PUTIN BLACKMAILS THE WEST WITH «NUCLEAR LUKASHENKA». WHAT'S NEXT?
Vladimir Putin is again using a Kremlin-controlled puppet regime in Minsk to blackmail the West and Ukraine. This time, Russia’s president is using nuclear weapons to increase the stakes. Unlike other members of global nuclear club, Russia is the only state that openly threatens the rest of the world with its nuclear weapons. And this June Putin hints he is ready to step on a path of nuclear proliferation by sharing nuclear weapons with Belarus. But what’s really hiding behind Putin’s rhetorics?
During their most recent meeting in Saint Petersburg on June 25, Lukashenka and Putin performed a conversation that looked more like a staged show with pre-arranged clumsy remarks rather than «real» conversation. Lukashenka asked Putin for help in bolstering the defense of Belarus to contain NATO and «aggressive West». After a brief exchange of comments, Putin promised that Russia will supply Lukashenka with Iskander-M missile systems and will help update Lukashenka’s Su-25 jets (NATO reporting name: Frogfoot) to ensure they’re able to carry nuclear weapons. Lukashenka was long dreaming about the acquisition of nuclear weapons that he lost in the mid-1990s when Belarus yet wasn’t a rogue state. But will he really get them? So far, the answer is negative.
Although Lukashenka may be dreaming of regaining control over some nuclear arms, it is unlikely that Putin will transfer them under the control of largely unrecognized and unpopular politician in Minsk. In the worst case scenario, Putin may be willing to deploy Russia’s mobile nuclear launchpads into Belarus, but only under condition they will be controlled by Russia, secured by Russia, and will remain under Putin’s direct commandment. Just like everybody else in the room, Putin understands that his puppet regent in Minsk is unstable, uncontrollable, and may be tempted to use nuclear weapons to threaten the Kremlin and increase his own independence from Russia’s president himself.
And obviously, Lukashenka may still use the nukes to threaten the West in a way that Putin might not favor. Despite Lukashenka’s key role in the conflict, none foreign country – including Ukraine – has ever officially acknowledged that the regime in Minsk is a party to the war or that Lukashenka and his subordinates are responsible for war crimes. Although Ukraine claims that Russia is aiming to «drag» Belarus into war, Minsk regime is clearly participating in war by supplying, covering and supporting Russia’s troops and providing the soil and airspace of Belarus for Russia’s armed attacks against Ukraine (recent reports hint that Russia may be experiencing shortages of ammunition in and is using Belarusian stocks to refill its need for shells). If Lukashenka gains at least a few nuclear arms, he will significantly increase his talks position and leverage on the EU should he be willing to push the West into new «normalization».
Despite fears that Lukashenka and Putin met to discuss joint attack on Kaliningrad or Northern Ukraine, it is more likely that the meeting was largely devoted to discussion of the upcoming aerial attack from Belarusian airspace. The same night when Lukashenka and Putin were meeting in Saint Petersburg, six Russia’s Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) entered the airspace of Belarus and attacked Ukraine with twelve Kh-22 cruise missiles (NATO reporting name: AS-4 ‘Kitchen’). Although Ukraine’s government reported that the airstrikes on June 25 were the first aerial attack on Ukraine from the airspace of Belarus, this information is incorrect. Belarusian monitoring group Bielaruski Hayun that tracks military logistics and launches of missiles within Belarus since early 2022 reported multiple aerial attacks targeting Ukraine from Belarus since the first days of current stage of war.
Night attacks from Russia’s military planes (combined with missile launches from locations in the Black Sea and Russia) triggered an unprecedented hate speech campaign against Belarusians on Ukraine’s social media and in Ukraine’s digital media outlets. It is likely that the Kremlin is, inter alia, aiming to increase mutual hatred between the Ukrainians and Belarusians. To do so, it is utilizing the airspace of Belarus to hit targets in Ukraine: such move wipes off the fact that Belarusians oppose the war en masse and actively participate in Ukraine’s military response to aggression on the most troublesome directions (such as defense of Severodonetsk). This week, Pahonia, the second regiment formed entirely from Belarusians, joined Ukraine’s army – but so far this news remain in the shadow of Kremlin-led operation that motivated hatred against Belarusians both inside and outside of Ukraine.
Since 2020, iSANS team observed growing use of Lukashenka in Russia’s foreign policy. Apart from serving as Russia’s loophole for sanctions evasion and trade of sanctioned goods, Lukashenka is now performing the role of Putin’s battering ram on NATO’s Eastern flank – and he is desperate to show his usefulness. The Kremlin is using Lukashenka’s army to disperse Ukraine’s troops from Donetsk front and force them into covering a nearly 1100 kilometers long Belarus-Ukraine border. After Russia’s troops were largely removed out of Belarus in the aftermath of failed Kyiv offensive, Lukashenka’s subordinates recently announced re-activation of OSCE arms verification missions. Without mentioning that OSCE continues cooperation with Europe’s only unrecognized and illegitimate «government» in Minsk, it is very likely that Putin will be using Lukashenka to get a better understanding of how NATO will increase its presence in the Baltics and Poland following recent calls for «visible» counter to Russia in the region.
So far, it looks like Lukashenka is a lot more concerned about defending himself rather than attacking Ukraine or NATO countries. He is reasonably concerned that his army is too small, unprepared for real war, and he still needs inside Belarus to protect himself from both «internal enemies» and Russia. Despite current defensive efforts, the world shouldn’t forget that Lukashenka is already responsible for war crimes and the war of aggression – and that Putin may still use his puppet governor in Belarus to deploy nukes there and cause Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics far more trouble that he already did. Not in last turn – to Belarus itself that may suffer unbearable losses and risks following such move.