In recent weeks, Belarusian civilians have been called up for military training in increasing numbers, with mobilization instructions attached to their military identification. Is this a prelude to entering the war against Ukraine, show for the Russians or preparation for contingencies? According to Artyom Shraibman, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of the three, the latter purpose is the most probable.
First, if mobilization is officially announced in Belarus, the border will be closed immediately. Such Russian reactions, whereby close to one million men were able to leave the country, will not happen in Belarus’s case. Second, “we do not proactively plan to enter the war, and all our military movements are to prevent threats” continues to be Minsk’s message to its domestic audience. Third and final, the Russian troops in Belarus are not stationed near the border with Ukraine, and military equipment is primarily being transported from Belarus to Russia.
Obviously, if Ukrainian forces provoke an attack on Russian positions in Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will be viewed as a weakling if he fails to react. However, neither Kyiv, nor Minsk for that matter, is interested in opening another front to this war. On this, Shraibman also pointed out that, while Lukashenka may have stooped to the level of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s subordinate, he is no slave to the Russian leader (Svaboda, November 11).
Against the backdrop of lingering uncertainty about Belarus’s military planning, signs of the screws tightening further abound in Minsk. Since October 26, 44 associates of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences were arrested, but 41 of them were subsequently released (NashaNiva, November 6). Among those still being held are the 71-year-old member-correspondent of the academy (the second-highest scholarly rank there) Oleg Davydenko and his wife, both of whom were arrested on November 6. Davydenko appeared in pictures at the postelection rallies in August and September 2020 with a poster in his hands. He also signed a letter protesting violence at the time.
Yet another sign of Minsk’s increased pressure on Belarusian citizens is its new official designation of the slogan “Zhyveh Belarus!” (“Long live Belarus!”) and the response “Zhyveh!” (“Long live!”) as Nazi symbols. According to the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, these phrases were used by the 13th Belarusian Police Battalion under the SD and the 30th Waffen-SS Infantry Division during World War II, accompanied by a raised hand with an outstretched palm. While the latter observation happens to accurately reflect history, the Belarusian Westernizers, who by the end of the 1980s had organized themselves into the Belarusian Popular Front, have been using these greetings ever since as an expression of patriotic commitment to their country, not as a tribute to Nazi collaborationism (Dw.com/ru, November 11).
Also cause for concern was the tenor of Lukashenka’s rhetoric during the belatedly publicized October 6 government meeting on issues of retail pricing. At the meeting, the Belarusian leader yelled at his closest associates, including the Belarusian National Bank Chair Pavel Kalaur and Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko, for their alleged support of “hucksters and hagglers” (which is how Lukashenka described entrepreneurs) who export their revenues and build residences abroad at the expense of the Belarusian military and working class (YouTube, October 6).
Finally, the amnesty that Lukashenka announced in conjunction with the new national holiday on September 17 (National Unity Day) has yet to materialize. Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty attributes such a delay to Minsk’s unsuccessful attempts to bargain with the West for the loosening of sanctions in exchange for the release of some political prisoners. To wit, precisely such bargaining, and a deal resulting from it, preceded the release of political prisoners in 2008 and 2015. To this end, unpublicized negotiations may have taken place during the United Nations General Assembly session in New York in late September 2022. According to Drakakhrust, this time, the West decided not to reciprocate (Svaboda, November 7).
If the latter is indeed the case, the intransigence of Western policymakers—who, in the first place, revealed itself with the imposition of sanctions and only pushed the purported negotiations about prisoners—may be called into question. After all, while the strategic and moral dimensions involved with almost every issue in international politics may line up with each other, oftentimes, as John Mearsheimer recently shared in an interview, “those arrows point in opposite directions, where doing what is strategically right is morally wrong” (The New Yorker, March 1).
Belarus is the case in point here, but examples of other cases abound. Take, for example, the fact that, since the beginning of the war against Ukraine, the European Union has spent $102.5 billion purchasing oil and gas from Russia, which is three times what it has spent on aid to Ukraine (Carnegieendowment.org, May 5). Here, the latter revelation is not mentioned to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” but purely to establish the facts and to recognize the ordinariness of the respective dilemma.
Polish lawyer and geopolitical expert Jacek Bartosiak believes that Belarus is the most important country for the security of Central and Eastern Europe, especially the space between the Baltic and Black seas. While Bartosiak recognizes that Minsk is a party to the ongoing conflict, he sees that “Lukashenka is sending signals to the West … that he really did not want this,” as the Belarusian president realizes the Russians are failing in Ukraine.
Interestingly, Bartosiak refers to the report “Belarus Is Trapped as a Co-Aggressor,” authored by Arseny Sivitsky and Yury Tsaryk. The document was published in September 2022 by the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Studies and could not, in Bartosiak’s opinion, be released without the Belarusian authorities’ permission (Svaboda, November 11).
The idiosyncrasies of some regional experts aside, it may well be that reviving a modicum of space for geopolitical maneuvering by Minsk is not a bad idea. And in this, Western foreign policymakers are uniquely positioned to facilitate such an outcome.