Russia May Send Troops to Belarus Soon

Minsk is cautious of being used as a staging ground for an attack on Ukraine.

By , a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, hold a press conference in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, hold a press conference in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, hold a press conference in Moscow on Sept. 9, 2021. Shamil Zhumatov/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

As the West continues to fear a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine, one potential avenue for such an attack has emerged in the form of Kyiv’s neighbor to the north: Belarus. Russian troops began making their way into Belarusian territory on Jan. 17 ahead of joint military drills between the two countries planned for February, raising fears that Belarus could serve as a staging ground for a multipronged invasion of Ukraine. Minsk does indeed serve as an important player in the security standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine, though its evolving role in this crisis may turn out to be different than many expect.

From a purely geographical standpoint, this is a logical approach. The Belarusian border is less than 56 miles from Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. And given that Russia is pre-positioning various military assets—from tanks to combat helicopters to anti-aircraft missile systems—for the joint exercises with Belarus, Moscow would seem to be logistically prepared to send in its forces, with Belarusian backup if need be.

However, there are numerous constraints to Belarus serving as a staging ground for a Russian invasion of Ukraine. First, the relationship between Belarus and Ukraine has traditionally been a positive and constructive one, with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko positioning Belarus and himself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv. Following the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Minsk served as the primary venue for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and the West, leading to the eponymous (though still unobserved) Minsk Protocol that sought to end the conflict. While relations between Minsk and Kyiv have soured in recent months over various disputes, becoming a launching point for a Russian invasion would do irreparable harm to Belarus’s relations with Ukraine.

As the West continues to fear a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine, one potential avenue for such an attack has emerged in the form of Kyiv’s neighbor to the north: Belarus. Russian troops began making their way into Belarusian territory on Jan. 17 ahead of joint military drills between the two countries planned for February, raising fears that Belarus could serve as a staging ground for a multipronged invasion of Ukraine. Minsk does indeed serve as an important player in the security standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine, though its evolving role in this crisis may turn out to be different than many expect.

From a purely geographical standpoint, this is a logical approach. The Belarusian border is less than 56 miles from Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. And given that Russia is pre-positioning various military assets—from tanks to combat helicopters to anti-aircraft missile systems—for the joint exercises with Belarus, Moscow would seem to be logistically prepared to send in its forces, with Belarusian backup if need be.

However, there are numerous constraints to Belarus serving as a staging ground for a Russian invasion of Ukraine. First, the relationship between Belarus and Ukraine has traditionally been a positive and constructive one, with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko positioning Belarus and himself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv. Following the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Minsk served as the primary venue for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and the West, leading to the eponymous (though still unobserved) Minsk Protocol that sought to end the conflict. While relations between Minsk and Kyiv have soured in recent months over various disputes, becoming a launching point for a Russian invasion would do irreparable harm to Belarus’s relations with Ukraine.

Another constraining factor would be the Western response. The Lukashenko regime is already under significant sanctions pressure from the United States and European Union due to controversial presidential elections and security crackdowns on protests in 2020, as well as efforts to target the country’s opposition leaders and to use migrants as a pressure tactic against the EU. Aiding an invasion would likely dramatically escalate those sanctions, as well as invite other unwelcome forms of pressure, such as NATO military buildups in neighboring countries such as Poland and the Baltic states.

Perhaps most importantly, Lukashenko would face significant domestic constraints as well. While the Belarusian leader survived the fierce nationwide protests of 2020, launching a Russian invasion of Ukraine could reignite mass demonstrations. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) intervention in response to major protests in Kazakhstan this month could theoretically be repeated in Belarus (which is also a CSTO member), but that could easily backfire on Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin if such operations face any blowback or resistance.

Moscow launching an attack from Belarusian territory thus seems very problematic for Lukashenko. However, this doesn’t preclude a greater Russian security presence in Belarus that could be maintained in the country well beyond the upcoming joint military exercises in February. Indeed, such an outcome could serve as a lower risk option that plays into the interests of both Moscow and Minsk for several reasons.

For Belarus, there is a genuine feeling of encirclement by NATO and Western-backed forces, with Lukashenko, in a speech on Jan. 17, expressing concern over the more than 30,000 troops that are amassed in the Baltic states and Poland. (And, indeed, Lithuania’s defense minister has called for the United States and NATO to send more troops to the country.) Lukashenko also raised the issue of a buildup of Ukrainian forces and national guard units along the border with Belarus. Such buildups can be used to justify the presence of Russian military forces as a defensive bulwark much more than if Lukashenko tried to legitimize offensive actions.

For Russia, the deployment of military forces to the Moscow-friendly and Western-alienated Belarus would serve the purpose of demonstrating its role as a major regional security power while entailing much less risk than such a deployment to much more hostile territory in Ukraine. Such a deployment would also track with each element in the framework for Russia’s military interventions that I laid out in previous articles for Foreign Policy: 1) perceived justification, 2) local support, 3) absence of military resistance, 4) technical feasibility, and 5) relatively low political/economic costs. Moreover, Russia could use such a deployment in Belarus as leverage in its diplomacy with the West on the security landscape in Central and Eastern Europe.

This is not to say that a Russian invasion of Ukraine can be discounted completely, nor Belarus’s role in such an invasion. Moscow has been very adamant about its opposition to NATO expansion into Ukraine and elsewhere, and both Russia and Belarus could feel emboldened by the recent CSTO operations in Kazakhstan. Tensions have risen to the point where Moscow may feel the need to take some kind of action as a response to the West’s security support of Ukraine. And with military buildups by both Russia and NATO countries, as well as the contested countries in between them such as Belarus and Ukraine, the chance for miscalculations and unexpected surprises has certainly risen substantially.

Nevertheless, both Russia and Belarus are well aware of the costs of mounting major military operations against Ukraine. Not only could both countries face devastating sanctions and diplomatic isolation from the West, but such an invasion could actually serve to accelerate the process of U.S. and NATO security expansion into the region that they are trying to avoid and create unpredictable problems for both countries on the homefront. Thus, Russian military moves in Belarus may well be forthcoming but perhaps not for the reason that many people in Ukraine and the West fear.

Eugene Chausovsky is a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as senior Eurasia analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

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