- Belarus is likely to step up support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine over the months ahead, but this support is most likely to take the form of military build-ups along Belarus’ border with Ukraine to distract the Ukrainian army from Russia’s campaign in Eastern Ukraine.
- Although it is our core view that Belarus will stop short of formally entering the war in Ukraine, we cannot preclude such a move, given the fluidity of the conflict.
- In our view, the threat of popular unrest at home will be the biggest deterrent stopping President Lukashenko from joining the war.
At Fitch Solutions, we consider it unlikely that Belarus will join Russia’s war in Ukraine, but cannot preclude such a move, given the fluidity of the conflict. It is our core view that Belarus will refrain from formally joining the war in Ukraine, but we think it likely that Belarussian forces could be built up along the country’s shared borders with Ukraine as a means of pressuring Kyiv on Moscow’s behalf. The objective would be to force Ukraine to keep significant forces away from the main area of combat in the Donbas, thus enabling further advances or retention of gains there by Russian troops. However, we have identified two situations under which Belarus’ entry into the war in Ukraine would become more likely. In our view, both of the scenarios outlined below are more likely to emerge in 2023 rather than 2022 and could be initiated under allegations of Ukrainian aggression, possibly as part of a ‘false-flag’ operation.
|Scenario 1:||Russia loses ground in the Donbas region and so requests that Belarus send troops into Northern Ukraine to open up a second front and split the Ukrainian army.||
Russia may make future financing to Belarus conditional upon military support, thus forcing Belarus’ hand. At the same time, it is in President Alexander Lukashenko’s interests that Russia wins the war in Ukraine. A humiliating defeat could foment unrest in Russia and lead to a change of government. This momentum could spill over into Belarus, deposing Lukashenko, or a new Russian government might not be so favourably disposed to Lukashenko’s administration.
|Scenario 2:||Russia plans to make a second attempt at taking Kyiv, following a series of decisive victories in Southern and -Eastern Ukraine.||
Russia requests Belarus to send additional troops to bolster the push on the capital to avoid a second failed attempt. This scenario presumes that Russia attempts to take larger swathes of Ukrainian territory beyond existing gains, possibly with the intention of installing some form of puppet government in Kyiv. Belarus may be persuaded to join the war at this stage by the prospect of a quick victory and the potential for Russia to offer material incentives such as additional financing or access to/control over Ukrainian assets. In addition, in August 2020, President Vladimir Putin extended substantial financial aid to Lukashenko during mass anti-government protests, without which the Belarussian government may have collapsed. Accordingly, Putin could argue that Lukashenko is indebted to him and use this logic to pressure Lukashenko to join the war.
In the event that Belarus joins Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we would revise down our Short- and Long-Term Political Risk Index scores for Belarus. These scores are already low at 47.1 and 52.7 (out of a possible 100), compared to pre-war figures of 51.3 and 55.7 (see chart below). The revisions were driven chiefly by deteriorating external security and the impact of Western sanctions in limiting governmental decision-making. In addition, Belarus’ entry into the war would throw the country’s independence from Russia even further into doubt.
Potential For Belarussian Involvement In Ukraine Poses Downside Risks To Scores
Belarus - STRPI & LTPRI Scores, 0 out of 100
In our view, the Belarussian government took an increasingly hostile stance during May 2022 which heightened the risks to our core view that the country would not join Russia’s war in Ukraine. Over the month of May 2022, the Belarussian government made several moves to step up its domestic and external security positions. The concentration and nature of the policies initiated by the Belarussian government suggest that it is increasing its readiness for military involvement, or at least wanting to appear so. One possibility is that military mobilisation in Belarus is intended to deter external aggression, but Lukashenko also admitted on May 26 that Belarussian involvement is possible.
Regarding domestic security, the government adjusted the penal code to make ‘attempted terrorism’ punishable by the death penalty (Belarus is the only European country to maintain the death penalty). Later, on May 27, Lukashenko ordered the creation of a ‘people’s militia’ to defend Belarus in the event of Ukrainian aggression. On May 30, all employees at the Ministry of Emergency Situations were armed in order to deal with any “internal problems associated with riots” or external threats.
Simultaneously, the government made changes to its military position explicitly to counter the threat that fighting in Ukraine could spill over into Belarus. Lukashenko publicly identified the growing military threat allegedly posed by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and NATO, as well as Ukraine. In late May, Lukashenko purchased nuclear-capable missile systems from Russia (S-400 and Iskander) and deployed the latter in the Brest region that borders Ukraine and Poland (see map below). Earlier, on February 27, a referendum was approved in Belarus that altered the national constitution to allow it to host nuclear weapons, removing Belarus’s previously held neutral status. The Belarussian army has also increased its troop presence in Gomel Oblast, and on May 26 Lukashenko ordered the creation of a new military division to guard the country’s southern borders with Ukraine.
In our view, Lukashenko’s biggest constraint against joining the war would be his perception that Belarus’ involvement would spark anti-government protests. Independent polling suggests that popular appetite to join the war is very low in Belarus, with between 6-11% in favour of participation. Indeed, any Belarussian intervention force in Ukraine would likely suffer high casualties, as have befallen the Russian military. This would further reduce the public’s desire for Belarussian involvement in the conflict. Even without sending troops into Ukraine, the Belarussian economy is subject to many of the same sanctions imposed on Russia and will suffer a deep recession this year as a consequence. Lukashenko may also fear that Ukrainian forces could move in to support any resulting protests, thus increasing risks to his government and occupying parts of Belarussian territory.
However, we also note that the government’s crackdown on protests following Lukashenko’s disputed re-election in 2020 and on broader dissent has made protest organisation and coordination extremely difficult, while many see protesting as too dangerous. In addition, it is likely that a precondition for Belarus’ entry into the war would be Putin’s assurance that Russia would increase its support for Lukashenko if such an event took place.
From an economic standpoint, it is arguable that Lukashenko has little to lose from joining the war. Indeed, mobilisation could give a short-term boost to domestic manufacturing. As a result of Western sanctions, the Belarussian economy has become more orientated towards Russia than at any time since the Soviet collapse in 1991, having lost most of its trade with the EU (previously Belarus’s second largest trading partner, accounting for around 20% of total exports). At present, the greatest threat to the Belarussian economy is the collapse of Russian economy or the end of Russian patronage. Thus, we cannot rule out that Lukashenko could eventually deploy Belarussian troops to Ukraine in support of Russia.
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