For the past month, Russian soldiers have been assembling in Belarus. On 29 September, 20,000 conscripts were reported to be housed in its military facilities. Ten days later, the Belarus’s Ministry of Defence announced a further agreement to have 9,000 Russian soldiers stationed on the Ukraine-Belarus border, calling it a ‘regional grouping’ of forces. It was followed by a public reminder to Belarusians to check their mobilisation status.
What is Putin’s objective for all this military activity while things are literally going south for Russia in Kherson, the Ukraine province closest to Crimea, which Russia occupies since 2014?
So far Belarus’s involvement has been passive. It is allowing Russia to pelt Ukraine with missiles from behind its borders, and it has provided crucial safe passage to troops attacking Ukraine from the North in February. However, trying to capture Kyiv for the second time by coercing Belarus’s dictator Lukashenko to join invasion 2.0 would make strategic sense for Putin’s latest general. Kyiv is the jewel in the crown which is so easily accessible from Belarus and so hard to get to from Russia. It would take the pressure off the route of some of Russia’s forces in the south and east and deal a tough blow to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Should we worry?
The short answer is, not necessarily. Russian defence minister Shoigu’s recent blitz of the world’s defence ministries showed that Belarus is part of the latest Kremlin terror tactics. It was the equivalent of sending everyone a postcard of a nuclear bomb, saying ‘I am thinking of you’. It is just another way of scaring Ukraine’s backers to start negotiations with Russia. Moreover, if Putin is forced by the Kremlin’s right wing to involve Belarus’s army, it is likely to prove Putin’s crucial misstep.
While Ukraine successes are encouraging and, together with Zelensky’s fighting talk, keep the West under pressure to help rolling back Russia’s antediluvian invasion of a neighbour, the Ukrainian people are actors in a rigged game. Unless and until Ukraine is permitted to aim its Western weapons into Russia, rather than merely Russian forces on Ukrainian territory, the best result they can ever hope for is a draw. After regaining all territory, without a peace treaty, they risk to continue to be perpetually bombed and attacked from Russia’s borders.
It is a reversal from the time when the Kozaks used to play hide-and-seek with cross-border raids into the Russian Empire. The bombings would create a 25km no-go zone in a highly populated area.
Changes in the equation
On-the-ground, military involvement by Belarus will dramatically change this equation for the following reason.
Belarus’s dictator Lukashenko lost his independence in 2020 to stave off popular protest against his ‘re-election’ as president since 1994. Thus, in June this year, Lukashenko dutifully agreed to become part of Putin’s nuclear umbrella around Russia and changed the constitution to station Russian nuclear weapons — effectively it is back to the future for the evil empire, as the Kremlin can again launch missiles from Belarus (this ended in 1991 when the USSR imploded).
But at the moment it is hard to stop this ominous turn in the war since Belarus is still recognised by every other nation as an independent country. If it wants to turn itself into the 10th nuclear power in the world as Russia’s nuclear slave, what can you do? seems to be the current thinking.
That all changes when Belarus goes to war since it will be counter-attacked. But, unlike against Putin, there is nothing from stopping Ukraine from deploying Western weapons against Lukashenko. In fact, Belarus hostilities would give Ukraine plausible cause to pre-emptively strike potential nuclear sites in Belarus in the same way that Iranian nuclear sites have been sabotaged by Israel. Given Lukashenko’s aggression, it is after all likely that he will allow these nuclear weapons to be used against its neighbour. It will finally create an opportunity to neutralise any future attempts by Putin to turn Belarus into a nuclear power.
Obviously, the Kremlin is aware of this. But, although it is still comfortably ahead in acquired territory, it has painted itself in a corner. Its army is buckling under the strain of invading a hostile country with a highly motivated army engaged in a war of defence. On paper, it has an impressive army of 120-150,000 fighting against Ukraine. But after almost 250 days of war, it is clear that rather than hardened soldiers these were conscripts with low skills when confronted with enemy fire.
Russia’s measures to solve this problem have so far smacked of desperation. How does any nation open a tin of combat-ready troops? The Russian Ministry of Defence clearly rummaged through its history books and started recruiting criminals — a doubtful solution when not fighting with bayonets but with modern military equipment. While convicts might have less compunction in killing, discipline to master skills is not guaranteed. Next came the additional draft of conscripts (120,000-130,000 every 6 months), effectively by not allowing them to leave the barracks.
That evidently didn’t solve the problem either, because it was followed by the announcement of Putin himself of a ‘partial mobilisation’ of the Russian population, mentioning a figure of 300,000 reservists. But this was another fudge, despite his personal involvement.
Russian reservist law is unusual. Every adult male aged 18 to 65 and all medical personnel are considered ‘reservists’. So are female students, who will receive military training as army nurses while at an institution of higher education unless they were studying biology or chemistry, in which case training as potential specialists in biological or chemical weapons is the alternative. The term ‘reservist’, therefore, covers almost half the adult population and picking 300,000 is just a random exercise. That it was so soon became clear from the very un-Russian scenes of mayhem and opposition to the authorities when reservists were being ‘called up’ by picking people up from the streets. It’s a plan that has now been more or less dropped.
Putin’s land-grab game
None of this particularly troubles Putin, since he is still well ahead in his land-grab game of Risk. The coming winter is a far bigger weapon than his fraying (but not collapsing) military, and he knows NATO weapons won’t touch Russia itself.
The real bane of his existence is the right-wing in Russia. They are the only political group that the Kremlin has traditionally allowed a voice of criticism, mainly because they are so radical that they will always end up supporting the Kremlin, no matter what. It’s people like Alexander Dugin who, when his daughter Darya was probably murdered by the GRU, stayed on ultra-nationalist messaging, turning her into an unlikely Joan of Arc (no doubt because he feared his own life would be next). Putin’s problem is that the Ukraine war has increased their hold of power over the small group of 500 people in the establishment. They want blood and action and reasons to fly a nationalist flag.
Belarus has the benefit of having a ready, if small, standing army that can be deployed credibly. More importantly, an attack from Belarus will appease Russia’s right-wing commentariat and that may be the real reason why Putin is instructing Lukashenko to get ready to fight. This time, Russia’s generals will plan better than in February.
It won’t be easy or a given victory, but with Belarus no longer on the sidelines, Ukraine’s position will likely improve. As the Ukraine conflict has made clear, it is not the numbers of troops that matter in the battle field – it is technology and motivation. The sole virtue for the Kremlin of the Belarussian army is that it is in marching shape. No one expects it to perform miracles – even if those 9,000 Russian troops are elite forces (which is possible but seems unlikely, only 3,000 seem to have arrived so far).
The key for Ukraine is that, unlike Putin, Lukashenko’s position in Belarus is highly precarious and involving his country in a war only to preserve his dictatorial power will make toppling him easy the moment fighting Ukraine commences for no better reason than that. Finally, Ukraine would have a very achievable victory to accomplish. With Lukashenko out of the way, Putin’s hold over the country will crumple and remove his option to use Belarus as a proxy launch base for nuclear threats. That would re-establish the nuclear deterrence between Russia and NATO and make the world — and Ukraine — a safer place.
By Dr Yuri Felshtinsky
Dr Yuri Felshtinsky is the co-author, with Alexander Litvinenko, of Blowing up Russia (2006) and, with Michael Stanchev, of Blowing up Ukraine: The Return of Russian Terror and the Threat of World War III (2022, Gibson Square).