Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Belarus has always played a major role. There is now speculation as to whether the country could become an active war party. How likely is the formation of a second front?
There are increasing rumors of a second front on Ukraine’s northern border. Russia could again march on Kyiv from Belarusian territory.
What’s more, some observers expect Belarus to actively enter the war and launch a joint attack on northern Ukraine. A second front would bind Ukrainian soldiers to the north; Soldiers who would then be missing from the more than 1000 km long front line in southern and eastern Ukraine.
There, the Ukrainian associations would be thinned out. However, this also applies to the Russian army, which already has a shortage of qualified, trained and well-equipped soldiers.
At the beginning of the war, Russia had advanced from Belarusian territory into northern Ukraine; but these unions had to withdraw unsuccessfully at the beginning of April last year. It is therefore questionable whether the Russian army, in its current state of weakness, intends to advance there again.
Observers who think such an advance is possible point to the 45,000 soldiers of the Belarusian army who could take part in the offensive in the north this time.
But the combat effectiveness of the Belarusian army is relatively small. Their soldiers are poorly trained and, above all, poorly equipped. The military added value for the Russian armed forces would therefore be relatively small.
On the other hand, it could be argued that a massive push would force Ukraine, at least for a time, to deploy massive troops and equipment in the north.
A successful advance on Kyiv, on the other hand, is very unlikely with the current Belarusian and Russian soldiers. The added value of a direct entry into the war by Belarus would therefore be manageable. However, the political risks of such a step would be great.
An overwhelming majority of the Belarusian population opposes entering the war. There is also resistance in the ranks of the soldiers, but above all in the Belarusian general staff.
The Belarusian “president” Lukashenko would therefore face considerable risks internally. The resurgence of mass protests in 2020, which could only be put down with brute force and repression, would be very likely.
Could the Belarusian government survive this again? How massive would the desertions in the Belarusian army be?
On the other hand, observers who believe that Belarus will enter the war object that the Belarusian leadership must give in to Russian pressure because Lukashenko can only remain in power with economic, financial and military support from Russia. So Lukashenko has no other choice.
However, this position neglects the fact that the Russian leadership also knows about the domestic political risks in Belarus. Another mass uprising would also be difficult for Russia to control. However, losing control of Belarus is a much greater risk for Russia than not allowing Belarus to enter the war directly.
If Belarus entered the war, Western sanctions against Belarus would also be significantly strengthened. That in turn would further worsen the social situation in the country and make it more costly for Russia to keep Lukashenko in power anyway.
The burden of funding Belarusian allegiance would increase even further. This in a situation where Western sanctions are hitting the Russian economy harder and harder.
The author therefore does not consider the rumors of a Belarusian entry into the war – reinforced by alleged calls on men in Belarus to register – to be very convincing. The risk for the Russian and Belarusian leaders is too high, and the added value for the Russian army is too small. However, Belarus will remain a military base for Russia.
The joint exercises of the armies of both countries will continue and intensify. Air strikes on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure will continue to be launched from Belarusian territory. But the boots of Belarusian soldiers on Ukrainian soil remain unlikely.
Gerhard Mangott is a professor of political science with a special focus on international relations and security in the post-Soviet space. He teaches at the Institute for Political Science in Innsbruck and is a lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna