Belarus Is the Other Loser in Putin’s War

Minsk enabled Moscow in its Ukraine war. Now, Belarusians are paying the price.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A carnival float featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko
A carnival float featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko
A carnival float featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin (top) handling Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko like a puppet is pictured in the center of Cologne, Germany, on Feb. 28. Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s War

When Russia launched an attempted lightning assault on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in February, neighboring Belarus served as a staging area for Russian forces, making the country an accomplice in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. 

In the early phases of the war, thousands of Russian troops swarmed over Belarus’s border with Ukraine, just a few hundred miles from Kyiv. As the Russians quickly racked up deaths, their soldiers filled Belarus’s hospitals and morgues. When the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv region, having been beaten back by fierce Ukrainian resistance and their own operational shortcomings, they did so through Belarus. 

Long a close ally of Moscow, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko was left wholly dependent on the Kremlin, which came to his rescue after mass protests in 2020 threatened his decadeslong grip on power. This dependence helped make Moscow’s assault on Kyiv possible. It has also indelibly tied Belarus’s fate to that of Ukraine. 

When Russia launched an attempted lightning assault on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in February, neighboring Belarus served as a staging area for Russian forces, making the country an accomplice in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. 

In the early phases of the war, thousands of Russian troops swarmed over Belarus’s border with Ukraine, just a few hundred miles from Kyiv. As the Russians quickly racked up deaths, their soldiers filled Belarus’s hospitals and morgues. When the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv region, having been beaten back by fierce Ukrainian resistance and their own operational shortcomings, they did so through Belarus. 

Long a close ally of Moscow, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko was left wholly dependent on the Kremlin, which came to his rescue after mass protests in 2020 threatened his decadeslong grip on power. This dependence helped make Moscow’s assault on Kyiv possible. It has also indelibly tied Belarus’s fate to that of Ukraine. 

​​“We see Belarus as deeply tied to the outcome in Ukraine. It is among the many reasons that what happens in Ukraine is going to reverberate well beyond its own borders,” said Julie Fisher, U.S. special envoy for Belarus. “It is an immediate and direct link when it comes to Belarus.”

Leaders of the Belarusian opposition movement in exile have argued that the war underscored the illegitimacy of Lukashenko, who began a fifth term in office in 2020 following elections widely regarded as having been falsified. Western countries imposed sanctions on Belarus and the Lukashenko regime for the violent crackdown that followed the elections and for facilitating the attack on Ukraine. 

“He allowed our lands to be used as an aircraft carrier for Putin,” said Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. “It was a cold shower for Belarusian people, how our country could be used to launch missiles on Ukrainian territory,” she said in an interview in Washington last week. 

While Belarus is awash with Russian propaganda and an intense crackdown on civil society has made it hard to gauge public sentiment, a survey conducted by the British think tank Chatham House in March found that 67 percent of respondents were opposed to Russian troops shelling Ukraine from Belarus, whereas just 3 percent supported the idea of Belarus’s direct participation in the conflict. 

“There is this very ingrained pacifism in Belarusian society,” said Joerg Forbrig, director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. Forbrig attributed this to Belarus’s experiences during World War II, when a quarter of its prewar population was killed. 

Since the start of the war, networks of Belarusian saboteurs have worked in secret to disrupt the country’s rail system to undermine Moscow’s beleaguered logistics networks; a substantial amount of Russia’s military supplies have been brought into Ukraine via Belarus. In February, the hacker group Cyber Partisans, which was founded by Belarusian information technology workers forced into exile, claimed to have targeted the Belarusian state railway company, disrupting and slowing railways around the capital, Minsk, and the eastern city of Orsha. 

The Belarusian interior ministry has recorded at least 80 acts of sabotage, including efforts to set fire to signaling systems, forcing trains to slow to a crawl. Belarusian authorities have branded the efforts as acts of terrorism, and last week, the lower house of the country’s parliament approved changes to expand the use of the death penalty to potentially include those involved in railway sabotage efforts. 

“Apparently, this has had a much bigger impact than we initially thought,” Forbrig said. Hundreds of Belarusians have also signed up as volunteers to fight alongside Ukraine, forming the Belarusian Kalinouski battalion, named after the 19th-century writer and Belarusian national hero Kastus Kalinouski. 

The war has reenergized the Belarusian pro-democracy forces who were driven into exile following the violent crackdown in 2020. “It’s important for us, for democratic forces, for civil society, to be strong and healthy at the moment when it will be evident that we can uprise again,” Tsikhanouskaya said. She added that members of her team are routinely in Kyiv, where they plan to open an office to support Belarusians in Ukraine and facilitate ties with the Ukrainian government. 

Despite decades of authoritarian rule, which led Lukashenko to come to be known as Europe’s last dictator, Belarus had a small but robust civil society and independent media, much of which has now decamped to Poland and Lithuania. 

“In my opinion, Belarus could develop very successfully and quickly if it was freed of this domestic occupation of power by Lukashenko and the external occupation of power by Russia,” Forbrig said.

The war has also hardened the opposition’s stance on Russia. Prior to the war, Tsikhanouskaya tread a careful line, cognizant of Moscow’s influence and the fact that many Belarusians still had warm attitudes to their eastern neighbor. “We didn’t want to participate in these geopolitical games. It was our internal fight against Lukashenko,” she said. “But now when we see that Russian troops occupied Belarusian territory as well, our fight became geopolitical as well, and we are fighting not only against Lukashenko but against the invasion of the Kremlin.”

For many years Lukashenko sought to play Russia and the West off each other for his own political benefit. In April, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei called for reestablishing dialogue between Belarus and the European Union. 

“So, on one hand, Belarus is affected by sanctions and is driven into stagnation and is pulled closer into Russian orbit. On the other hand, the Belarusian regime seeks once again to rebalance towards the West, trying to twist this crisis to its advantage,” said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund.

But after the uprisings in 2020 and the Kremlin’s intervention to shore up Lukashenko’s grip on power, viewing him as a problematic but essential vassal on Russia’s western flank, Lukashenko’s future is now tightly bound with that of Putin’s. 

“When Ukraine wins this war, it means that the Kremlin is extremely weak and Lukashenko is extremely weak,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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