Don’t Let Lukashenko Off the Hook
He’s been Putin's accomplice and enabler, even if he’s now (mildly) criticizing the invasion of Ukraine.
A sure sign that the Russian war effort against Ukraine isn’t going well is when the rats who had supported Vladimir Putin’s invasion start jumping ship—at least the ships the Ukrainians have not yet sunk.
One of those rats is Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ illegitimate dictator for 28 years, who in a recent interview with the Associated Press seemed to offer mild criticism of the Russian military campaign against Ukraine. “I feel like this operation has dragged on,” Lukashenko said.
This marks a change for Lukashenko, who unambiguously sided with Putin in the latter’s decision to invade Ukraine and even afforded Russian forces the use of Belarusian territory to launch one part of their assault. Lukashenko stopped short of sending Belarusian forces into the fighting, in large part out of concern for the domestic reaction to such a move, but he did almost everything else to support the Russian military campaign.
The international community must prepare now to act against Lukashenko when Putin inevitably withdraws his support. For his complicity in Putin’s war crimes and crimes against humanity—as well as for his brutal crackdown inside Belarus after stealing the 2020 presidential election—Lukashenko deserves a place in The Hague alongside Putin.
The International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) has compiled a list of how Lukashenko has helped Russia: allowing the use of Belarusian airfields for Russian aircraft; allowing reconnaissance and missile launch positions as well as the direct launch of missiles from Belarusian territory and airspace; provision of Belarusian railway infrastructure for the delivery of Russian troops, equipment, and ammunition; and quartering of Russian military personnel in Belarus. Lukashenko has even permitted use of Belarus rail and auto routes for transport of property looted in Ukraine by Russian marauders.
In March, Belarus was one of only five countries to vote against a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion—joining with Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, and Russia. Lukashenko has threatened countries supporting Ukraine’s defense and even warned about the possible use of nuclear weapons. Lukashenko has been a clear accomplice of Putin’s egregious actions.
Since the invasion began February 24, Russian forces have suffered major losses because of Ukrainians’ heroic defense of their country, and many bodies of Russians killed in action have been sent to Belarus for handling. This has given Lukashenko insight into how badly the campaign has been going, and now he seems to want to find the exit.
In addition to claiming that he didn’t expect the war in Ukraine to “drag on this way” in the interview with the Associated Press last week, he sought to paint himself as a peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine. He said that he was doing “everything” he could to stop the 10-week-long conflict. Lukashenko also tried to assure Europe that Belarus does “not threaten anyone and we are not going to threaten.”
He told the AP, “To unleash some kind of a conflict, some kind of war here in the West, is absolutely not in the interests of the Belarusian state. So the West can sleep peacefully.”
Any thoughts about the use of nuclear weapons are “unacceptable” because Ukraine borders Belarus, he said in the AP report. “We are not across the ocean like the United States. It is also unacceptable because it might knock our terrestrial ball flying off the orbit to who knows where. Whether Russia is capable of that—is a question you need to ask the Russian leadership.”
In the same interview, Lukashenko recognized that he had to toe a fine line: He called Putin his “big brother” and said the Russian president doesn’t have “closer, more open or friendlier relations with any of the world leaders other than the president of Belarus.”
The West must not fall for Lukashenko’s supposed change of heart. Exiled democratic forces leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the person who actually won the 2020 presidential election that Lukashenko stole, tweeted dismissively that Lukashenko’s AP interview was “a desperate attempt to save face” and warned the West not to be fooled again. “He is a pathological liar, Putin’s accomplice, and must be brought to justice for what happens in Ukraine,” she wrote.
Western governments must understand that with Putin facing the prospect of defeat in Ukraine, he will have fewer means to prop up the Lukashenko regime. That means there is hope for the first time in a long time that Russian support for Lukashenko will disappear, and with it will go Lukashenko.
Lukashenko is “not an observer or a neutral party, but an active accomplice in the crime of aggression,” iSANS notes in a not-yet-released report. The ongoing war must be acknowledged as a joint operation of the Russian Federation and its puppet regime (led by Lukashenko) that illegally administers the territory of the Republic of Belarus.”
Lukashenko has depended on financial, political, and military support from Putin to stay in power for many years. Having clearly lost the presidential election in 2020, Lukashenko resorted to the worst crackdown on peaceful protesters in that country’s three decades of independence.
Putin not only stood by him politically and recognized him as the duly elected president but provided lifesaving support through security services, munitions, funding, and propaganda. (Russian TV presenters stepped in when Belarus anchors resigned their positions to protest the crackdown.) Without this boost from Moscow, Lukashenko likely would have been driven from power as a result of peaceful popular protests and defections from the Belarus security apparatus.
Following Putin’s intervention, Lukashenko has become an even greater danger in Europe, not just within the confines of Belarus’ borders. He hijacked a civilian airliner in May 2021 that was in Belarusian airspace to seize a blogger critical of his rule who was on board, endangering all passengers and crew.
Last summer and fall, he weaponized thousands of migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia to punish Poland and Lithuanian in particular for favoring sanctions against his regime. In both situations, he had Putin’s full backing.
As Lukashenko has become more reliant on Putin to stay in power, he has surrendered Belarusian sovereignty and territorial integrity to Russia. Lukashenko essentially has made Belarus a satellite state of its bigger neighbor. To preserve his own position of power, Lukashenko has knowingly given up Belarusian independence and sovereignty to Russia in all key areas of governance—military, national security, information space, foreign relations, and economic policy.
That he allowed 30,000 Russian forces to remain in the country after joint military exercises and use Belarus as a base from which to launch the campaign against Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, demonstrates his guilt. In fact, the Lukashenko regime’s actions legally qualify as an act of aggression, as iSANS notes: Article 3 of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) defines aggression as “the action of a State in allowing its territory, which it has placed at the disposal of another State, to be used by that other State for perpetrating an act of aggression against a third State.”
By the end of April, some 85 percent of Russian troops were deployed to the fighting in the east and south of Ukraine, but 15 percent remain in Belarus and have occasionally fired on Ukraine from the ground and air using Belarus as a base. Putin could bring some of the Russian forces back to Belarus and threaten new attacks on Ukraine or threaten moves against Poland and Baltic states. Even the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus cannot be ruled out.
Despite Lukashenko’s capitulation to Putin, the vast majority of Belarusians oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some have done what they can to block Russian access to their neighbor; others have joined Ukraine’s side in the fighting.
Thousands of people went into the streets in Belarus in February, demanding a halt to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than 800 people were arrested that day, and about 1,500 people in Belarus have been arrested for demonstrating since the start of the war.
Belarusian citizens have conducted more than 80 acts of sabotage on the railways, risking their freedom and lives. A large network of local activists in Belarus detects and reports the location, movement, and actions of the Russian troops in Belarus on a daily basis.
The war is taking an economic toll on Belarus, and that is also weighing on Lukashenko’s thinking. The IMF projects the Belarusian economy will contract by 6.4 percent this year. That is only going to increase discontent among his citizens and, with his continued authoritarianism and corrupt mismanagement of the economy, trigger more opposition to his remaining in power.
Playing Russia and the West off each other so that he can get the best deal from both is an old ploy of Lukashenko’s—and, unfortunately, the West has fallen for this trick too many times before. Lukashenko and his minions are sending signals to Western capitals that Lukashenko can be part of the solution for the war in Ukraine. His “foreign minister,” Vladimir Makey, on April 6 urged EU foreign ministers to reopen dialogue with Minsk and leave behind “the unfortunate sequence of events” of the last several years. Western leaders should reject these overtures out of hand.
In light of what has transpired both internally in Belarus and Lukashenko’s support for Putin’s war against Ukraine, the international community must continue to treat him as a thoroughly illegitimate leader. Europe and the United States should be anticipating the possibility of Lukashenko’s fall from power, especially if Putin stops propping him up. When that happens, the international community should be ready to put him on trial for a series of outrageous abuses of his own. And then it should be ready to support Belarus as it transitions finally to a post-Lukashenko phase.
“It should not be forgotten that Lukashenko and his associates are criminals, responsible for electoral fraud, mass torture, brutal beating and killings of protestors, incarceration of more than a thousand of political prisoners and detention of more than 45 thousand of people since August 2020, forcing of hundreds of thousands to flee the country from repression, elimination of civil society and independent media, and spreading hate speech against critics of the regime in propagandistic media,” iSANS reminds us. Accordingly, Tsikhanouskaya should be recognized as the legitimate interim leader of the country; after all, she, not Lukashenko, won the 2020 presidential election with a clear majority.
Thanks to the heroism and courage of Ukrainians fighting for their country, the international community has an opportunity to deal Putin a serious, possibly even fatal, blow. This could be an opening to do the same for Lukashenko in Belarus. Without Putin’s backing, Lukashenko is finished, and that would provide hope for the first time in several decades for Belarus to move in a more democratic direction and become a normal European country.
Vlad Kobets is executive director of the International Strategic Action Network for Security; David J. Kramer is the Bradford M. Freeman managing director of global policy at the George W. Bush Institute and former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and Labor in the George W. Bush administration.