slightly veiled criticism of the Russian invasion’s lack of accomplishments so far.
Shortly after this, he said that Belarus would always stand by Russia and began moving troops to the border with Ukraine.
Lukashenko has backed himself into a precarious position where he on the one hand wants to assure western countries of his peaceful intentions, and on the other hand needs to ramp up war rhetoric and support Kremlin propaganda narratives towards both Ukraine and the West in order to show loyalty to Putin.
However, in the end Lukashenko knows that the war is widely unpopular in Belarus, not just among the civilian population but also within the army. Moreover, he must know that the Belarusian army is probably in worse shape than the Russian one, with even fewer commanders and soldiers with military experience.
Despite its fear of Nato, Russia has for many years refused to sell modern weapons to Belarus, in order to retain a military advantage. The Belarusian army is therefore running on mostly outdated vehicles and weapons systems.
Therefore, Belarus’ latest troop movements should be seen in the light of Lukashenko’s uneasiness to please Putin while at the same time attempting to avoid too large a geopolitical escalation.
Western responses to Belarus’ actions
Since the beginning of the war on February 24 western countries have announced more and more extensive and comprehensive sanctions against the Belarusian economy and against the Belarusian officials engaged in domestic repressions and who facilitated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In its latest round of sanctions, Belarusian state propagandists are also likely to be targeted, as well as Belarus’ main potash producers Belaruskali along with its export daughter company Belarusian Potash Company and the Naftan oil refinery.
On May 11, the US also approved the “Russia and Belarus Financial Sanctions Act” and the “Russia and Belarus SDR Exchange Prohibition Act”.
The former requires that US financial institutions to ensure that “ties and persons owned or controlled by the institution comply with financial sanctions on the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus to the same extent.“
The latter act bans the US Treasury Department from conducting any transactions that involve Special Drawing Rights (SDR) held by either Belarus or Russia.
The SDR is an international reserve asset introduced by the IMF in 1969 to supplement the member countries’ reserve assets. The SDRs can be exchanged for either dollars, euros, Chinese renminbi, Japanese yen or British pounds.
Belarus currently holds $1.4bn worth of SDRs. Since last year, the IMF decided to allocate $1bn worth of SDRs to Belarus as part of a general allocation of $650bn to its member countries to support economic recovery from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Since the EU announced in November last year that Belarus will not be able to exchange its SDRs for euros, Belarus’ manoeuvrability with its SDRs has now become even more constrained since the introduction of the US SDR Exchange Prohibition Act.
With the current sanctions and most likely more future sanctions looming, Belarus’ financial stability is set for unprecedented difficulties in the years ahead.
Starting a full-scale war with Ukraine would therefore definitely not be in Lukashenko’s interests, since neither Belarus’ economy nor its population want it. Then again, Lukashenko is known to have taken rash decisions detrimental to the country’s economy and population to ensure his political survival many times before.