Russia’s war on Ukraine has strengthened Lukashenka but undermined Belarus

Aliaksandr Lukashenka has capitalized on the conflict, but his regime’s dependence on Russia is eroding Belarusian sovereignty.

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Published 4 December 2023 Updated 10 January 2024 3 minute READ

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago caused turbulence for Belarusian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who was labelled a Putin lackey or co-belligerent. But 2023 has seen somewhat of a turnaround. Lukashenka has pivoted to selling his non-direct involvement as an asset. As Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov grudgingly acknowledged: ’Let’s not absolve Lukashenka, but credit is due for preventing any repeated invasion attempts from Belarus.’

The West, grappling with the war itself, has lost interest in Belarus as a sideshow. Lukashenka’s human rights abuses, while significant, are not regarded on a par with Putin’s war crimes. As the West lacks the ability to influence Lukashenka’s actions, its policy towards the country has narrowed to sanctions and financial support for civil society.

Despite the imposition of strong economic sanctions by the West, Belarus’s economy grew by 3.5 per cent year-on-year in the first nine months of 2023. Belarus has been shielded from the full impact of sanctions by the Kremlin’s willingness to offset losses with energy subsidies exceeding $15 billion in 2022 – and likely to remain at a similar level this year – and new trade opportunities, including in the defence sector.

The fact that incomes have risen despite a war between two neighbouring countries solidifies a sense among Belarusians that their ruler may be a tyrant, but he is not foolish. Lukashenka’s abstract calls for an immediate end to the war through negotiations have also helped him distance himself slightly from the Kremlin’s actions.

The boiling frog

While Lukashenka may be satisfied with his current situation, the cost to Belarusian sovereignty is significant. Belarus was dependent on Russia long before the war, but Lukashenka’s actions have intensified this reliance.

Military integration continues, not least through the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil. No matter how cunning Lukashenka may be, it is unlikely he will be able to say no if Putin decides to once again use Belarusian military infrastructure to attack Ukraine. Moreover, some sectors, such as arms production, benefit financially from doing Russia’s bidding.

In fact, two-thirds of Belarus’s trade is now with Russia, and roadmaps towards deeper integration between the two countries are being implemented. After the imposition of sanctions, Belarus lost access to ports in EU countries and of course in Ukraine. Consequently, it is now forced to use more expensive and distant Russian ports. Even in the IT sector, once the most Western-oriented part of the Belarusian economy, Russian companies are gaining prominence.

There are also pro-Russian agents within Lukashenka’s system who are attempting to rewrite Belarus’s historical narrative, removing books from school curricula, altering perceptions of Belarusian history and tarnishing anti-Russian heroes like Kastus Kalinouski, after whom the Belarusian unit fighting for Ukraine is named. Resisting these forces has become near impossible for pro-Belarusian factions within Lukashenka’s regime, given its dependency on Russia.

Three tests

However extensive the Kremlin’s control over Belarus may be now, in the coming years it will face three pivotal tests.

The first test is Russia’s continued ability to prop up the Belarusian economy. This will be mainly determined by global energy resource prices and the outcome of the war against Ukraine.

The Kremlin has penetrated the Belarusian state so profoundly that its control is likely to persist even after Lukashenka and Putin are gone.

The second test is the departure of Lukashenka and Putin, both of whom are very likely to leave their positions over the next decade. The next ruler of Russia will need to decide how important Belarus is to them and how much they are willing to invest. The next ruler of Belarus is unlikely to have the same toxic relationship with the West as Lukashenka, which could present a narrow opening for Belarus to rebuild its foreign policy.

However, the Kremlin has penetrated the Belarusian state so profoundly that its control is likely to persist even after Lukashenka and Putin are gone. Its position is currently unchallengeable with leaders of the Belarusian democratic opposition either incarcerated or in exile, and with few opportunities for the West to have any influence.             
 

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The third challenge to Russia’s control comes from Belarusian society, which remains resilient. Despite the propaganda from Russia and Lukashenka’s regime, public opinion polls commissioned by Chatham House show that the majority does not support the war on Ukraine.

A new generation is coming of age in Belarus, who have experienced the widest repressions but also, arguably, have the biggest opportunities ahead of them. Western policy should be centred on facilitating the rise of these young Belarusian leaders and supporting civil society by mitigating the impact of repressions, fostering interpersonal connections between Belarus and the West, and presenting a more positive agenda for the future of Belarus.

As the autocrats of the past depart over the next decade, support from the West and Belarus’s democratic movement in exile could help a new generation of Belarusian political leaders to take advantage of Russia’s moments of weakness and challenge its influence and strategy towards Belarus.