On February 27, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky recorded an appeal to Belarusians, bitterly stating that this related, brotherly people to Ukraine is not on their side in the war unleashed by the Kremlin. He emphasized that everything is the opposite, with Russia using Belarusian territory to bring in its troops from the north of Ukraine and launch rockets and send planes from there, leading to the killing of Ukrainian citizens, including children, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and more broadly, to the destruction of everything that is dear to them. The politician recalled that on February 24 Kyiv was attacked at 4 a.m. – the exact time that Nazi Germany chose for its attack on the city in 1941.
«You were asleep, Belarusian brothers. And we woke up. But you are still sleeping. And from now on we do not go to bed, because we are fighting for our country, fighting for our freedom,» he said, adding that the option of holding talks in Minsk is not even being considered, as Belarus is now an accomplice of the aggressor.
On the eve of the so-called constitutional referendum organized by Lukashenko’s supporters, Zelensky suggested that Belarusians make «the most important and correct choice» and wished the country to become «the kindest and safest Belarus that everyone saw not so long ago.» In his opinion, it should depend only on Belarus, and not on Russia, Ukraine, or America.
But are Belarusians still able to influence Alexander Lukashenko? And has Lukashenko remained the person who single-handedly makes decisions in the country and is able to stop the war, or was he himself hit by the boomerang of the pro-Russian choice he made several decades earlier, and has already lost ANY KIND of independence?
After the presidential elections on August 9, 2020, the Lukashenko-controlled Central Electoral Commission (CEC) announced that he won 80.1% of the vote, while his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya received 10.12%. Belarusian citizens, for whom election fraud has become commonplace over the 26 years of Lukashenko’s presidency, this time were seriously outraged and began to protest en masse throughout Belarus. Moreover, the manipulation of the process began long before the elections. Lukashenko’s strongest rivals were not registered as presidential candidates. Viktar Babariko and Sergei Tikhanovskiy were arrested. Many representatives of the «old» opposition were also arrested (Nikolai Statkevich, Pavel Sevyarynets, and others). The brutal crackdown on peaceful protests after the election became a point of no return for Lukashenko, as he went all in to maintain his power and resorted to real terror. For example, people received real prison terms simply for making negative comments on the internet about representatives of the authorities and security forces, or for appearing on the street in white-red-white «opposition» colors.
The leader of the presidential race, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as well as many of her associates and like-minded individuals, were pushed out of the country. There are currently 1077 recognized political prisoners in Belarus, however many more people ended up behind bars in connection with the events. Since the summer of 2020, at least 35,000 people have been detained on administrative charges. According to various estimates, from 4 to 20 people died due to the policy of state terror. Thousands of protesters across the country were subjected to targeted torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The Human Rights Centre Viasna has documented more than 1,000 testimonies of victims of torture. According to human rights activists, analysis suggests that torture has been widespread, systemic in nature, and was an organized, politically motivated punitive action by the authorities to intimidate Belarusian society. At the same time, no one was brought to justice either for torture or for the murder of dissidents.
Given the existence of the most massive repressions in Belarus’s recent history, Belarusian civil society became scorched earth in a year and a half. At Lukashenko’s initiative, several hundred NGOs were liquidated that, in his opinion, sowed sedition and were involved in «extremist» activities. From the point of view of the regime, the functions of civil society may be performed by existing pro-government organizations (Belarusian Republican Youth Union), hastily created GONGOs («Systemic Human Rights Protection» and «pocket» opposition (Yuri Voskresensky and his team).
It is understandable why the democratic West, which for so long tried to believe that Alexander Lukashenko could be re-educated and even lifted sanctions from him in 2016, was horrified by the scale of the massacre. All the successes in establishing ties with Europe and the U.S. undertaken by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, particularly by Minister Vladimir Makei, were trampled under the boots of the security forces. The situation only worsened due to Lukashenko’s blatant actions in the international arena (forcing a Ryanair plane to land and the subsequent arrest of opposition blogger Roman Protasevich, who was on board, and manufacturing a migration crisis on the borders of Belarus and EU countries). It is not surprising that the idea of a “multi-vector” Belarusian policy has had to be buried. The Kremlin, at the same time, has unconditionally supported Lukashenko and in every possible way supported the path for turning him into a pariah for as many countries as possible. The Lavrov-Makei tandem unanimously started singing their old song, warning about «not allowing a Maidan in Belarus,» and «true friend» Vladimir Putin went even further, promising Lukashenko that the Russian security forces would come to the aid of the Belarusian authorities if «extremist elements in Belarus cross the borders and start trouble.» Russia then created a reserve of law enforcement officers for Belarus.
