Belarus walks a tightrope with Russia

10 min readJun 21, 2024


Belarus has become a key asset for Russia while trying to maintain some strategic independence. This approach will become increasingly strained as the war in Ukraine drags on.

By Stefan Hedlund (published with the consent of GIS ©, all images © Pierre Crom)

Ukraine: A Ukrainian soldier enjoys the view in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, which is approximately 150 km from the border with Belarus. © Pierre Crom

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been busy cementing his reputation as a political gambler, and the ultimate survivor. In power for 30 years (since 1994), he has lasted longer than any other leader raised in and formed by the Soviet Union. That includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has “only” been in power since 2000, and even surpasses Stalin, who was in (undisputed) power from 1929 until 1953.

Born in 1954, President Lukashenko is two years younger than President Putin, and although both have faced speculation about illness and a supposed imminent demise, the two men appear to be fit and ready to rule for another decade or more. While they have made sure of their positions through the ruthless suppression of dissent, Mr. Lukashenko has outdone his Russian counterpart. Belarus has not had to resort to constitutional shenanigans, as in 2008 when Dmitry Medvedev was appointed as Russia’s “caretaker” president in between terms for Mr. Putin, and has experienced nothing like the mobilization of discontent among elites that shook the Kremlin in the winter of 2011–2012.

Although Russian domestic repression has intensified and is now on par with Belarus, Mr. Lukashenko has a longer track record of cracking down forcefully on any sign of discontent. His electoral victories have been more like those in North Korea than Russia, and he projects none of the paranoia that has become a hallmark of the Putin regime.

Belarus: A comedian performs in a theater in Minsk. © Pierre Crom

Lukashenko’s political theater

Given its strategic location, wedged in between NATO and Russia, Belarus is key to any discussion about the future of European security. President Lukashenko has certainly supplied bluster; at the end of March, for example, he used the occasion of troop inspection near the Lithuanian border to threaten an invasion of both Lithuania and Poland. In early May, he announced that Belarus was joining Russia in conducting readiness checks on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.

While this may sound threatening, it is political theater. Belarus is not going to invade either Lithuania or Poland, at least not alone. And the presumed placing of Russian nuclear weapons on its territory has little military significance. If Moscow wants to play the nuclear card, it surely will not depend on help from Minsk. Just as with the Russian threat to station missiles close to the Finnish border, the only military significance of placing launchers close to the enemy is that it makes them easier to target.

Yet, playing political theater is what President Lukashenko does best. His skillful balancing act between Russia and the European Union showcases his track record as a successful gambler. Belarus has formed part of the Union State of Russia and Belarus ever since it was created in 1999, but the marriage has not been consummated. Moscow has at times pressed hard for full harmonization, including a common currency, but Minsk has been evasive. The prospect of a permanent Russian military presence in the country has been especially contentious.

Facts & figures, Russia and Belarus: Together again?

  • In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus (under Alexander Lukashenko) and Russia signed a series of agreements toward economic, military and political integration.
  • These included an agreement over the Community of Belarus and Russia (1996), the Treaty on the Union between Belarus and Russia (1997) and finally the formation of the Union State of Belarus and Russia (1999), which officially governs through today.
  • Belarus is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, created by Russia to answer military and economic alliances in the West.
  • However, interest in fully integrating Russia and Belarus, as envisioned by the Union State, has waxed and waned over time, with Minsk especially wary of giving up sovereignty.

The standard Belarusian play to ward off proposals for tighter integration with Russia has been to make overtures suggesting closer relations with the EU. Although Mr. Lukashenko has been branded as the last dictator in Europe — and while he enjoys boasting about this distinction — Brussels has remained hopeful about a turn for the better. Belarus has featured in EU projects like Wider Europe and the Eastern Partnership, and Brussels has provided some support to Belarusian opposition groups in exile. Neither side has been willing to give up on eventually winning Minsk for its own.

