Prior to February 24th, 2022, one could have speculated about the scale of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime's dependence on Moscow. The Kremlin’s political support indeed ensured that Lukashenka survived the 2020 post-electoral protests. After all, Minsk could have hardly managed such domestic and international pressure if it wasn’t for Moscow’s funding and Vladimir Putin’s messaging to the international community that any move towards mediation of the Belarusian crisis would be considered as interference in Russian-Belarusian interests. As the Russian army has remained stationed in Belarus over the past six months, using the country's infrastructure and launching missile strikes against Ukraine, the international community is learning more about the costs behind Moscow's rescue of Lukashenka in 2020, as well as the aspects of Belarus’ sovereignty trade-offs in exchange for such a "favor".
Most Belarusians — around 80 percent (a consistent figure in various polls since February 2022) — stand against Belarus’ involvement in the Russian aggression. Some non-public studies (since conducting polls is restricted) suggest that even the regime's supporters fear mobilization. Meanwhile, the repressions in Belarus continue, affecting not only critics of Lukashenka’s rule but also those who express solidarity with Ukraine and stand against Belarus’ involvement in Russia’s war as a co-aggressor. This goes from a musician being arrested after singing a Ukrainian song in a bar in Minsk to activists who tracked and reported the Russian military’s movements on Belarusian soil over Telegram facing criminal charges.
Despite the regime’s neglect of public opinion, there is a line which Lukashenka does not want to cross: it would be highly unfavorable for him to order the Belarusian army to join Russia’s war and suffer casualties as it would only aggravate the post-2020 legitimacy crisis and jeopardize the core electorate’s support. This rings all the more true in light of rumors that Russia might continue Ukraine’s invasion from the north and force Lukashenka to use his military. What might be preventing Putin is the Belarusian army’s unpreparedness for offensive operations, while Belarusian infrastructure offers a more reliable and useful asset.
For the two countries’ business elites, with little stakes in geopolitical conquests, the interest in Russian-Belarusian cooperation is merely pragmatic. The Belarusian side, which has been affected by sanctions against the regime, now predominantly relies on Moscow as the route for Belarusian exports and cashflow. Similarly, the Belarusian business elites, many of whom fill Lukashenka’s pockets, welcomed the Russian government’s closer integration with the Union State that began in 2019as it raised expectations for broader business opportunities for both countries. At the same time, however, a welcoming attitude towards close ties with Russia has its limitations: should Belarus’ sovereignty be endangered to the extent that the elites lose their share of benefits, further integration would be deemed unacceptable. This is an important consideration for the elites when pondering the question of whether Moscow might attempt to completely annex Belarus or replace Lukashenka with a new puppet government.
Putin backed Lukashenka during the 2020 protests as he was the best option to ensure that Minsk stayed in Russia’s orbit, fearing a democratic shift towards the West. If anything, Russia’s decision to attack Ukraine might have been accelerated by the Belarusian pro-democratic protests. According to Maksim Samоrukov at the Carnegie Foundation, although in the first months of the 2020 Belarusian crisis the Kremlin considered replacing Lukashenka with a seemingly more democratic yet pro-Russian candidate, it was ultimately decided to secure both Ukraine and Belarus in Russia’s orbit.
Today the Belarusian and Russian regimes seem to exist symbiotically as old tensions appear to have been swept under the rug. It is hard to fathom that during the 2019 integration talks, the Belarusian leadership spoke to the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, about standing against Russia’s ambitions to deny Minsk’s independence; or that at the beginning of the 2020 elections the Belarusian leadership accused the Kremlin of attempting to orchestrate a color revolution.
Overall, Lukashenka’s regime is now fully subordinate to the Kremlin and therefore has little room to oppose its demands. A vassal and a sovereign have little amicability with each other, though. The split could become visible at any time. Lukashenka could seek to present himself as a victim of Russia’s aggression should he feel that the Kremlin is losing the war and power to project its influence regionally. From Moscow’s perspective, Putin and his elites have little positive sentiment towards Lukashenka and they might be willing to install another pro-Russian candidate in Minsk. One way to do so would be to encourage anti-Lukashenka sentiments while channeling them in a Kremlin-friendly direction.
In this seemingly desperate situation, the Belarusian pro-democratic movement persists through underground movements and in exile. Moreover, the victory of Ukraine would not automatically entail an improvement in Minsk’s political climate: Belarus could become a bargaining chip in Russia’s peace negotiations, requiring it remains in the Kremlin’s sphere. Meanwhile, Belarusian democratic aspirations would have a chance to evolve if democratic changes were to occur in the Kremlin, or if the Russian autocratic leadership lost its ability to project power onto Belarus.