Belarus – Russia’s only ally in Europe – is playing a significant role in the Kremlin’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine by allowing Russian forces to invade from its territory.
While Minsk has not deployed its own troops to Ukraine, there is gathering speculation that its forces may soon join the Russian army and take part in combat missions.
The Russian advance throughout Ukraine is moving slower than many analysts expected. The Russian Army has not yet seized any strategically important city in the east of the country.
In southern Ukraine, where the Russians managed to capture cities and towns such as Melitopol, Berdyansk and Kherson, the local population is showing that it is not willing to become part of a wider Russia.
Protests against what the locals perceive as a Russian occupation have forced Moscow to deploy reservists from the Donetsk People’s Republic to maintain law and order in the region.
It is becoming clear that it would take much more than 200,000 Russian troops to establish full control over Ukraine. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ruled out deploying conscripts to Ukraine, which means that the Kremlin will have to find more troops from elsewhere.
According to reports, Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu told Putin that more than 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East are ready to fight in the Donbass.
“There are people who want to come on a voluntary basis, especially not for money, and help the people who live in the Donbass – well, you have to meet them halfway and help them move into the combat zone,” Putin told a meeting of the National Security Council on March 11.
According to the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, most of those who want and who asked to fight are citizens of Syria. Rumors are flying that Syria’s military has begun recruiting troops from its own ranks to fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine.
At the same time, Syrian opposition fighters from Idlib, as well as foreign nationals, have reportedly already arrived in Ukraine to fight against the Russians. As such, Syrian Arab Army members fighting Syrian rebels in Ukraine could soon become a reality.
Apart from Syrians, Moscow is apparently looking towards its allied fighters in the Central African Republic. If so, such a move could be interpreted as Russia’s “asymmetric response” to Western volunteers who allegedly have already started arriving in Ukraine to fight against Russian forces.
So what is Belarus’ stance in this increasingly complex dynamic?
Ever since the Kremlin launched its “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has attempted to portray himself as a mediator in the conflict.
Although three rounds of talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials have taken place on Belarusian territory, Minsk is all but a neutral actor. It is not a secret that Russian troops entered northern Ukraine through Belarus, and that they have fired missiles at Ukrainian Army positions from Belarusian territory.
Still, Belarus has not deployed its troops to Ukraine, despite Kiev’s claims that Moscow and Minsk are allegedly trying to stage a false flag operation in order to involve the Belarusian Army in the war. From both military and political perspectives, it is questionable how much Russia would benefit from Belarusian troops entering the fray.
Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus Viktor Gulevich recently resigned from his position after lodging a protest against his country’s support for the Russian invasion. Belarusian railway workers, meanwhile, have reportedly refused en masse to transport Russian missiles.
Moreover, reports suggest that “volunteers” from Belarus are already participating in the defense of Kiev. But the bigger problem for Moscow is that Belarusian society does not seem to support the potential involvement of the Belarusian Armed Forces in the war.
According to Belarusian political analysts, Lukashenko is quite aware that his broad security apparatus would oppose the deployment of Belarusian troops to Ukraine. It is thus possible, if not probable, that some Belarus units would either refuse to fight or would simply desert and switch sides once on the front line.
Even though Putin and Lukashenko met in Moscow on March 11 to discuss the war in Ukraine, it is still unlikely that the Kremlin would pressure Minsk to deploy its troops to the Eastern European country. But even without the Belarusian Army in Ukraine, the West will continue to impose sanctions on Belarus for its role in facilitating the invasion.
“We need to be together, both in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Union,” Lukashenko told Putin, while stressing that Russia and Belarus can overcome all the economic difficulties together.
The problem for the Kremlin, however, is that other CSTO members do not seem to be willing to share Russia’s and Belarus’ fate. Kazakhstan, Moscow’s crucial ally in Central Asia, is providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, rather than to the Russia-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.
The Central Asian nation refuses to openly support its nominal ally in Moscow, let alone recognize the Donbass republics.
So far Russia thus seems to be on its own against Ukraine. To win the war decisively, the Kremlin will sooner or later need to declare at least partial mobilization.
Otherwise, Moscow will remain stuck in a long war that will create a potentially untenable burden on its sanctions-hit and already wobbling economy.