Belraus: A poster of Stalin is visible as actors reenact World War II scenes at the Brest Fortress. © Pierre Crom

Maneuvering between Russia and the West

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Lukashenko has provided ample demonstration of his ability to maneuver between Russia and the West, antagonizing both sides but not so much as to provoke serious countermeasures. He allowed Belarus to serve as a staging ground for the Russian invasion but refused to send his own troops into battle. He allowed his airfields to be used by Russian aviation but declined to deal with partisan activity targeting vital Russian transport routes. He played an important role in settling the affair with Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who spooked Mr. Putin by threatening to march on the Kremlin, and he has allowed Russian nuclear weapons to be stationed in his country.

What role is Belarus destined to play? Is it on the cusp of becoming fully integrated into the Russian Federation and its war machinery — or should we expect Mr. Lukashenko to keep a few aces up his sleeve, preparing to hedge against the possibility of an eventual Russian defeat? And what role would Western governments tolerate him playing in a scenario where Moscow is indeed facing defeat?

One important consequence of Russia’s invasion is that it has transformed relations with Belarus. Long a beneficiary of Russian life support, from the supply of cheap energy to investment in Belarusian companies, Belarus has instead now become an increasingly important Kremlin asset.

Minsk has supported the Russian policy of weaponizing migration, causing concern in Poland and Lithuania. It has supplied Russia with much-needed artillery rounds out of its stocks and has served as an important conduit for Russian imports of sanctioned goods. Large Chinese transport aircraft have been landing in Belarus, presumably with critical loads of dual-use technologies. In the first three months of 2024, Chinese exports to Belarus were up 300 percent over the same period in 2019. It is also suspected that Belarus serves as a transit country for illicit exports to Russia, even from staunchly pro-Ukrainian states like Poland and Lithuania. As the Ukrainian drone bombing campaign against Russian oil refineries has intensified, Belarus has also become a vital supplier of gasoline.

These developments cast doubt on whether Mr. Lukashenko will be able to continue his twin successes as both the ultimate gambler and the ultimate survivor. The time for playing that game may be running out.

An important constraint on Mr. Lukashenko’s room for maneuvering is that his relations with the EU are now being strained to the limit. Although the domestic opposition in Belarus has never come close to posing a threat to the regime, as was the case with the mobilization of elites in Russia, there have been bloody battles in the streets and the jails have been filled with political prisoners. Following fraudulent elections in August 2020, the EU imposed sanctions that have since been repeatedly prolonged. If Mr. Lukashenko wants to play Brussels against Moscow for another round, he will need to engage in some very creative thinking.

Ukraine: Victims of the Russian offensive launched from Belarus against Ukraine are buried in the Irpin cemetery. © Pierre Crom


The most likely development is that the war against Ukraine drags on and that Belarus keeps at its balancing game, leaning ever closer toward Russia but stopping short of full support — or indeed full integration. The problem for President Lukashenko is that this act is becoming increasingly fragile. Two alternative scenarios can illustrate what is at stake.

Russia-Belarus military integration

The first is predicated on a scenario of Russia holding onto significant territory in Ukraine, followed by a potent, probing attack against a NATO member state. This would also entail a seamless integration of Belarus into the Russian war machine, a highly undesirable outcome for the Western alliance. A two-pronged attack against Lithuania that emanates from Belarus and Kaliningrad would have two important consequences: It would cut off the Baltic region from Poland, while offering the Russian armed forces a large staging area for a major onward assault.

The current state of NATO forces suggests that the alliance is poorly equipped to face such a threat. While the Kremlin has openly moved to a total-war economy, boosting its military hardware output, most European countries still seem to ignore the tacit race in military-industrial production. This means NATO has every incentive to prevent Belarus from becoming a staging ground for a Russian offensive. The question is, then, what is NATO both willing and able to do.

Belarus: Residents and officials commemorate Vitebsk’s liberation by the Red Army during World War II. © Pierre Crom

Breaking from Russia?

An alternative scenario of Russia meeting serious setbacks in Ukraine is more intriguing, in that it would put some very tough choices to the Lukashenko regime. It could decide to go down with Russia, which would deliver a severe economic contraction and demand even tighter repression. Or it could attempt to break free and seek to ally with the West.

