The impact of the Russian military’s withdrawal from Kherson City and the west bank of the Dnipro River in Ukraine earlier this month following humiliating setbacks on the battlefield has resulted in analysts rushing to rethink their projections of the endgame in the stand-off between the West and Russia.
But what has been largely under the radar till now are the consequences the faltering Russian “special military operation” could have on Moscow’s closest ally Belarus, and the potential for turmoil in the Caucasus it engenders.
The military setbacks suffered by the Russians will inevitably lead to political reconfiguration in Moscow and while President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to go anywhere in a hurry, this will inevitably have an impact on the situation in Belarus. It has already resulted in the political enfeeblement of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and a loosening of his tight grasp on power. As European foreign policy expert Pavel K. Baev has written recently, Mr. Lukashenko has so far managed to resist pressure to partake directly in the invasion of Ukraine, but the February offensive by a Russian grouping of forces toward Kiev from Belarusian territory made the country a party to the aggression and the West’s sanctions regime was duly enforced against it.
Additionally, the suppression of mass protests in the summer of 2020 has left the Lukashenko regime with a dwindling domestic support base. Opposition leaders, though either imprisoned or expelled, are well-organized and united, mainly under the leadership of Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The signs are that preparations for a fresh uprising are underway. Mr. Putin’s worries at home given the faltering Ukraine campaign make it unlikely that he will be able to come to the rescue of Mr. Lukashenko as he has in the past.
The Belarusian military/ riot police’s capacity for enforcement of dictatorial orders, observers say, is now exhausted and cannot be rebuilt. Mr. Lukashenko has, Houdini-like, emerged from many a political crisis intact in the past, but he is now dependent almost entirely on Mr. Putin’s goodwill. That’s not a very secure place to be in now. An important difference between the Opposition-civil society protests being planned in Belarus now and the mass demonstrations in 2020, is that two years ago there was practically no animosity toward Russia, adds Baev.
The Ukraine war has, however, significantly changed public attitudes in Belarus. It would not be an exaggeration to say the Lukashenko regime is tottering. The sequence of military victories by Ukraine would also have an impact on the wider Caucasus which was plagued by armed conflicts through the 1990s till the region was “pacified” by Russian power projections in various forms, including the August 2008 war with Georgia, Moscow’s so-called peacekeeping operation in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, and the propping up in Chechnya of the brutal ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. The chipping away at Russian military might by the Ukrainians and the recognition of this weakness by “conflict entrepreneurs” is an ominous portent for instability.