Belarus: Lukashenko's fate is sealed

(To Renato Caputo)

By allowing Russian troops to invade Ukraine from inside Belarus in February 2022, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has tied his fate to that of Russia. This means that as Russia's fortunes decline, Lukashenko's end will also come closer.

Since becoming president of Belarus in 1994, shortly after its independence from the Soviet Union, Lukashenko has steadily tightened his grip on power. As a result, he has had a tense relationship with the West. Since 1997, Belarus has been subject to various European Union sanctions in response to recurring human rights violations, fraudulent elections and political repression.

After Russia's first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Lukashenko wasted no time and proposed himself as a mediator between Russia, Ukraine and the West. He has promoted his nation as the equivalent of Switzerland in Eastern Europe, positioning his government as a neutral entity in regional disputes.

Consequently, this stance led to a thaw in relations, furthering the goal of maintaining a balance between Russia and the West. Lukashenko's release of the remaining political prisoners in 2016 led the European Union to remove most of the previously imposed sanctions.

The Belarusian president has been careful to tiptoe around Russia's aggression towards Ukraine, refusing to pass judgment on the legality of Russia's 2014 occupation of Crimea.

Following the illegal annexation of Crimea, Lukashenko also said he opposed Russia's use of Belarus as a springboard to invade Ukraine. He seemed reluctant to allow Russia to gain a military foothold within his country.

By virtue of this position, Minsk became the key location for extensive negotiations following Russia's military invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which led to the so-called "Minsk Agreements".

In 2014, Lukashenko delivered his first speech in the Belarusian language since the mid-90s. The government's position on the use of national symbols has softened, favoring a revival of Belarusian identity. This shift in the state's ideological and cultural strategies has been termed “soft-Belarusianization” by Belarusian scholars. It involved the rehabilitation and endorsement of previously suppressed Belarusian symbols and historical narratives. The goal was to strengthen Lukashenko's policies aimed at maintain a certain level of autonomy from Russia through strengthening Belarusian identity.

For many years, Lukashenko has skillfully maintained a balance between openness towards the West and agreements with the Kremlin, whose subsidies were indispensable to support the Belarusian economy.

Everything changed for Belarus following the fraudulent elections of 2020 and the ruthless repression of democratic protests. Belarus found itself increasingly isolated on the global stage, becoming Europe's North Korea. It has become increasingly dependent on the lifelines - economic and security - thrown by Russia. Lukashenko, in a desperate attempt to save himself from defeat, had to fully embrace Russia.

Vladimir Putin has even established an exclusive Russian police unit designated to assist Lukashenko where necessary.

Furthermore, in response to the Belarusian journalistic staff strike, Russia deployed Kremlin-funded journalists to fill their positions and maintain a constant flow of propaganda as the Belarusian people attempted to remove “Europe's last dictator.” Russia also provided a $1,5 billion loan to Belarus.

The repression was successful. The Belarusian president has survived for the moment.

Belarus has long opposed integration into Russia under the Union State. In recent years, however, that project is starting to take shape again, just as Putin wanted. Belarus has increasingly subordinated its long-term economic interests to those of Russia.

Now Russia launches missiles at Ukraine from Belarusian territory. In late 2021 and early 2022, Belarus allowed Russian troops to begin their attack on Kyiv from Belarusian territory. This allowed Russia to attempt to quickly reach Kyiv from the north, to try to surround the Ukrainian capital and ensure a quick surrender of President Zelenskyy. But that didn't happen: Russian forces lost the battle of Kyiv and had to retreat.

At the moment, Lukashenko has the support of approximately 20-30% of its population, following the brutal suppression of democratic protests in 2020. Russia can, and as long as it serves Russian interests, will continue to support the Belarusian dictator. But this does not necessarily mean that Lukashenko will remain in power for long.

Russia may decide to complete the acquisition of Belarus by turning it into a Union State as previously planned. Russia has also reportedly deployed tactical nuclear weapons inside Belarus, further entwining the destinies of the two nations.

In February 2023, a Kremlin document was leaked outlining the strategy of annexing Belarus to Russia by 2030. Not surprisingly, Putin does not consider it necessary for Lukashenko to remain in power indefinitely. He could push to install a more loyal government at any time in the near future.

If things become untenable for Russia on the battlefield, Russia could pressure Belarus to join the war as a final act of desperation. If Lukashenko deploys troops, he could lead civil society to rise up and attempt to overthrow him again while his forces are sent abroad to fight.

At this point Lukashenko also finds himself cornered by his main ally in Moscow. In September 2023, EU parliamentarians called on the International Criminal Court to indict and arrest Lukashenko for enabling “Russia's unjustified war of aggression.” As a result, Lukashenko is directly responsible for the destruction and damage caused to Ukraine by the Russian war.

A sign of the times appeared when Lukashenko promoted the idea of ​​continuing to strengthen cooperation with Russia and North Korea. He is more isolated than ever and unable to achieve the balance that has allowed him to exploit commitments to both Europe and Russia.

In the event of a decisive Russian defeat in Ukraine, resulting in Putin's political weakening, Lukashenko could find himself without a powerful ally, making him susceptible to his population's discontent and resulting protests. Conversely, if Russia emerges victorious in Ukraine, this could accelerate the integration of Belarus into the Union State, and the Russian military presence in Belarus is unlikely to end.

Lukashenko's best strategy appears to be to hope for a stalemate, which could buy his regime more time. However, the prospects appear bleak for Lukashenko. It seems inevitable that an internal revolt will challenge his rule or that Russia will assert direct control over Belarus.

In any case, Lukashenko's regime faces an imminent crisis, regardless of the trajectory of the war. It seems inevitable that, in due course, it will meet its downfall.