One key to ending the war in Ukraine may be in an unexpected place: Belarus. On February 28, Ukrainian intelligence warned that Belarusian troops would join the Russian invasion, but the reports were refuted by U.S. intelligence, and those troops did not cross the border. Now we may know why: massive dissent within the Belarusian military.
First a little background. Massive pro-democracy protests rocked the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in 2020, after he stole an election from opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Lukashenko called on Putin to send Russian troops to crush the protests, and threats forced Tikhanovskaya to flee to Lithuania. Some military officials and draft-age youth also left at the time. Lukashenko’s hijacking of a civilian jetliner last year caused most countries to cancel all flights to the capital of Minsk. He most recently allowed Russia to use Belarus as a staging area for the Ukraine invasion.
One of Tikhanovskaya’s senior advisers, Franak Viacorka, confirms that Putin had planned for the Belarusian military to join his invasion (which Minsk denies). But the plan was foiled by a series of resignations by senior military officials, who fled the country and contacted the opposition-in-exile. Moreover, hundreds of young Belarusians of draft age have also fled across the closed borders, which is “dangerous and expensive.”
Viacorka commented, “We know there is a high degree of demoralization among officers in the military. In addition, there is a great deal of demoralization among conscripted soldiers, who are fleeing the country’s borders en masse to any destination possible, including Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic states.”
He continued, “In recent days, we have seen growing pressure from commanders of military units not to intervene in the fighting in Ukraine. There are officers who took sick leave, others who have asked to end their contracts with the military, even at the price of reimbursing all the expenses from their military service. We’re talking about thousands of dollars.”
According to Viacorka, “The biggest problem for them is that they have no practical way of leaving Belarus. In the past, they could have left for Georgia, but now all the flights there from Belarus have been canceled for the next six months. There are no flights to Western Europe, and it’s very difficult to get flights to Istanbul. So the only way to defect is to cross the border with neighboring countries illegally. Many officers are still unwilling to risk this step.”
Viacorka concluded, “Belarus has made its military infrastructure available to the Russians, but Belarusian units have yet to enter Ukrainian territory. Moreover, we are seeing that units stationed adjacent to the border with Ukraine have been returned to their bases. It seems the decision to involve the Belarusian military in fighting was changed as a result of pressure from top brass and the refusal by simple soldiers to fight.”
In a dramatic development, Major General Viktor Gulevich, Chief of General Staff, wrote a letter of resignation to Belarus Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, discussing the military reluctance to join the invasion. The letter (posted online by former Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Nosov) said: “Conducting explanatory work with the commanders of military units did not yield results. I have the courage to assume that the replacement of the commanders of these military units, who could not organize the formation of groups on the ground, will not give us the result we need. In view of the above, I ask for your decision regarding the acceptance of my resignation.” An article about the letter, which Minsk refutes, was in the London daily Express (3-7-22).
Viacorka’s interview was on the same day in the leading Tel Aviv daily Israel Hayom (3-7-22), which also reported that “many Belarusian fighters – the equivalent of around five military units – have joined the Ukrainians to fight the Russians. The ‘partisan’ movement of opponents of the Belarusian regime has deployed its people throughout the country to thwart the deployment of Russian military forces inside Belarus…”
The article added that “human-rights organizations have reported Belarusian men aged 18 to 58 have been ordered to register with recruiting stations in person and to leave their cellphones and passports with the authorities to make it more difficult for them to flee the state. According to the reports, they are required to appear at the recruitment offices with family members, who are told they will be punished should their relatives not show up when they are called to fight for their country.”
So the road to peace in Ukraine may run through Minsk, but not because of the 2014-15 Minsk Accords between Russia and Ukraine (which died when Putin invaded Ukraine). If mass protests again erupt against Lukashenko’s rule, this time perhaps backed by partisans or even military defectors, he may not be able to call on Putin to help again, as Russian forces are bogged down in Ukraine. It may not yet be possible for Russians to topple Putin from power, but Belarusians have already come close to ousting his junior partner Lukashenko, and could possibly do so again.
With all of Russia’s attention on launching an offensive into Ukraine, the defense of Belarus itself is almost certainly being neglected. If military dissent or a renewed rebellion distracts Lukashenko, Ukrainian forces could conceivably launch an audacious counterstrike on Russian military staging areas, or even back a Belarusian uprising. According to Reuters (3/10/22), Lukashenko actually told his Defense Ministry that the Belarus army must “prevent any attempt – presumably by Ukrainian forces – to cut off Russian supply lines and ‘strike at Russians from the rear,’” apparently meaning within Belarus itself.
If such a revolution in Belarus is successful, it could be a game-changer for Ukraine. The new government in Minsk would probably order Russian forces to leave the country, denying Putin his northern front in Ukraine. Even Putin may be unwilling to take on both Ukraine and Belarus at the same time. An ouster of Lukashenko would be a flashing red warning sign to Putin that he might be next.
As a geographer, I can speculate that a new government in Minsk would also widen the geopolitical options available in the region. It is highly doubtful that Belarus would apply to be part of NATO, risking a backlash from Moscow, so it could instead declare neutrality, with neither NATO nor Russian troops allowed. More confidently assured by security on his northern border, and facing a brutal Russian occupation, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky could drop his goal of joining NATO, and accept neutrality as part of a peace settlement.
In that case, Belarus, Ukraine, and (already neutral) Moldova would together form a neutral zone between NATO and Russia, which could actually bring a modicum of stability to Eastern Europe. We can only hope, but whatever the outcome, the possibilities of ending the Ukraine War may be found in capitals other than Kyiv and Moscow.