January 28, 2023:
When it comes to the Ukraine War, Belarus is definitely a Frenemy (friend and enemy) of southern neighbor Ukraine and a hostage to eastern neighbor Russia. Belarus only has about a fifth of Ukraine’s population and a less vibrant and aggressive form of nationalism. Technically Belarus is an ally of Russia in its war in Ukraine, yet most Belarusians are pro-Ukraine. Some have actively helped Ukraine from inside Belarus while a few have crossed the border and joined the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.
The ruler of Belarus since 1994 is Alexander Lukashenko, a veteran communist official in the Soviet Union until 1991. Lukashenko was active in the three-year process to create a new constitution and hold elections. Lukashenko won the first presidential election, which was his only legitimate victory. After that he rigged the elections in one way or another to remain in power. He developed close ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin but refused to back Russian demands that he allow closer links with Russia that would eventually make Belarus part of Russia. This resistance was tolerated because Lukashenko was otherwise an ally of Russia and used Russian assistance to block efforts in Belarus to reduce Russian influence. This helped Lukashenko remain in power but also enabled Russia to stage part of the 2022 invasion from Belarus. Belarussian railway workers sabotaged the rail lines into Ukraine and that played a role in the defeat of Russia’s northern offensive into Ukraine and attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Eventually some of the railway workers responsible were identified, prosecuted and sent to prison. Most Belarussians considered these railway workers heroes. Popular attitudes like this made Lukashenko even more dependent on Russian protection. This included stationing Russian troops in Belarus and Lukashenko allowing Russian troops to be trained in Belarus.
Despite all this Lukashenko refused to send his troops to join Russian forces inside Ukraine. The main obstacle to that happening is that Russia wants to annex Belarus as well as Ukraine. Before 2022, Belarus was seen as the next former Soviet territory to be annexed by Russia. The response of Ukrainians to Russian invasion has changed attitudes towards annexation of Belarus. This is despite the fact that the longtime (since 1994) Belarus president-for-life Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus as a loyal ally of Russia. That has not helped the Belarussian economy or improved the lives of Belarus voters. A new post-Soviet Union generation of voters noticed how life was better in democracies, especially other former victims of Russian rule like neighboring Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine. They blame Lukashenko for the poverty and mismanaged economy in Belarus, as well as an incompetent response to covid19.
Since 2020 Lukashenko has faced growing popular protest against government incompetence and decades of rigged elections, corrupt rule, and inability to do much of anything effectively. Since the late 1990s Lukashenko has won reelection with 80-90 percent of the vote in visibly fraudulent elections. Lukashenko is a Soviet era official, who runs Belarus using the Soviet Union as a model. Belarus is a police state, where elections, and everything else, are manipulated to keep the same politicians in power. It's a tricky business but so far Lukashenko has kept his security forces loyal and up to strength. He bribes or bullies key officials to keep the country running. Lukashenko has maintained good relations with Russia, getting him cheap fuel supplies and other aid. Belarus is small (9.5 million people) compared to neighbors Russia (146 million) and Ukraine (42 million) and Russia wants to absorb Belarus and Ukraine to rebuild the centuries old Russian empire that the czars created and the communists lost. Lukashenko, like most Belarussians, opposes annexation by Russia. So far Russia is not actively seeking to annex Belarus or send in security forces to help suppress what has turned into a rebellion against Lukashenko.
Lukashenko is becoming more of a liability for Russia but is currently still a “favored ally.” Russia would like to be rid of Lukashenko but there is no one in Belarus with his skills, experience and pro-Russia attitude. Russia has created a major problem for itself in Belarus. Not as bad as the mess in Ukraine, but still another setback in the Russian effort to rebuild the Soviet-era Russian empire. Lukashenko noted what happened to pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians after the Russians invaded and most Ukrainians joined or supported the fight against Russian domination and any pro-Russia Ukrainians. Lukashenko openly admitted his surprise at how the Ukrainian invasion had slowed down and the ability of the Ukrainians to organize a counteroffensive. While Ukraine might defeat Russia and clear them out of Ukraine, Russia will still be there and still a threat to Belarussian independence. At the same time Lukashenko needs economic assistance and some Russian troops to keep himself in power. This is a dangerous game but one Lukashenko has been playing successfully for over twenty years.
An example of how Lukashenko operates became public back in 2011 when it was revealed that the former commander of the Belarusian air and missile defense forces (Igor Azarenok) had been arrested in 2010 and eventually convicted in a secret trial of corruption. He was found guilty of taking a $30,000 bribe from a Russian arms manufacturer. Azarenok was sentenced to nine years in prison. The Russian who bribed him was also prosecuted and sentenced to six years. What was unusual about this was that such corruption is rampant in Belarus, and has been for some time. Apparently Azarenok freelanced, and did not pass on any of the money to his superiors. Such inadequate sharing is a serious offense in Belarus, and so is dealing with a foreign government without permission. Azarenok's arrest and trial were revealed to make the most corrupt man in Belarus, president Lukashenko, look good. This apparently didn't work and most Belarusians still consider Lukashenko a corrupt tyrant who once preached clean government, but soon went over to the Dark Side.
Lukashenko doesn't confine his corrupt dealings to Belarus. In 2006 the U.S. accused Belarus of running a major illegal arm exporting operation. The weapons sales, mainly to Iran and African countries and warlords in general, was bringing in over two billion dollars a year, with most of the profits going to senior government officials, particularly president Lukashenko. This is how he remains in power. This behavior has led to numerous economic sanctions on Belarus which have put a lot of Belarussians out of work, and Lukashenko hasn’t come up with a solution for this problem. Too many unemployed Belarussians may be what ultimately causes Lukashenko to lose his own job.