The Belarusian opposition can help defeat Putin in Ukraine

One of the underappreciated aspects of Russia’s war on Ukraine has been the strategic role of Belarus in both the initial invasion and subsequent conduct of the war. In his quest to shore up his own position following the mass pro-democracy protests of 2020, Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka has positioned Belarus as a vital component in the Kremlin’s war effort; in so doing, he has contributed directly and deliberately to attacks on Ukrainian soldiers and civilians as well as the destruction of Ukrainian cities, towns, and villages.

Lukashenka’s support for Moscow covers five key areas: providing logistical and material support for Russian forces; acting as a launchpad for missiles against Ukrainian targets from Belarusian territory; broadcasting propaganda and disinformation against Ukraine; hosting Russian military hospitals on Belarusian soil; and the suspected regime-sponsored orchestration of cyberattacks against Ukrainian infrastructure.

The impact of this support has been significant. Russian troops deployed to Belarus on the eve of the invasion played a key role in the Kyiv offensive during the first month of the war, with the horrendous atrocities in Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs carried out by Russian units which had crossed over from Belarus. During the initial assault on Kyiv, logistical support from Belarus allowed Russia to resupply and replenish its troops as they fought to capture the Ukrainian capital.

Since the Russian retreat from northern Ukraine in late March and early April 2022, Belarus has continued to provide safe harbor to Russian soldiers while supplying Russia with weaponry and other military equipment. Lukashenka has also hosted joint military exercises and provided training facilities for mobilized Russians.

Belarus has helped to spread propaganda and disinformation about the war, often echoing Kremlin narratives defending Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade and backing his false justifications for the conflict. Indeed, the propaganda is so pervasive and the information space so controlled inside Belarus that many Belarusians still do not realize the true scale of the war. Instead, many view it as a “special military operation,” seemingly distant from Belarus.

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The Belarusian pro-democracy movement is fighting back, confident that Putin’s defeat in Ukraine will weaken Lukashenka’s ability to maintain his hegemony over his own people. By disrupting Russia’s war effort and exhausting its resources, the Belarusian pro-democracy movement is chipping away at the edifice of the Putin-Lukashenka axis and eroding the very resources Russia needs in order to prop up its dependent ally.

As Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya argues, there is a clear connection between the fate of Ukraine and the fate of Belarus. She contends that when the people of Ukraine prevail over Russia, Belarusians will see Putin’s feet of clay and will be inspired to reject the vassal status that Russia has imposed on their own country.

For this reason, Belarusian democratic activists are contributing to anti-war activities. The Cyber Partisans initiative has disrupted the Belarusian regime’s technical infrastructure, while the railway partisans movement complicated Belarusian logistical support for Russian forces during the early months of the war. Activists are also working to combat disinformation and propaganda by communicating the truth about the war to Belarusian citizens.

It is imperative that Ukraine’s friends and allies in the West punish Lukashenka’s regime for its role in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Doing so will help support Ukraine’s defense by imposing greater costs on Belarus and forcing Minsk to think twice before carrying out instructions from Moscow. It will also help the Belarusian pro-democracy movement in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Belarusian people by exposing how Lukashenka’s support for the war is directly responsible for growing insecurity and economic hardship in Belarus.

To begin with, the US and other democratic partners should continue to provide robust support for the Belarusian democratic movement, which is making significant contributions to the anti-war effort in Belarus. Historically, resources to support the Belarusian democracy movement have come in peaks and valleys, often surging following key political events only to dwindle in subsequent periods. Support has remained strong since 2020, when a fraudulent presidential election brought hundreds of thousands of Belarusians to the streets in protest. Now that the country’s democratic forces have embarked upon a longer-term movement for change, consistent and strong financial support is all the more crucial.

This investment must be paired with a high-level diplomatic initiative to signal both to the Lukashenka regime and to the Belarusian democratic opposition that the US and EU commitment to a democratic Belarus will not waver and is linked directly to the defense of democracy throughout the region. To this end, the US should assign another Special Envoy for Belarus at the ambassadorial rank to continue the important work of former US Special Envoy to Belarus Ambassador Julie Fisher, who was a steadfast supporter of the democratic movement during her tenure from 2020-2022.

In light of the fact that the Belarusian authorities refused to renew the visa and accreditation of the EU’s former Head of Delegation to Belarus, Dirk Schuebel, the EU should consider appointing a remote-based Special Representative for Belarus instead. These new envoys would serve as crucial interlocutors between Washington, Brussels, and the leaders of the Belarusian opposition.

Targeted support should also be leveraged for Belarusian volunteers fighting against Russia in Ukraine. Greater material support for the more than 1,000 Belarusian volunteers fighting under Ukrainian military leadership would serve to strengthen their ability to aid in the defense of Ukraine at a time of increasing risk of further attacks from Belarusian territory. It would also show members of the Belarusian military that there is an alternative outlet to serve for those who recognize the risks posed to their country and do not wish to be dragged into an unjustified war against a peaceful neighbor.

As the specter of greater Belarusian involvement in the war grows, so too does the imperative for Washington and Brussels to act now to support the Belarusian democratic forces in undermining Belarusian support for Russia’s war machine, countering propaganda and disinformation, and joining Ukrainian forces on the frontline of democracy. The Belarusian democratic movement understands that their fate will now be decided on the battlefields of Ukraine. They have the will and capacity to aid their Ukrainian compatriots in securing victory as soon as possible. They just need the tools to do so.

Stephen Nix is the senior director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute (IRI). Mark Dietzen is the IRI resident program director for Belarus, based in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka during a news conference following their meeting in Minsk, Belarus. December 19, 2022. (Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Kremlin via REUTERS)