Belarusians at Kyiv’s gates?
Dark, dense forests in novels and fairy tales frequently symbolize humanity’s deepest, most raw existential fears — and Belarus’s Białowieża Forest, covering 40 percent of Ukraine’s neighbor to the north, soon may harbor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s greatest nightmare. The Kremlin is staging military forces in those conifer-ladened woods and Russian President Vladimir Putin is desperate to find a victory and running out of patience with his “arsenals of evil” allies — particularly with respect to Belarusian President Viktor Lukashenko — to find a means of pulling it off.
Putin’s impatience, potentially, just led to the possible murder of Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, who died suddenly two days prior to a scheduled meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Makei, initially a critic of Russia in the run-up to the war, “changed his stance” after Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine began. Rumors abound that Makei was “poisoned by toad venom.”
By whom, though? In a plot twist directly out of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford espionage novel “N or M?,” it is not clear if Makei was indeed murdered, whether Lukashenko ordered it to continue to maneuver Belarus to stay out of Putin’s war, or if it was Putin sending Minsk a message to join the fight now, or else.
One report in Ukrinform even suggests that “Russian military intelligence may attempt in the coming days to pursue a scenario involving either an assassination attempt targeting Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko or its imitation, with the aim of ultimately intimidating the latter and prompting him to finally order his troops to directly engage in the war on Ukraine, alongside Russian troops.”
Either way, the Belarusian forest may offer Putin one of his last courses of action to save his war in Ukraine. But is Belarus really an option for Putin? Given the humiliating withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Kherson last month, Putin is left with only a few bad options: Return to pre-Feb. 24 battle positions. Negotiate a ceasefire. Resume the offensive and conduct a second assault on Kyiv from Belarus. Or negotiate a peace deal with Kyiv and withdraw entirely from Ukraine, including Crimea.
Zelensky will not consider any peace settlement failing to include Crimea. Putin, likely, could not withstand — let alone survive — the capitulation of Crimea to Kyiv, thereby ruling out this course of action. Between a return to their pre-Feb. 24 positions and a second assault on Kyiv, the former is the more likely course of action.
Putin’s best course of action would be a Korean War armistice-like end state — a perpetual “frozen conflict” that allows him to maintain control of Crimea. But that simply is not in his DNA, nor would it be accepted by Russian political strategist Alexander Dugin, TV anchor Vladimir Solovyov, oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, siloviki factions or milbloggers. Forced to survive in a win-at-all-cost environment, Putin’s pushing Belarus into war might be his only remaining option — and, significantly, most of the military pieces necessary are already in place.
Putin needs Belarusians at the gates of Kyiv, and fast — as in yesterday fast. Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general of United States Army Europe, noted in an interview with The Economist, Ukraine likely has achieved “irreversible momentum” in its war against Russia and that Crimea could be recaptured by Kyiv in 2023. Lukashenko’s day of reckoning has come and if he decides to not join Putin, it is possible he could be ousted in a Russian-backed coup — or perhaps poisoned with a dose of toad venom of his own.
Lukashenko owes his political existence to Putin, who secured his sixth presidential term in office. But with that loan shark-type assistance came a Mafia-like “offer Lukashenko could not refuse”: loyalty and unbridled support to the Kremlin when called upon.
He got his initial “blood money” call in February. Lukashenko allowed the Kremlin to launch their ground attack into Ukraine from Belarusian territory and permitted ballistic missiles to be launched from inside his country’s borders. Belarus’s industrial military complex has repaired combat-damaged Russian equipment, recently supplied Russia 100 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, and provided medical teams to tend to wounded Russian soldiers in secret field hospitals.
Lukashenko’s “margin call” came a few weeks ago and he waffled in his response to Putin — a response, perhaps, that resulted in Makei’s demise. Lukashenko, once a vociferous supporter of Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, is now trying not to commit Belarusian “boots on ground.”
He understands his limitations, and her name is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — political opposition leader and self-described Belarusian president-elect currently living in exile in Lithuania. The war in Ukraine is not popular, with 90 percent of Belarusians opposing any intervention. One wrong move by Lukashenko in trying to “jump the shark,” and Tsikhanouskaya could make her move.
Lukashenko’s dilemma, however, is similar to Putin’s. The Belarusian leader has only bad options to choose from. Choosing any of them may result in his ouster from power and, potentially, a date with a rope, either at the hands of Putin or at the hands of Tsikhanouskaya.
Putin urgently needs Belarus’s barbarians at the gates of Kyiv and, for now, Lukashenko’s only play is to continue to allow Russia to stage forces in Belarus. In appeasing the Kremlin, he is already too far down Putin’s rabbit hole. To date, Lukashenko agreed to the formation of a joint military group between Belarus and Russia and deployed them to the Ukrainian border in response to an alleged “Ukrainian threat to Belarus.”
While his decision was rationalized by its defensive mission, it is very capable of transitioning into an offensive tool, with or without his consent. Moscow has committed upwards of 9,000 soldiers, and reports estimate the joint force could have as many as 70,000 Belarusian troops and 15,000 Russian troops when stood up. Imagery reports from Nov. 8 confirm the Russian build-up, suggesting as many as 7,500 troops and military equipment had arrived in three locations in Belarus. Ukrainian intelligence suggests that number could expand to as many as 20,000.
For now, its primary mission is to demonstrate force — to hold Ukrainian forces in the north while they reposition forces to counter the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson, Luhansk, and Donetsk. Ukraine is not waiting, though, and has been actively placing obstacles along the border, urging G7 leaders to send “international observers” to monitor the border, and engaging in psychological operations — appealing to Belarusian and Russian soldiers to not follow orders to attack Ukraine.
To prevail in Ukraine, Moscow needs Belarus. The Kremlin needs training areas, logistical hubs, rail networks, military hardware, and equipment to outfit their military. Sooner than later, Putin will come for Belarus’s trained soldiers as well, and Lukashenko knows it. These two militaries have trained together; they share doctrine and equipment, and speak the same language. To meet the potential demand, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, “the military commissariat of Belarus’s Brest Oblast has issued a call for tenders to print 50,000 call-up notices before 31 December.”
The Russian devil went down to Belarus looking for souls to steal — and now Putin, having stolen them, is insisting on his due from Lukashenko. Zelensky’s challenge in return? If necessary, and called upon, turn the gates of Kyiv once more into Russia’s fiery gates to Hell.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), DIA, NSA and NGA. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.