The free world was alarmed in April this year when Putin made global headlines by announcing an agreement with Minsk to station Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
When a leading politician and former spy dies in mysterious circumstances, friends and colleagues are bound to be worried. So it was last November, when Vladimir Makei, Belarus’s foreign minister “passed away suddenly”, according to Belarusian media, amid claims that he was in secret contact with the West over the war in Ukraine and was preventing President Vladimir Putin from incorporating Belarus into Russia. Friends confirmed that the 64-year-old Makei had looked perfectly healthy in the days leading up to his “heart attack” and was not known to be suffering from any chronic illness. His death occurred days before he was due to attend an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in the city of Lodz to meet key Western politicians and officials—a session from which Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was banned. Following the meeting in Poland, Makei was due to have a scheduled meeting with Lavrov, amid Russian suspicions over his back channel liaising with Western interlocutors.
Such was the concern in Minsk of the death of the second most important man in Belarus, that the country’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, ordered the replacement of his cooks, servants and guards, for fear of assassination. Lukashenko’s children were given extra security. As one close associate is alleged to have said, Lukashenko fears his supposed ally is arranging “a magnificent funeral” for him. Lukashenko knows full well Russia’s known ability to poison a man so that everyone thinks that he’s died of natural causes.
Fast forward to last week and the world’s media was entertained to the sight of President Lukashenko struggling to speak and unable to walk less than a quarter of a mile alongside President Putin in Moscow’s Red Square during the Victory Day walkabout on 9 May. Last Sunday, Lukashenko missed a major state celebration for the first time, sparking further speculation that the 68-year-old dictator is seriously unwell. Lukashenko normally speaks at the annual National Flag, Emblem and Anthem Day, but this year his prime minister, Roman Golovchenko, read the message on his behalf. There was no mention of the reason for Lukashenko’s absence, five days after he appeared unwell in Moscow.
On Monday, Belarus’ state news agency, Belta, reported that Lukashenko had inspected an air force installation and a photo was posted to the presidential website showing him standing stiffly in a military jacket, clearly in pain, taking a salute from an officer. The message was clearly designed to dispel rumours and reports that Lukashenko was seriously ill—although a bandage was strapped to his left hand. On 9 May, in Moscow’s Red Square, his right hand was bandaged.
Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, has led Belarus since 1994, stifling any dissent with brutal repressions in a country of 9.3 million people. Belarus’ Soviet-style economy has for decades heavily relied upon cheap Russian energy and loans, which Moscow has generously granted on multiple occasions. In August 2020, after Lukashenko “won” a sixth term in an election that was widely denounced as rigged, there were months of unprecedented protests in the country. The government responded with a violent crackdown, arresting more than 35,000 people, with thousands brutally beaten and raped while in custody. Scores of independent media organisations have been shut down, thousands of activists have fled the country, resulting in Lukashenko’s government being hit with crippling sanctions by the United States and the European Union. Fellow autocrat, Vladimir Putin supported Lukashenko in suppressing the demonstrations, and in return, the Belarusian leader threw his weight behind Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The free world was alarmed in April this year when Putin made global headlines by announcing an agreement with Minsk to station Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory, a move widely viewed as a further escalation in Putin’s sabre-rattling tactics as he attempts to discourage the West from continuing to arm Ukraine. The nuclear expansion will also advance the Kremlin’s goal of consolidating informal control over the country. While Putin was at pains to stress that this decision was in response to a direct request from Lukashenko, few were convinced. Instead, news of the planned deployment simply served to underline Belarus’ status of a client state of Russia. Just as Vladimir Putin is determined to control Ukraine’s political destiny, if not its territory, so he is seeking to pursue Russia’s historic tradition of seeking security in empire, which at a minimum, includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Even without nuclear weapons on its soil, Moscow has exerted considerable military influence over Minsk because of the presence of so many Russian troops on its territory. While Lukashenko has so far managed to avoid Belarus being sucked into Russia’s war in Ukraine, he allowed the country to be used as a staging point for the invasion fifteen months ago. He also provided Moscow with munitions long before agreeing to the staging of nuclear weapons on his territory. Earlier this year Lukashenko threatened that should Belarus be attacked, the country is “ready to wage war alongside the Russians”.
With this level of support, why would President Putin wish to take the dramatic step of formally annexing Belarus? In February this year a clue appeared. A leaked document from the Kremlin’s Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation, revealed plans to merge Russia and Belarus into a single Moscow-controlled union state by 2030, in effect a total takeover of Belarus’s political, economic and military spheres. Observers believe that Lukashenko’s demise or retirement could hasten the timetable for this takeover of Belarus by some form of direct or hybrid operation by the Kremlin.
The potential advantage for Moscow would be not only an additional 48,000 troops provided by Belarus’ army, but also the prospect of up to 1.5 million military personnel outside of the armed forces, according to State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, Alexander Volfovich. This could also be supplemented by an additional 150,000 volunteers from a newly formed territorial defence force, ordered by Lukashenko last February. With the urgent need to provide more recruits for Russia’s ailing venture in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin might consider this a worthwhile gambit, given the Kremlin’s strategy of “recruiting” far from Moscow or St Petersburg. The last thing he wants to do is aggravate the elites of these important cities by enlisting their youth for almost certain death in Ukraine’s “meat-grinder”.
Although Putin might be tempted, he would be taking a considerable risk in pursuing this path. Two months ago, Chatham House carried out an extensive survey and discovered that only 3% of Belarusians supported joining the conflict on Russia’s side. There is already robust Belarusian partisan activity aimed at sabotaging the war effort and memory is strong of the 2020 revolt following the stolen election. In fact Lukashenko only narrowly survived the state-wide protests three years ago because of the considerable brute force provided by Russian security forces. Any attempt by Putin to take over Belarus following Lukashenko’s incapacity or demise would be met by similar fierce resistance and again require considerable Russian forces to overcome, forces which are now tied up in Ukraine.
Lukashenko, like Putin, has no obvious successor who could continue his notorious regime. Unlike Russia, however, Belarus has a strong opposition waiting in the wings for the moment to return and take back the country. Its leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was widely recognised the true winner of the 2020 elections. Lukashenko immediately locked up any remaining opposition and Tsikhanouskaya subsequently fled to neighbouring Lithuania, where she currently heads an active opposition council, recognised as Belarus’s official government-in-exile.
Lukashenko’s illness has therefore provided Putin with a dilemma. The Russian president would most likely be glad to be free of Lukashenko, given their strained relations over recent years, not least due to the latter’s habit of holding out on granting concessions sought by Russia. Should Putin decide not to act after Lukashenko’s demise, however, a successful takeover of Belarus by Tsikhanouskaya’s opposition group would be a serious blow to his ambition in reviving Russia’s greatness and influence over the near abroad. He couldn’t allow this to happen, and all bets are on Putin annexing Belarus when Lukashenko naturally, or unnaturally, departs this world.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.