Alexander Lukashenko, the dictatorial leader of Belarus, has executed a careful balancing act during the war in Ukraine.
On 24 February, Russian troops that had massed on Belarusian territory surged across the border into Ukraine, using his country as a staging ground in the largest invasion in Europe since the second world war.
But the Belarusian leader has not joined the war directly or sent his own troops into the fight, at times saying that he felt the invasion was “dragging on”.
Now, meetings between Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin have once again raised fears he is about to enter the fray. Lukashenko has said that Belarus and Russia are to deploy a joint military group and that thousands of Russian troops will be arriving in his country in the coming days for drills.
“We emphasise once again that the tasks of the regional force group are purely defensive. And all activities carried out at the moment are aimed at providing a sufficient response to actions near our borders,” the Belarusian defence minister, Viktor Khrenin, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, sounded the alarm during a meeting of the G7 on Tuesday, proposing to send UN peacekeepers to the border between Ukraine and Belarus to prevent Lukashenko from launching a “provocation”.
Despite the warning signs, there is considerable doubt that Lukashenko is ready to throw his own forces into a war that Russia is losing in Ukraine, even if he is under pressure from Putin.
“Of course Putin has a lot of leverage. But he cannot compel Lukashenko to commit political suicide,” said Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That is why I think Lukashenko will definitely try to resist any push into a full war.”
“On the other hand, I cannot bet that he will be successful in this for ever,” he continued. “There are ways that Russia can act that would provoke Belarus into the fighting.”
Short of sending troops his own troops into battle, Lukashenko could allow Russian troops to be deployed to Belarus’ borders in order to stretch Ukrainian defences or possibly allow Russia to use Belarus as a training ground for some of the tens of thousands of Russians mobilised to serve in the army.
According to the Belarusian Hajun Project, an activist monitoring group, the joint exercises may be held near several municipal buildings in the city of Yelsk, just 17km (10 miles) from the Ukrainian border.
The group reported that classes had been cancelled at a music school near a local police station and administrative building. Locals had also been told not to film a new column of armoured vehicles due to arrive on Wednesday, the organisation reported.
Konrad Muzyka, an independent defence analyst and the Director of Rochan Consulting, wrote that few organisations monitor the Belarusian military posture because their armed forces “are relatively weak, and apart from [Lukashenko’s] rhetoric, there’s nothing there”.
The army would have to mobilise 20,000 men in order to reach full strength, he wrote. And there would be ample time to give strategic warning if Belarus did begin to mobilise and move its troops toward the border.
Nonetheless, Belarus has been holding exercises at their highest rate since during the cold war, he wrote. “Minsk tested all capabilities as if it was preparing to go to war,” he wrote.
“There are three possible explanations behind this behaviour: 1) Prep for a Nato attack 2) To tie up Ukrainian forces near the border to prevent their deployment to other areas 3) Prep for an attack on Ukraine,” he said. For now, he wrote, he is focused on options two and three.
Videos have suggested that rather than Russia moving heavy weaponry to Belarus in preparation for an attack on Ukraine from there, the opposite is taking place: Belarus is sending tanks, ammunition and trucks from its own stores into Russia. The Belarusian Hajun Project published video of eight T-72A tanks being transported from Minsk toward Russia, and said that witnesses saw 15-30 tanks and at least 28 Ural trucks.
Franak Viačorka, senior adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said he did not believe that Belarusian troops would take an active part in the war in Ukraine.
He said: “I doubt it greatly, we don’t have any leads to this. In fact to the contrary the military leaders are trying to calm down the troops saying they will not be embroiled in the war as the troops are very worried seeing the success of the Ukrainians. No one wants to fight for Putin.”
Viačorka said the Belarusian army did not have the capacity to fight in Ukraine.
He said: “We don’t have the troops or the military hardware. A lot of hardware has already been handed over to the Russian federation. All that could be put to use has already been put to use. There are few combat ready troops, up to 7k, and they are not ready for an assault operation.”
Yet the bigger questions may be political. Having survived a protest movement in 2020, Lukashenko will not want to risk his position further for a war that, according to unofficial polls, is extremely unpopular in Belarus.
“He does not want to be dragged into war because of so many risks it can create for him,” said Shraibman, noting that polling showed that less than 10% of Belarusians supported direct involvement in the war in Ukraine.
And with Russia now in retreat, joining the war could tie his fate to an invasion that will probably end in failure.
“Authoritarians are not very good at surviving military defeats,” he said.