Russia took full advantage of the weakening of its ally and, according to iSANS experts, on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, it effectively occupied Belarus, bringing its forces there under the pretext of holding joint exercises, which has now deprived Alexander Lukashenko of any opportunity to maneuver.
Although the Russian reservists were not used in the suppression of protestors, Lukashenko received a full range of support in terms of propaganda, political, diplomatic, and financial support, etc. He paid for this with Belarusian sovereignty. In the autumn of 2021, Belarusian-Russian negotiations resumed on «continuing multifaceted integration as part of the progressive implementation of the Agreement on the Union State.» A so-called joint training center that many consider to be the prototype of a future Russian military base was created in Belarus. At the beginning of the year, Lukashenko’s forces took part in the operation in Kazakhstan, and in early February, Alexander Lukashenko also proposed to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that the number of combat training centers be increased so that the Belarusian military could «learn how to use certain equipment.»
On February 9, 2022, Russian media reported on the publication of the text of the Military Doctrine of the Union State. As iSANS noted earlier, compared to the 2001 doctrine, the new document lists many more factors «negatively affecting the security of the union of the two countries,» specifically «opposition on the part of some international organizations and foreign states to the development of the Union State, the CSTO, and other integration structures in which Belarus and Russia are participants,» which increased the chances for an even closer joining of Belarus to Russia.
A continuation of the history of the creeping absorption of Belarus was the Allied Resolve-2022 exercise, which, as is now known, became a front for the invasion of Ukraine from Belarus.
As iSANS reported earlier, at a meeting with the military on the morning of February 24, Alexander Lukashenko stressed that Belarusian troops are not taking part in the «operation in Donbass,» but during the same event he declared his readiness to send the military, «if Russia and Belarus need them» (ONT video) and also said that Belarus would like to place Iskanders and S-400 Triumphs and other «modern equipment» on its territory, saying that they had already «agreed with Putin» on this matter. At the same time, he did not at first specify whether Belarusian territory was used for delivering strikes on Ukraine. Echoing him, on February 27, the head of the main department of ideological work of the Ministry of Defense of Belarus, Leonid Kasinsky, said that Belarusian troops were not participating in the Russian operation in Donbas.
That same day, however, Lukashenko confirmed that rockets were launched from Belarusian territory at positions in Ukraine, but, in his words, this was a step he was forced to take because «missile battalions were deployed on the Ukrainian side, a few kilometers from the border with Belarus, ready to strike at Russian positions within minutes.» Under pressure from the Kremlin, but still trying to save face, Alexander Lukashenko has long been confused in his own words and promises, but in the 21st century no one doubts the complicity of the Belarusian authorities. If necessary, it will not be difficult for the Ukrainian side to provide evidence of the presence or movement of Russian troops and equipment in areas close to the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, as well as missile launches from Belarusian territory (with just a link to Gayun). Significantly, he is no longer even able to fulfill promises given at the highest level. During a Sunday conversation with Vladimir Zelensky, Lukashenko took responsibility for the fact that during the travel and return of the Ukrainian delegation, as well as during the negotiations themselves between the Russian and Ukrainian sides, «all aircraft, helicopters, and missiles deployed on Belarusian territory will remain on the ground.» But shortly after this telephone conversation, rocket attacks were carried out at the Zhytomyr airport. According to the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Anton Gerashchenko, the Iskanders were released at about 17:00 from Belarus.
Ukrainians, including the president, are calling on the Belarusian military not to participate in the aggression against Ukraine and for civilians to protest regime decisions that have already led to unprecedented reputational losses for Belarus, and which have the potential, if the Belarusian army is thrown against the Ukrainians, for fratricidal war. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has expressed her full support for Ukraine, condemning the actions of Putin and Lukashenko while calling on the military to disobey their criminal orders. The Belarusian diaspora in different countries has taken and is continuing to take an active part in the campaign to help Ukrainians and is expressing solidarity with them (with some even burning Belarusian their passports). On February 27, Belarusian cyber partisans announced that the servers of the Belarusian railway had been hacked to prevent the Russian army from coming to Ukraine. But it is worth putting a special emphasis on the fact that inside Belarus, which was essentially turned into a concentration camp at the end of 2020, just attending a peaceful protest comes with a high risk of being detained and beaten. Preventive detentions began two weeks before the «referendum,» with at least 38 people given administrative jail sentences. Despite this, using the opportunity to gather at polling stations on the day of the referendum, dissenting Belarusians expressed their indignation at the actions of the Kremlin and Lukashenko. Protests against Russian aggression were held in 15 cities. Belarusians brought flowers to the Ukrainian embassy in Minsk, but encountered Belarusian OMON there. Protesters chanted «Glory to Ukraine» near the building of the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense. As a result of these actions, according to human rights activists, more than 700 people were detained.
It is possible that under what is essentially an occupation and with further pressure from the Kremlin, Lukashenko may try to use the protests as a plausible pretext to refuse to send Belarusian soldiers to Ukraine. Even one of the mouthpieces of pro-government sentiment, «political analyst» Alexander Shpakovsky, on Sunday criticized «individual colleagues who are in a ultrapatriotic frenzy and believe that Belarus needs to join Russia’s military operation» and called such a step «a serious mistake that only reinforces the negative impression that was created by Ukrainian and NATO propaganda against our country.» In his opinion, Belarus «will play an integral role in the restoration of peace within the East Slavic civilization after the end of hostilities.» It is likely that Alexander Lukashenko does not want to go to The Hague, so he is playing the peacemaker, once again seeking to turn Minsk into a negotiating platform.
But given the fear and hatred that he has stirred in the souls of his fellow citizens, the deep socio-political crisis (which under current and future sanctions will almost certainly develop into an economic crisis), complete financial dependence on the Kremlin, and not even a hypothetical opportunity to resist Russian military forces – which he himself agreed to deploy in the country – the chances that Lukashenko will give a firm «no» to Putin on the issue of the regime’s further (co-)participation in aggression are very slim. Most likely, Mr. Shpakovsky understands that the occupation of the country has already happened, and Lukashenko has finally become a vassal of the Kremlin. That is why he is leaving himself room for maneuver, with the caveat that «if suddenly the Commander-in-Chief makes a different decision, then I will support him unconditionally.»
Unfortunately, when the number of political prisoners and political emigrants is growing day by day, and those few who still have the courage to resist the local security forces (and, in a worst-case scenario, with Russian troops arriving) are in serious danger, Belarusians cannot promise Ukrainians who criticize them for their «silence» that they will be able to overthrow the regime and, moreover, drive out the invaders who are already on Belarusian soil. Nevertheless, the headquarters of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian diaspora, IT specialists, journalists, activists, bloggers, analysts abroad – the few but still existing «voices of freedom» – are doing everything in their power to assist Ukraine and European partners in the fight against a common enemy who is already in Belarus and seeks to enslave Ukraine. Considering that Putin miscalculated his plans for a blitzkrieg and the war is now coming into Russian homes in the form of news of defeats, the dead and wounded, and in the form of a significant reduction in living standards and serious economic consequences from sanctions, the Belarusian professional military, as well as those eligible for military service and their families, have the opportunity to seriously reflect on the real consequences of their participation in the shameful aggression unleashed by Russia. Along with opposition to the Kremlin, all interested parties should continue their attempts to influence both the «undecided» Belarusians and representatives of Lukashenko’s regime and the army. Unless, of course, it is already too late.
Материал доступен на русском языке: Кто сейчас контролирует Беларусь и возможен ли второй фронт