Belarus Is Inching Toward Invading Ukraine

Signs are growing that an invasion from the north could be imminent.

By , a freelance journalist from Ireland, and , a visiting fellow at Harvard University.
A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard stands watch at the border crossing between Ukraine and Belarus on February 13, 2022 in Vilcha, Ukraine.
A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard stands watch at the border crossing between Ukraine and Belarus on February 13, 2022 in Vilcha, Ukraine.
A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard stands watch at the border crossing between Ukraine and Belarus on February 13, 2022 in Vilcha, Ukraine. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Recent satellite images of Belarus show newly carved forest roads and the movement of a slow stream of military equipment to Ukraine’s northern border. Many experts take it as a sign that Belarus is likely to be the next front in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The arrival of new equipment, together with a recent “counterterror” operation and snap inspection of troops organized by the Belarusian military, has made the Ukrainian government worried that a new offensive could be launched from the north early next year.

Belarus, a country often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, has largely kept its military out of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but there are growing signs that may soon change. There has been an increase in trains transporting soldiers and equipment from the Russian border to the town of Brest in southwestern Belarus close to the border with NATO member Poland. According to the Russian Interfax news agency, Russian troops in Belarus will soon conduct tactical exercises.

Artyom, a former lieutenant colonel with Belarusian special operations forces who defected to Europe, spoke with Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity from his country of asylum. He said deploying Belarusian troops to Ukraine would be a gamble for President Aleksandr Lukashenko. “Lukashenko is doing his best not to send the military to Ukraine. He understands that the only people who can keep him in power are the military and security services. If they go to Ukraine, they will either die or get wounded, and that could be a disaster for him,” he said. “He claims that ‘Poland plans to attack us,’ so we need to put a military on our border. He is, however, at the mercy of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

Recent satellite images of Belarus show newly carved forest roads and the movement of a slow stream of military equipment to Ukraine’s northern border. Many experts take it as a sign that Belarus is likely to be the next front in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The arrival of new equipment, together with a recent “counterterror” operation and snap inspection of troops organized by the Belarusian military, has made the Ukrainian government worried that a new offensive could be launched from the north early next year.

Belarus, a country often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, has largely kept its military out of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but there are growing signs that may soon change. There has been an increase in trains transporting soldiers and equipment from the Russian border to the town of Brest in southwestern Belarus close to the border with NATO member Poland. According to the Russian Interfax news agency, Russian troops in Belarus will soon conduct tactical exercises.

Artyom, a former lieutenant colonel with Belarusian special operations forces who defected to Europe, spoke with Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity from his country of asylum. He said deploying Belarusian troops to Ukraine would be a gamble for President Aleksandr Lukashenko. “Lukashenko is doing his best not to send the military to Ukraine. He understands that the only people who can keep him in power are the military and security services. If they go to Ukraine, they will either die or get wounded, and that could be a disaster for him,” he said. “He claims that ‘Poland plans to attack us,’ so we need to put a military on our border. He is, however, at the mercy of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

Most agree that Lukashenko is reluctant to send his own troops to fight in Ukraine due to his precarious security situation at home following a series of mass protests in 2020 that were brutally repressed and led to mass political arrests. Hanna Liubakova, a Belarus expert and nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council, said losing troops in Ukraine could create instability for Lukashenko in Belarus.

“Losing troops will build discontent in the country. We know through surveys that there is a large section of society against deployment of troops to Ukraine. It is hard politically to justify it,” she said. “The Belarus army consists of conscripts, young men who are not in high positions. They’re not motivated to fight. If their bodies come back to Belarus, it could start protests. It is hard to gauge how big they would be, but it would be a destabilizing factor for Lukashenko.”

Estimates of the number of troops currently at the border vary wildly, but Ukrainian security sources say they are preparing for more than 30,000 troops, including Russian reinforcements. Liubakova said Belarusian forces are a fraction of that figure. “At the beginning of the war, we had several battalions that were combat ready, and they totaled close to 10,000. Obviously, this is not enough to damage Ukraine, but for Lukashenko, losing those could be a problem,” she said.

Telegram channels set up by Belarusian transport workers are currently mapping the movement of soldiers and equipment to the Polish border. According to one widely read group, on one day last week 310 soldiers, along with equipment, were transported to Brest from the northeastern city of Vitebsk, about 60 kilometers from the Russian border. Meanwhile, satellite images show the movement of military vehicles through newly cut zig-zagging roads in another forested border region. This has worried Kyiv, which believes more than 20,000 Russian troops could mix with Belarusian battalions to form a new front.

According to Artyom, among the central motivations for Belarusian soldiers to remain in the military is explicit pressure by the government. “There were rumors that passports will be taken away from the military,” he said.

Vadzim Kabanchuk, deputy commander of the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment—a regiment of Belarusian volunteers under the Armed Forces of Ukraine—believes Belarus will soon enter the war. “Eight out of 10 people in the military do not want to fight in this war. If they enter Ukraine, the military will fall apart. They will surrender—either by going to prison, or they will defect to our side. Lukashenko knows this, so he is trying to avoid it. That said, I think that the conflict will be escalated further outside of his control, including full mobilization and the involvement of Belarus’s military,” he said.

Despite this, the heavily mined border region will be difficult for Belarusian troops to cross without high casualty figures, and some claim that the buildup is part of a strategic information operation to distract Kyiv with a new front as the country continues to battle Russian troops in the south and east of the country.

Liubakova said that, despite the continuing buildup of troops, an immediate attack is unlikely but possible. “I think this is an information operation organized by Russia, and this is how the regime is helpful. They’re working on this with Russia,” she said. “I don’t think the immediate attack is possible because there are not enough troops ready to attack. But again, a lot of people got it wrong last February, and for Putin, gaining Kyiv is the most logical point from a military perspective. The fastest way to get to Kyiv is through Belarus.”

A November intelligence report by the British Ministry of Defense reported that two MiG-31K Foxhound interceptor jets were likely parked at the airfield in Machulishchy, in southern Minsk. There have been reported sightings in the region of a canister that’s believed to hold the Russian air ballistic missile Kinzhal (dagger), the crown jewel of the MiG-31K arsenal. The British Ministry of Defense believes the canister is part of an information operation announcing Belarus’s increased involvement in the war.

One certain loser in the new offensive is Lukashenko, whose delay in sending troops has afforded him a certain favor with his own people that could sour quickly if trucks bearing the notorious “Cargo 200” sign—used for corpses—arrive in Belarus back from the front.

For Artyom, who is one of a handful of high-level defectors from Belarus, it’s easy to see how joining the war in Ukraine could create chaos for Europe’s last dictator. There is a large amount of support for Russia inside the army but also a lack of motivation to fight for Putin.

“They are being told that [Russia’s war crimes] are part of psychological warfare. Some believe in what Lukashenko says. Many of these guys never left Belarus or, in the best-case scenario, went on military training exercises in Russia,” he said. “Many support Russia, but no one wants to fight for them. They know it is not their war.”

Norma Costello is a freelance journalist from Ireland. Twitter: @normcos

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov

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