A Belarusian break with Moscow would be the final straw for Russia’s ambition to play the role of a great power. An immediate consequence would be the loss of the Kaliningrad exclave, and with it the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet. Its only remaining base would be at Kronstadt, outside St. Petersburg, which is easily interdicted by Finland and Estonia. A substantial stretch of Ukraine’s border to the north would also be secured, while NATO access to the territory of Belarus would present an existential threat to the Russian Federation.

Given these drastic consequences, Russia should be expected to try hard to keep Belarus in line. But how does the situation look from President Lukashenko’s point of view? His most immediate concern about hitching himself to Russia is the prospect of his own political demise. He will be wary of the fate of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was driven into exile by the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” and has since lived in obscurity somewhere in Russia. The fact that the Belarusian leader has sought to build a huge residence close to Sochi, home to President Putin’s own favored palatial hideaway, may suggest he believes in continued good relations. But he is certainly shrewd enough to realize that he cannot bank on any final gesture of friendship from Mr. Putin. What is given can at any time be taken away.

Could President Lukashenko be cajoled into preempting his own exile by defecting to the West, as when the wartime Italian regime turned against Nazi Germany? Given that he would want credible guarantees for his own security, and that of his cronies, the question is what the West would be ready to offer in return. It would likely be a game of both sticks and carrots.

Belarus: Teenagers participating in a contest on World Skateboarding Day in Brest. © Pierre Crom

Western choices

The main European powers have so far not been overly concerned about providing decisive support for the Belarusian opposition in exile. Under a more active policy of destabilization, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya could be recognized as the country’s legitimate president, and efforts could be made to return battle-hardened Belarusian troops that have fought against Russia in Ukraine back home.

Although the Western penchant for appeasement makes this less plausible, the threat of an insurrection that sees the regular army siding with the opposition is something that Mr. Lukashenko could use to convince regime hardliners to stand aside. This is exactly what secured regime change in some of the prior “color revolutions.”

But would the Lukashenko government really dare to face the wrath of Russia by going down this road? If Russia does suffer significant setbacks in Ukraine and face some kind of collapse, this is a distinct possibility — but the West would still be left with the question of what to do with Mr. Lukashenko and his cronies. All told, even if separating Belarus from Russia would be a strategic victory for NATO, the deeply ingrained fear of provoking President Putin suggests this is unlikely.

The most likely scenario, then, remains that as the war grinds on, Belarus will be gradually drawn into the same abyss as Russia. The final act in President Lukashenko’s political theater may be a slow dimming of the lights rather than an abrupt fall of the curtain.

Stefan Hedlund

Stefan Hedlund is a widely published author, researcher and lecturer focusing on Nordic, Russian, Central Asian and post-Soviet affairs. He is based in Sweden. Currently, he is director of research at the Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University. He trained as an economist and has specialized in Russian affairs since the final days of Leonid Brezhnev in the early 1980s. His research interests have branched far beyond economics over the years but have, above all, included an interest in Russian history. Professor Hedlund has published extensively on matters ranging from the Soviet system to post-Soviet transition, and institutional dimensions of the interaction between state and market in a modern economy. He has published more than 20 books, some 200 journal and magazine articles and well over 300 reviews and op-ed pieces. He has traveled and lectured widely in academic as well as business contexts. He has taken two sabbatical semesters at Harvard University in the United States and been a visiting scholar in academic institutions ranging from Stanford University in California to Hokkaido University in Japan and Washington, D.C. His book “Putin’s Energy Agenda: The Contradictions of Russia’s Resource Wealth” was published by Lynne Rienner Publishers of Boulder, Colorado, United States in May 2014. He wrote “Invisible Hands, Russian Experience and Social Science: Approaches to Understanding Systemic Failure,” which was published by Cambridge University Press, in 2011.

“Belarus walks a tightrope with Russia” by Stefan Hedlund is published with the consent of GIS ©, all images © Pierre Crom




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