State Department Official: Belarus President Vulnerable Due to Putin’s War
Russia’s close ally in his war against Ukraine is on wobbly footing.
Analysts put low odds on a popular uprising forcing Russian President Vladimir Putin from power. But his closest ally in the current war against Ukraine is a lot more vulnerable, a senior State Department official told Defense One. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a completely different and even more challenging political reality because of his support of Putin’s war, experts say.
On the surface, Lukashenko and Putin share a lot in common. Both rose to power following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and both rely on highly repressive tactics to surprise popular opposition. Belarus has emerged as a key partner in Russia’s war, serving as a staging ground for Russian military forces to launch air and artillery strikes against Ukrainian targets, and it has also fallen under tough sanctions. Lukashenko and Putin also conduct photo-ops together to reinforce the appearance of inseparable ties. But that appearance hides a much more complex reality.
“It's super important to remember Belarus is not Russia, and that some of the elements that help Vladimir Putin stay in power are not advantages that Lukashenko enjoys,” the official told Defense One in an exclusive interview. “I think he is incredibly vulnerable.”
Lukashenko’s hold on power has become increasingly tenuous following a 2020 election in which he was widely seen to have lost by a considerable margin, but held on to office by arresting popular opposition candidates and cracking down violently on free speech, protest, and dissent.
But even strongmen can have weaknesses. A big part of the social contract that Lukashenko has with the Belarussian people—their willingness to put up with him, in other words—rests on how stable the government is and the perception that “he would be the guarantor of the sovereignty and independence of Belarus,” the official said. Since Putin has turned the country into a parking lot and landing strip for his military, that image isn’t as convincing as it once was.
Lukashenko “started to say things like, ‘Well, I don't know how long the Russian troops will stay, I'm going to talk to Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] about that on Friday. I'm going to the question of various weapon systems. Well, I'm going to go talk to [Putin].’ As soon as he started to indicate that he was not making decisions about how long Russian troops would stay in Belarus,” the image of the invincible strongman started to fade, the official said.
The two men reportedly don’t even like one another on a personal level. Lukashenko has tried to play something of a balancing act, appeasing Putin while also casting himself in the role of conflict moderator, hence the peace talks Belarus hosted in February. That was to create the appearance in the state-controlled Belarussian press that he wasn’t completely beholden to Putin.
“Those peace talks, as ridiculous as I think they look to many observers in the West, presented Lukashenko the opportunity in his domestic messaging to say ‘See, we're not doing anything, we're hosting peace talks.’”
That balancing act and the image of some independence from Putin was a big part of Lukashenko’s brand prior to this year, said Katia Gold, a fellow with the Russia program at the Center for European Analysis. ”He's been really very clever, kind of, you know, avoiding making the smallest concession apart from obviously this war, which has become a huge concession.”
But that independence was cosmetic. The Belarussian economy is largely dependent on Russia for energy and to subsidize Belarussian state-owned enterprises, the official said. That, too, adds to Lukashenko’s vulnerability. As Western sanctions hobble the Russian economy, that means less support for its smaller, needy neighbor.
“I don’t think people fully recognize just how dramatic the economic impact is going to be because Russia is the source of the economic stability in Belarus,” the official said. It’s just “one more way in which his role and his rule is, is vulnerable.”
The official also said Lukashkeno likely is not making any economic reforms to save the Belarussian economy: “He has worked hard to crush the sort of nascent private sector that has been developing over the last couple of years.’”
Little Support for Putin’s War. Little Alternative But to Accept It.
The Russian war on Ukraine may be popular in Russia, according to polls, but that isn’t the case in nearby Belarus, Gold said. “Belarussian society is strongly negative on the war,” she told Defense One. They’re particularly opposed to any effort to send Belarussian troops to fight on Ukrainian soil, as evinced by the high-profile resignation of Belarus’s chief of general staff on March 6. Any attempt to bring Belarussian troops into the conflict would only amplify public sentiment against Lukashenko, Gold said.
“If Lukashenko were to send the troops… and if the level of casualties was as high as we have seen, or we speculate we have seen, with the Russian troops I think that could turn the people who are currently very passive. I think seeing coffins of their citizens arriving home to Belarus, that would turn the public even more against Lukashenko,” she said.
Putin in recent days has seemed more and more diminished by the war. Western officials have said his staff has misinformed him about what’s actually happening. And the weaker Putin appears, the more vulnerable Lukashenko will also look, Gold said.
“If Putin were to be seen in one way or another as, you know, as being weakened, [people in the opposition to Lukashenko] might use that to say ‘Let’s rise up again,’” she said.
But Lukashenko’s vulnerability doesn’t portend a big civil uprising or a sudden move to a pro-Western democracy, Gold said. Lukashenko’s most popular rival, Viktor Babariko, is in jail.
The most likely nonincarcerated successor would be opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who likely won the 2020 presidential election (Lukashenko’s government rejected the results.)
But being an opposition candidate is very different than actually trying to govern a place that Putin controls. “I don't think people in the political opposition are thinking in practical terms how they will handle this,” if they came to power, Gold said.
If a successor were to rise to take Lukashenko’s place, they would have to make some effort to appease Putin, especially now that he’s occupying the country militarily, Gold said. “If they come to power, they would obviously try not to upset the Kremlin,” she said, pointing out that a plurality of Belarusians—not quite half, but a sizable minority—still want to stay in some sort of union state with Russia while a similar percentage would look westward.
But Lukashenko has few options for breaking with Putin and reversing sanctions the West has placed on him. According to the official, there’s just no basis of trust to enter into new partnerships. “It's not possible to reach some agreement that requires some level of trust to enact, and so I think most of the outreach that you see is much more of a, a desire to say, ‘Here's what you can expect from us if you take this step or that step,’’ and to ensure that that is understood before decisions get made.’”