Ukraine: Lukashenko ‘took part’ in decisions says Kavaleuski
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On March 1, 2022, just days into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was filmed standing in front of a clipboard with a full-scale map of Ukraine, during a meeting of the Security Council of Belarus. Arrows, lines of direction, and images adorned the map. Each indicated Russia’s plan of attack into Ukraine’s interior, with detailed intel on the potential outcomes for countries like Moldova which borders Ukraine’s western front. Some of the lines of attack occurred in the following weeks. It surprised many. How exactly did Lukashenko know what Russia was planning? And why was he becoming involved? On March 4, Lukashenko dismissed the idea that Belarus was involved in the war. He said Belarusian Armed Forces would not partake on behalf of Russia.
Eleven months on, and Belarusian soldiers haven’t yet entered the war on Russia’s side. But Russian soldiers have been operating in northern Ukraine, their makeshift barracks found just miles away from Belarus’ border, hinting they may well have entered the country from Belarus.
Lukashenko has given up swathes of the country’s territory for use by the Russian army and has even allowed Putin to fire land-based missiles at Ukraine from inside its borders.
There is one question that now remains: to what extent can a country become involved in a war without directly participating?
For Pavel Slunkin, who worked at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry between 2014 and 2020, there are two answers to the question. One rests in the complicated legality surrounding the United Nations’ (UN) definition of an aggressor state, the 1974 resolution clearly stating that Belarus’ actions constitute a country involved in a war.
The other can be found in other reports, like that from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which suggest that just as NATO member countries are not involved, neither is Belarus.
“But in my view,” Mr Slunkin said, “Belarus’ actions are enough to justify that it is involved in this invasion and is obviously an aggressor state.”
Many believe that Putin had planned to use Belarus as a satellite state through which he would invade Ukraine. Russia found in Belarus the shortest route to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and the best way to filter in and take the country’s central and western lands.
But this didn’t happen, and Mr Slunkin claimed that while Belarus may largely be at the mercy of Russia, Lukashenko won’t be pressured into dragging his country into war.
He drew attention to Lukashenko and Putin’s complicated relationship. While the pair aren’t the best of friends — Putin is said to think Lukashenko is dim — they each benefit in different ways by remaining close.
Lukashenko has few ties with the western world, and so relies on Russia for up to 60 per cent of Belarus’ trade. Russia, meanwhile, likes to stay close to Belarus given its proximity to the EU and Europe and enjoys antagonising the West through it, according to Mr Slunkin.
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He explained that Russia uses Belarus as a “kind of informational, special operation” base from which it can pique the interest of European countries, “because everyone wants to know what Russia is planning and if there is an increase in threat, what it is working on.”
Russia will continue to use Belarus as a potential threat to Ukraine, he said, so that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces remain stretched and do not focus all their efforts on the east of the country. The aim of the game, he said, is to keep Ukraine constantly weary of an attack from the north.
From an insider’s point of view, Mr Slunkin believes that the reports which say Putin is pressurising Lukashenko to become physically involved in the war are likely exaggerated.
He said: “I can say it is not true. I don’t see any indicator that would show us or tell us or even hint to us that Putin really exerts any pressure on Lukashenka. What I see is that Putin is happy with what he gets from Lukashenka, and Lukashenka is pretty happy with what he gets from Putin.”
Others disagree. Many believe that Lukashenko has had a hand in the war from the beginning, even participating in the invasion plans.
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Valery Kavaleuski is one of Belarus’ thousands of banished politicians who are part of the government in exile. When Lukashenko beat his opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the 2020 elections, the result was largely perceived as being fixed. A wave of repression rolled in, and Mr Kavaleuski and his colleagues fled the country and set into motion what they say is the country’s legitimate government.
Called the United Transitional Cabinet, Mr Kavaleuski is attempting to rework Belarus from the outside, hoping to one day bring Lukashenko to the negotiating table — although he has no illusions that real change won’t come until Lukashenko is removed.
He argued that without Belarus’ cooperation, “there would be no war at all”, or it would at least look “very different”. For him, Lukashenko’s role is vital in suppressing democracy in Ukraine with the strongman’s leadership resting on the result of the war.
He said: “Lukashenko sees Ukraine as a threat to his model of governance because a Ukraine that is democratic, free and European, is a stark contrast to what has been happening in Belarus, even before 2020, and especially after 2020 when the repression started.
“That is why for Lukashenko it would be beneficial to destroy such a Ukraine, [one] that is democratic, that is free, that is European. And this is why I am convinced that Lukashenko took part in decision-making on going to war with Ukraine.”
If this is true, why hasn’t Lukashenko ordered his troops to enter Ukraine and help Russia? “Because the Belarusian military is unwilling to fight the Ukrainians,” Mr Kavaleuski said.
Such is the opposition to become too far involved in a “foreign war”, Mr Kavaleuski said, Lukashenko’s forces would refuse if asked to join, and so undermine his position of power.
If his request was met with rejection, his role as leader could become untenable. Mr Kavaleuski explained: “He has had to take into account that Belarusian troops would not be a significant contribution to this war on the country, and it could lead to laying down arms and switching sides.
“The losses among the Belarusian military could even lead to the eruption of internal protests in Belarus, essentially striking out the country as the only ally of Russia in this war.
“That’s why the decision not to send Belarusian troops to Ukraine until now has been very pragmatic and sort of self-serving for Lukashenko because his ultimate priority is to preserve his own arm of power.”
Consistent polling shows that Belarusians are averse to the war. Some figures suggest that as much as 86 per cent of the population don’t want their country to enter it.
But this is less to do with support for Ukraine and more with Belarusians fearing the devastation of their own country. For the most part, the people simply want to maintain neutrality.
This isn’t true for everyone. Some Belarusians have been fighting Russia on the side of Ukraine ever since Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and began an isolated war in the east of the country nine years ago.
When the full-scale invasion came in 2022, some Belarusians created what is today known as the Kastuś Kalinoŭski regiment. What started out as a volunteer force exclusively filled with Belarusian fighters has transformed into a highly-trained unit contracted by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Mirik, one of its fighters, was once a Belarusian policeman but came to the realisation that his views of freedom and democracy and the right to speak your mind did not align with those of the Belarusian state. He grew to believe that Belarus was too far under the influence of Russia, and so concluded that to free his own country he must first help Ukraine free itself of Putin.
Talking about the toll the war has taken on him, the 23-year-old said: “From a physical perspective, it’s pretty simple [I can continue] for as long as I have my physical capabilities. Or, for as long as I am alive.”
“When you look at the Ukrainians [fighting] beside you, you realise that these people, they have no other choice other than to fight. If they stop what they are doing, they will not be able to free Ukraine, their country, and themselves.
“For me, it has become similar. They inspire me with their attitudes and make me realise that if I stop fighting there is a good chance I will not see a free Belarus. And so I will, I must carry on as much as I am able to mentally.”
Once the war is over, the regiment plans to take the fight to Lukashenko inside Belarus. Chabor, its 25-year-old press secretary, said the battle had in some ways already begun. “It started several years ago, and has been non-stop,” she said.
Belarus’ future largely rests on the outcome of the Ukraine war. A victory for Russia, many fear, will lead to further state repression and a tightening of Belarusian civil society. They fear the country will eventually become a hermit kingdom, overly reliant on its Russian neighbour.
A loss for Putin, however, could well topple Lukashenko and see the people take their chance and overthrow a regime that has grown dependent on the Kremlin. For now, the people’s future lies with a foreign war, a theme that runs throughout the troubled and turbulent history of Belarus.
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