Alexander Lukashenko
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin following their meeting, in Moscow, Russia on February 18, 2022. (Sergey Guneev / Sputnik via AP)

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is criminal on multiple counts, but some of them should be leveled at one of his main accomplices: Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. 

Russia’s military is executing an unprovoked and unprecedented attack on a peaceful neighbor on many fronts, from the air and sea. The land war, however, would not be as effective or lethal were it not for Lukashenko providing a front along Belarus’s southern border, not far from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. 

Indeed, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky put it bluntly—Belarus is “not neutral,” he said—when weighing potential negotiations in the country’s capital, Minsk. “Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Istanbul, Baku—we proposed all that to the Russian side,” he said. “Any other city would work for us, too, in a country from whose territory rockets are not being fired.” Belarus is, in fact, far from neutral. It is complicit with the Russian attacks, and Zelensky has reckoned that any negotiations on its land would be on enemy territory. 

It didn’t have to be this way. Belarus was early roadkill on the path to Putin’s widening Ukraine war. While the world’s shocked attention is now understandably fixed on a besieged Ukraine, the people of Belarus long ago lost any real shot at their own independence. Lukashenko stole a recent presidential election, used lethal violence to put down popular dissent, surrendered the nation’s sovereignty to Putin, and has since welcomed Russian troops to overrun and occupy the nation. The country has since become the most important staging area for an ongoing war against Russia’s neighbors and NATO strongholds—all of it coordinated and conducted by Moscow. It looks and feels like a throwback to the days of the USSR.

There was a brief moment when Belarus, along with Ukraine and other former Soviet states, appeared to be on the verge of independence and political reform. An independent modern Ukraine painfully and painstakingly grew out of that moment and became an inconvenient fact for Putin and his hopes of reconstituting a Soviet-lite territorial Slavic Leviathan.

In Belarus, however, the independence movement and reformist moment were barely a blip; in fact, the same Communist boss who ruled with an iron fist shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union remains in place today. Lukashenko is one of the longest-running illegitimate leaders in the world, having climbed to power in 1994. He almost makes Putin look like an authoritarian slacker.

Belarusian citizens pay the price for Lukashenko’s power-grabbing impunity. The nation’s economy is rated 45th out of 45 in Europe. The people’s attempt to elect a legitimate leader was thwarted by a Lukashenko-driven suppression machine that aimed to kill, jail, disappear, crush, or cast out any opposition during last year’s presidential referendum.

In a free election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya would have had a real shot at victory when she ran for president in 2020. She became an opposition leader after her video blogger husband and erstwhile presidential candidate, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was capriciously arrested that year. He was tried and sentenced to 18 years in prison for doing what video bloggers do—pointing out political corruption and organizing for political change. Tikhanovskaya now lives in exile in Lithuania and tries to make her voice heard over the deafening sound of Putin’s beating war drums in Ukraine.

On Sunday, in a Twitter video, she declared herself the national leader of Belarus—a move reminiscent in part of Venezuela’s Juan Guiadó, who is currently recognized as the legitimate government representative by nearly 60 nations. It is highly unlikely she will be at the negotiating table representing Belarus anytime soon, but if the Putin-Lukashenko axis is defeated or overthrown, she may be first in the line of succession. 

For now, however, Ukraine is subjected to a bloody invasion aided and abetted by Russian troops crossing the Belarus border. Many of the 45,000 Russian troops that were stationed in offensive positions throughout Belarus are on the move in Ukraine. Those Russian troops served as both a Belarusian occupying force and an assembled offensive corps poised to threaten Europe further. 

Russian forces made themselves at home in Belarus, operating in a quasi-recognized Russo-Belarusian “Union State” that effectively melded Minsk into a vassal capital of an aggressively muscle-flexing Putin-led Russian empire bristling with tanks, missiles, and cyberweapons. If those offensive conventional forces and digital tools aren’t enough, not only did Putin’s oversized mini-me leader in Minsk threaten to host nuclear weapons pointed at the West, he has now voted to allow Russian forces and nuclear weapons to be permanently based in Belarus.

This is perhaps the most dangerous move and moral affront to the civilized world. Amid Putin’s war of choice, a new nuclear power has arrived on the international scene. Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous of armaments and effective of deterrents; they are the latest, greatest threat to peace and security. But the current hot war started a long time ago as a hybrid war against the West initiated by both Putin and Lukashenko. 

Indeed, a synchronized Minsk-Moscow hybrid assault on NATO member states Poland and the Baltics started a few years back—and has been steadily picking up steam. The weaponization of refugees last year was an early offensive assault on Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It was a cynical move that took advantage of desperate people and allowed Minsk to profit from human misery. The Putin-Lukashenko tag team leveraged a weak Western moment, and the poorly executed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan further amplified the narrative of NATO division and decline. Moscow mocked the alliance as America tried to manage a peaceful end to its longest war—and as Washington’s friends and allies felt abandoned. 

During this time, Minsk enticed migrants to buy one-way plane tickets to Belarus. Once there, they were shuttled to weak points on the European Union’s borders, then pushed over the semi-permeable boundaries to plead for refuge. To add insult to injury, the Russians then set off a disinformation campaign to draw scorn from rights groups in Poland and the Baltic nations, whom Moscow depicted as not wanting to accept these vulnerable refugees.

The first shots fired in Putin’s latest war were not just the cyberattacks beyond Belarus’s borders, they were also the cynically sent shock troops made up of tired, poor, and huddled masses of men, women, and especially children. The younger the involuntarily conscripted people, the more effective the propaganda of pity. Twenty-four-hour news coverage of the ongoing assault on Ukraine brings steady streams of images of the new refugee class spilling into Poland and other Ukrainian border states. These people are being welcomed and accommodated for now, but the attackers are counting on the refugee flows toward the West to further destabilize NATO and the EU. Instead, they seem to have stiffened the resolve of these institutions and of the European citizenry.

This is the year that Putin’s war on Europe aims to destroy a sovereign Ukraine and turn it into a more resource-rich subjugated nation—a bigger Belarus. For a man bent on survival, Putin seems to see the destruction he wreaks on this border nation as simply the cost of doing business. But such an action could sow the seeds of his demise. 

NATO, the EU, and most of the world are witnessing Ukrainian citizens’ bravery and its leaders’ resolve, and are answering the call for support and unity. Ukraine cannot become another Belarus.

Still, over the last several weeks, as the world watched troop movements and listened to Moscow’s disingenuous diplomacy, Putin pulled off a neat trick. He completed a task he had initiated only a few years earlier. He took over a pliant Belarus without firing a shot or raising a discordant voice in the international community. If he survives this moment, Putin’s gambit will still result in him bringing one more nation into his irredentist game. Belarus is now Russia.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).