Sanctions hit Belarus hard but slowly and the country is being drawn deeper and deeper into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Lukashenko is being drawn into the war a lot faster than both he (and probably also Russia) were expecting. In an interview with a Kremlin-affiliated Youtube channel in January, Lukashenko said that in the event of full-scale war, Ukraine would fall in 3-4 days, which doesn’t seem likely at the moment. Lukashenko, who knows that he won’t survive without Putin, needs to do anything he can to help Russia and has even recently announced that Belarus will enter the war with troops on Russia’s side. Belarusian men are, however, not very interested in fighting Putin’s war, and many say they’d rather choose prison than be drafted.
For Lukashenko to go any further in this conflict would likely cause Russia some problems, since Belarusians are very anti-war and are currently aiding Ukrainian authorities with information about Russian troop movements and the low general support for the war. On Telegram, there’s even a chat-bot now dedicated to Belarusians who send videos and pictures of Russian troop movements across Belarus.
In January, American diplomats warned their Belarusian colleagues in New York that participation in a Russian invasion of Ukraine could lead to rifts within the regime, since members of the political elite could refuse a war with Ukraine. While there are signs that the unity within the Russian elite is starting to crack, no clear signs of discord has been seen among the Belarusians.
Yesterday, over 800 Belarusians were arrested in peace demonstrations all over the country. Videos were released on social media of people yelling “No War” while queueing to vote in the constitutional referendum; videos were also released of drivers honking their horns while in car queues in Minsk much like during the protests of 2020.
It would seem as if Belarus has had a slight political awakening after last year's brutal crackdown on any type of political activity in the country. However, whether this will lead to any great political upheaval is doubtful, considering the security forces swift, brutal and effective methods of shutting down any form of openly shown dissent.
Sanctions also appear to be hitting Belarus slowly but steadily, as banks across the country have run out of currency since February 24. Today, Belarus's national bank also announced that it will increase the “refinancing rate” (repo-rate) to 12%; last time the refinancing rate was this high was in 2017 while the country was coming out of its latest financial crisis.
Yesterday, Belarusians voted on changes to the constitution. Many people are said to have followed the opposition's advice of handing in voting cards with both options marked, invalidating them. Nevertheless, the constitutional changes obviously passed. These changes are probably one of the Kremlin’s demands, but they also give Lukashenko certain political security assurances.
First, it grants immunity to former presidents, and secondly it creates a new constitutional body, which in some respects will have higher authority than the government and president. This new constitutional body, the All-Belarusian Assembly, is thought to be Lukashenko’s way of staying in power behind the scenes.
Relating to the war, the constitutional changes will now allow for Belarus to station Russian nuclear weapons on its territory. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the press this earlier in February that if Russia deployed nuclear weapons to Belarus, “this would be a serious change in European security, which cannot go unanswered."
French President Emanuel Macron during a previous meeting with Putin was given assurances that Russian nuclear weapons would not be placed there. However, the current situation makes it seem like all bets are off.
Perhaps something can come out of today's negotiations between Ukraine and Russia that will be held on Belarusian territory. If not, Lukashenko might very well use the Belarusian army in the war, which will create nothing but more problems for him.