Could Putin be using the war in Ukraine to annex Belarus by stealth?

The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are now members of NATO, so are probably beyond Russia’s grasp – for now – but with the war in Ukraine dominating world headlines, Russia has been quietly increasing its influence and control over Belarus.

Is Belarus the next target on Putin’s radar, and is there anything the West can do to arrest Putin’s expansionist ambitions?

President Lukashenko has been the head of state of Belarus since 1994. Under his rule, the government has been accused of regularly repressing the opposition, and Lukashenko is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” by media outlets.

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Putin installing a ‘puppet regime’

The 2020-2021 Belarusian protests were the largest anti-government demonstrations in the country’s history.

But, with Russia’s assistance, the riots were quelled.

Between August 2020 and February 2022, Putin then pledged $1.5bn in loans to Belarus and deferred debt payments, providing a lifeline to the already indebted Lukashenko.

Russia also provides gas to Belarus at a fraction of the open market price, helping to protect an increasingly unpopular Belarusian leader from domestic unrest.

In return, Lukashenko has revisited discussions on the Union State Treaty – a proposed partnership without borders – which would, in effect, make Belarus a “county” of Russia.

But domestically, fewer than 25% of the Belarusian population believe they should support Russia – and the most recent poll suggested that less than 5% believe Belarus should join Russia to fight against Ukraine.

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Belarus ‘same aggressor as Russia’

It may be that Putin does not want Belarus to become a thriving democracy, but he also knows that his beleaguered military would struggle to take Belarus by force.

Instead, Putin appears to be tightening his grip on Lukashenko. Russia has been conducting extensive military training – and basing Russian military aircraft – in Belarus.

Moscow has also mounted Russian offensive operations against Ukraine from Belarus soil and, most recently, agreed to deploy tactical nuclear weapons into the country.

Lukashenko has also sought security guarantees from Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu during a visit this past week.

However, Ukraine has neither the military capability nor intent to attack Belarus, and NATO is a defensive alliance that presents no threat to Belarus.

Instead, Russia is leveraging Lukashenko to portray Russia as the only trusted guarantor of Belarusian peace and security, whilst also justifying increasing the Russian military presence in the country. Arguably, Putin is slowly but surely annexing Belarus by stealth.

How does Belarus resist? Although the Russian military is overstretched and would struggle to contain an organised Belarusian rebellion, how would any rebellion gain traction?

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Ukraine soldier recovers in Ireland

The wider consequences of Belarusian annexation would be profound.

Ukraine’s long-term security would be further complicated, and it would also risk destabilising neighbouring countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland.

Putin could claim a strategic success – perhaps even suggesting that the “special military operation” in Ukraine was some form of sideshow to the main event.

And what could the West do?

Belarus is not a NATO country, and it is unlikely that Lukashenko would appeal to the West for help.

Notwithstanding the use of sanctions, there is very little that the West could do to intervene.

The West rallied to Zelenskyy’s appeal for help in its fight for independence – however, is Putin now using the conflict in Ukraine to drain the West’s appetite for military intervention if it ever prepared to annex Belarus?