WARSAW — When huge street protests swept across Belarus two years ago after a fraud-tainted election, the East European nation’s strongman leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, was propped up by the Kremlin, which sent security officers and money to support him.
Today, eight months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Lukashenko’s Russian-enabled grip on power risks slipping as Moscow pressures him to get more involved in the faltering military campaign next door in Ukraine.
Russia started its invasion of Ukraine in February with an abortive thrust toward Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, from Belarusian territory. With his forces now largely bogged down or in retreat, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is looking to Mr. Lukashenko for more robust support.
After a meeting with Mr. Putin in St Petersburg last weekend, Mr. Lukashenko on Monday told military and security officials that Ukraine, Poland and NATO were “trying to drag us into a fight.”
“We must not let them drag us into a war,” he added.
His remarks, though aimed at NATO, revealed a deep unease with what Western and Ukrainian officials believe is increasing Russian pressure to send Belarusian forces to fight.
Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst who fled to Poland after a brutal crackdown on postelection protests in 2020, cautioned that it was unclear exactly what Mr. Putin had asked of the Belarusian leader in St Petersburg but, he added: “it is very clear that Lukashenko is not yet willing to join the war” because of the immense political risks that would bring.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a Belarusian opposition leader and a 2020 presidential candidate now in exile, this week described any direct entry into the war by her country as “political suicide” for Mr. Lukashenko.
There has been a flurry of troop movement and other military activity across Belarus in recent days. But among the most conspicuous movements reported by the Belarusian Hajun project, which monitors military activity, has been the transfer by rail of Belarusian tanks and other equipment to Russia and away from territory near Ukraine, apparently to help bolster Moscow’s dwindling stock of hardware.
The Institution for the Study of War, an America research group, has assessed as “highly unlikely” the possibility that Belarus becomes directly involved in the war.
Even without entering the conflict directly, however, Mr. Lukashenko is already struggling with a host of new dangers created by Mr. Putin’s invasion. These include a steady flow of opposition activists, who were previously committed to nonviolent protest, going to Ukraine to take up arms against Russia.
These volunteer fighters have so far stayed away from Belarusian territory but have already radicalized an opposition movement that now, for the first time, has training with modern weapons and experience in combat.
“We have two goals. We are helping to defend Ukraine against Russia but also advancing the time of Belarus’ own liberation from Lukashenko,” said Vadim Kabanchuk, deputy commander of the Kalinouski Regiment, a volunteer force helping Ukraine which he said has nearly 500, mostly Belarusian, fighters.
“The main reason Lukashenko has survived so long is support from Putin. If Putin exhausts his resources in Ukraine he will have less left to support Lukashenko,” Mr. Kabanchuk, 47, added in an interview this week during a visit to the Polish capital, Warsaw, where he was recruiting volunteer fighters among members of Poland’s large Belarusian diaspora.
A senior Ukrainian intelligence official said the Belarusian fighters, integrated into Ukraine’s International Legion, were important symbolically but numbered fewer than claimed by Mr. Kabanchuk. A second group of armed Belarusians, Pahonia, is also fighting in Ukraine but is even smaller.
Mr. Lukashenko’s security services are nonetheless taking these forces seriously.
Ivan Tertel, the head of Belarus’ security service, which still uses its Soviet-era name, K.G.B., warned last week that the Kalinouski Regiment and other “armed formations” were being “prepared in Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania in pursuit of their goal of seizing power in the Republic of Belarus by force.” Poland and Lithuania, which share borders with Belarus, are both members of NATO.
Mr. Kabanchuk, the Kalinouski Regiment deputy commander, said the current danger to Mr. Lukashenko, is not an armed assault from Ukraine by his political foes but his own alliance with and dependence on the Kremlin.
“He no longer has any room for maneuver,” Mr. Kabanchuk said. “He used to play between Russia and the West. But Putin has now pulled him in too far.”
“They will both sink together on this Titanic,” he added.
Mr. Lukashenko’s usually highly disciplined government, clearly rattled by the pressure, is indeed showing signs of strain.
In an interview published on Friday with the Russian newspaper Izvestiya, Belarus’ veteran foreign minister Vladimir V. Makei said that, after meetings between Mr. Lukashenko and his security officials, “a counterterrorist operation regime” had been introduced across the country to guard against “provocations.” A few hours later, the state news agency, Belta, citing the K.G.B., said contradicted those claims and said that no such special regime was in force.
Until Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Belarus had been stuck in the same grimly repetitive cycle of events for more than two decades: an implausible election victory by Mr. Lukashenko followed by peaceful street protests and then, with support from Russia, a violent crackdown.
In 2020, after Mr. Lukashenko claimed that he had been re-elected in yet another landslide for a 6th term in office, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest what they and Western countries denounced as a transparently rigged vote.
It was the most serious unrest since Mr. Lukashenko won his first and relatively fair election in 1994. Still, he managed to hold on to power thanks to unwavering support from Mr. Putin.
The Ukraine war, however, is threatening to disrupt this cycle, straining Russia’s resources and raising the risks to Mr. Lukashenko.
In what many analysts interpreted as a desperate effort to keep cut-price oil and other aid from Russia flowing while avoiding direct involvement in Ukraine, Mr. Lukashenko announced on Monday that he would let Russian troops return to Belarus in large numbers and form a joint force as a bulwark to NATO.The Belarusian defense ministry said on Friday that Russian troops would arrive in coming days to join this new joint force.
In response, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Tuesday asked leaders of the Group of 7 nations to send observers to his country’s nearly 700-mile border with Belarus, warning that “Russia is trying to directly involve Belarus in this war.”
But as of early this week, the Ukrainian general staff said it had seen “no signs” that Mr. Lukashenko’s army was gearing up for an attack.
Belarus has few combat ready troops and its equipment consists largely of Soviet-era hand-me-downs. Though far from a formidable fighting force, the Belarusian military has stirred concerns in Ukraine that it could be used to divert Kyiv’s attention and troops from fighting in the south and east to guard against the possibility of a renewed assault from the north on the Ukrainian capital.
This effort at distraction, if that is what it is, however, has come at a heavy price to Mr. Lukashenko. Increasingly he is seen by Ukraine and the West as a complicit ally of Russia, who deserves to be slapped with the same heavy sanctions already imposed on Russia. It has also energized his political foes.
Silenced inside by Belarus by mass arrests following the 2020 protests, Mr. Lukashenko’s exiled and often fractious opponents have a new spring in their step, believing that Russia is now inadvertently helping their cause by pushing the Belarusian leader into a dangerous corner.
Long committed to peaceful protest, the opposition movement has also taken a more radical turn as activists like Mr. Kabanchuk take up arms in Ukraine. Ms. Tikhanovskaya and her supporters still promote nonviolent change but also voice support for Belarusian fighters in Ukraine.
Praising members of the Kalinouski Regiment as “brave men and women,” Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to Ms. Tikhanovskaya, said they were “risking their own lives and health because they understand that if Ukraine wins Belarus has a chance for changes. If the Ukrainians lose, there will be no Ukraine and no Belarus.”
Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania.