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Lukashenko tries to ride out Putin’s sputtering war in Ukraine

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Alexander Lukashenko is Europe’s longest-serving non-royal ruler — and he’s hoping to hang on despite backing Russia’s now-floundering war against Ukraine.

Russia’s February 24 invasion was launched in part from Belarusian territory — providing the jumping-off point for troops aiming to seize Kyiv from the north. Belarus gave logistical support and air bases, but never sent its forces to join the fighting.

Russian troops have since retreated from northern Ukraine and are largely gone from Belarus — opening the way for Lukashenko to try to return to his tried-and-tested method of staying in power by balancing the Kremlin against the West.

He’s putting out feelers to see if his sanctioned regime can play a role in any eventual peace talks ending the war in Ukraine.

“There can be no negotiations without Belarus,” Lukashenko said last month. “There can be no separate agreements behind Belarus’ back.”

That’s a terrible idea, said Pavel Latushko, former Belarusian ambassador to Poland, France and Spain, and now an opposition leader living in exile. He said Lukashenko is trying “to be legalized in the eyes of the international community.”

“This should not be allowed under any circumstances,” Latushko told POLITICO. “It would be perceived as a betrayal by the Belarusian population and would give a very demotivating message to civil society that it’s impossible to replace [a] dictatorship with democracy.”

Lukashenko’s skills at placating more powerful neighbors were put to the test by the war.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin was building up forces around Ukraine ahead of the invasion, Lukashenko first said they were part of military exercises and would soon be going home, before switching tack and saying they’d be staying much longer.

Once the invasion was underway, he made a visit to the Kremlin and pedantically explained to Putin why an invasion was necessary — an appearance that spawned dozens of memes poking fun at his servility to the Russian leader.

While trying to please Putin, who provides the political and financial backing that allows Lukashenko to stay in power, the Belarusian leader also dodged pressure to send his small army into the fray. 

The war isn’t popular at home. According to a poll by independent Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky, two-thirds of the country is opposed to the use of Belarusian infrastructure for Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, 11 percent support Belarusian troops entering Ukraine, and 50.4 percent disapprove of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Dissent at home

Although street protests in late February almost immediately lost momentum, opposition leaders called on supporters to engage in acts of sabotage, for example by disrupting rail traffic carrying supplies to Russian troops.

In March, an opposition supporter was badly wounded during a police raid against attempted acts of railway sabotage.

“Tough arrests of the criminals had a rather effective and sobering effect,” Belarusian Interior Minister Ivan Kubrakov told Lukashenko last month, reporting on what he called “terrorist attacks” against railway infrastructure.

“I have enough forces and assets and the guys who will stand with me, and we will decapitate anyone who wants to disrupt peace and quiet in our country,” Lukashenko replied.

The Belarusian parliament also approved changes to the criminal code that make “attempted acts of terrorism” punishable by death.

The scale and effectiveness of such resistance and sabotage efforts are difficult to assess independently; the opposition says it did succeed in hampering rail traffic, although the network was not paralyzed.

Lukashenko is also trying to use the sanctions imposed against his regime to build a sense that the country is under threat, aiming to strengthen his hold on power; he’s ruled Belarus since 1994.

“We just have to work hard and stop complaining about sanctions,” he said last week, adding: “We must be cautious not to get caught up in some trouble. The main thing is to avoid war.”

His government has been under sanctions for years, but the scale ramped up after the violent crackdown following the fraudulent 2020 presidential election, was boosted yet again when the country last year illegally diverted an airplane to land in Minsk to arrest an opposition activist, and then hit new levels of toughness following the invasion of Ukraine.

“We are strengthening once more our sanctions against the Kremlin and its collaborator, Lukashenko’s regime,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the start of the war.

Now Lukashenko is trying to put a little daylight between Minsk and Moscow.

Despite toughening the law against protests, Lukashenko has also moved some political prisoners from jail to house arrest and allowed for visa-free travel to Belarus from Lithuania and Latvia. A migration crisis provoked by Lukashenko, who encouraged people to fly to Minsk and try to enter the EU, has eased.

Diplomatic feelers

On March 6, almost immediately after Russian troops withdrew from northern Ukraine, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei sent a letter to some of his EU counterparts, in which he “categorically” rejected “any insinuations about Belarus somehow being involved in the hostilities in Ukraine.”

He also urged “[availing] ourselves of the diplomatic toolbox to reestablish dialog.” 

Latushko said Makei’s letter should be met with “stone-cold silence.”

The letter was sent to Germany, France, Austria and Hungary, the opposition said. But the response has been cautious.

A French diplomat told POLITICO that France doesn’t recognize the results of the 2020 presidential election, demands a release of all political prisoners and calls on Belarus to stop allowing its territory to be used in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

An Austrian foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed receipt of the letter and said Vienna “is in the process of discussing it with its partners in the EU.” Hungary’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Latushko warned Belarus is likely to return to past efforts to trade political prisoners for an easing of sanctions, and that Lukashenko’s diplomats are also spinning the line that “the only person who can save Belarus and protect it from Russia is Lukashenko.”

“It’s an attempt to regain legitimacy, lift sanctions, & carry on business as usual,” said Franak Viačorka, an adviser to opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

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