What if having NATO on the Finnish border is only the second-worst geopolitical outcome for Vladimir Putin? The Russian tyrant may have figured a quick win over Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine would send a signal to restive Belarusians that they would be next. And in that. Putin may be proven right — in a completely different way than he expected, as Ishaan Tharoor projects at the Washington Post:
Far from a proud national leader, [Alexander] Lukashenko has become a cowed accomplice to Putin. Last month, he appeared alongside the Russian leader at a space facility deep in Russia’s far east, where Putin declared to the world that it would be “impossible” to politically isolate his country. All the while, analysts note, the economic pressure on the Russian regime means Lukashenko’s own state apparatus is under a greater strain.
Very few Belarusians back the conflict. Belarusian activists abroad and at home watched in horror as Russian forces launched dozens of missile strikes on Ukrainian targets from Belarusian soil. A mid-March poll by Chatham House found that perhaps as few as 3 percent of the country’s population supported the potential involvement of Belarusian troops in the war against Ukraine. Only 16 percent supported Belarus allowing its soil to be used to wage war with Ukraine.
No wonder, then, that it has given the Belarusian opposition a second wind. “The position and behavior of Lukashenko has clearly given us a new chance, created new momentum and a new window of opportunity,” Franak Viacorka, senior adviser to Tikhanovskaya, told me. The war, he added, has revealed “Lukashenko’s true face — from the guarantor of independence, he became its main threat, the collaborator selling out the country to Russia.”
To be fair, this wasn’t actually a change on Lukashenko’s part. He’s always been Putin’s toady, one who knows darned well that he owes his longevity in power to Putin. In fact, Lukashenko’s foot-dragging on joining Russia’s northern front until it became too late to rescue Putin from his own folly might even be one of the few flashes of independence demonstrated by Lukashenko.
So what did change? The rise of Volodymyr Zelensky changed all the calculations. Much has been made about the way Western leaders suffer in comparison to the former comic actor turned masterful wartime leader, but for the most part that’s been mainly an easy way to skewer politicians who aren’t in the same situations as former Soviet republic leaders. In Belarus, the comparison is much cleaner and more accurate. Lukashenko kisses Putin’s ass, while Zelensky stands up for his people. Even if deluged by Russian propaganda, it’s impossible for Belarusians to miss that contrast, and they likely have access to better information than most Muscovites do.
Not only did the Belarusians balk at participating in the oppression of their neighbors, they reportedly staged unprecedented levels of sabotage and passive resistance to slow the Russians down as well. Reportedly, his top military officers threatened to resign if Lukashenko ordered them to fight in Ukraine. Some went anyway, but not to fight for the Russians:
Meanwhile, hundreds of Belarusians have taken up arms in Ukraine against Russia as part of a brigade dubbed the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion, named after a 19th century Belarusian national hero. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Belarusian dissident Veranika Yanovich explained why she and her husband joined the outfit.
“The motivation is very simple,” she said. “Lukashenko is very dependent on Russia, and the death of dictatorship in Russia will mean the death of the dictatorial regime of Lukashenko.”
By making a national hero out of Zelensky, and also by demonstrating the ineptitude and incompetence of the Russian military, Putin has apparently resurrected not just Ukrainian nationalism but Belarusian nationalism as well. The situation for Belarus’ opposition looked hopeless three months ago, but with Russia mired in southeastern Ukraine, there may never be a better time to act to remove Lukashenko than now.
If that succeeds, suddenly Putin not only has NATO on a fresh frontier with Finland, but also a hostile independent entity between Moscow and the rest of eastern Europe. That would complicate access to Kaliningrad, all but erase the threat to the Baltic States, and likely eliminate a lot of Russia’s strategic-weapons positioning against NATO.
More importantly, this would deliver a devastating blow to Putin’s credibility at home. How will he explain the loss of Lukashenko and Belarus to Muscovites? More Nazis? Hitler was a secret Belarusian? The Russian Federation will end up teetering on the same precipice that sunk the Soviet Union three decades ago, only this time it will be Putin and his oligarchical clique up against the wall come the revolution.