The response to Russia’s unprompted invasion of Ukraine over the past week has been one of incredible, unprecedented isolation. Sanctions and freezes, targeting assets and draining currency reserves, pummeling the ruble and cleaving Russian trade from much of the rest of the world—all of it has come hard and fast, aimed at transforming Russia into a continental North Korea. And with good reason: Since NATO troops won’t engage their Russian counterparts in Ukraine, economic warfare remains at the top of the West’s playbook. Isolation remains the goal, with the aim of quarantining this Putinist virus.
And yet, despite all the successes in the West’s response thus far, it’s not quite fair to call Russia isolated. Because Moscow retains a close partner in this effort to geld Ukraine—a vassal state that presents the model for what Putin would like to accomplish in Ukraine: Belarus.
The fact that Belarus, suffering under the boot heel of decades-long dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, has stood fast by Moscow is hardly a surprise. While much of the world watched Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s borders in the lead-up to invasion, wondering whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would really launch a strategically disastrous invasion, many missed that the Kremlin had already effectively completed its soft annexation of Belarus. Where Minsk once flitted between Moscow and the West, testing waters on both ends and playing both sides off against one another, this new geopolitical era sees Belarus as, essentially, an appendage of the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist designs.
In many ways, the fact that Belarus has effectively become Russia’s westernmost oblast—one that can now act as a staging ground for aggression aimed at Ukraine—is a logical outcome of the past two years. In 2020, buffeted by economic stagnation and exhaustion from Lukashenko’s years-long thuggishness, Belarusian voters turned out in a historic election to vote in Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya as the country’s new president. Or so they thought. Lukashenko had other plans. Wielding his security services, bloodying and bludgeoning thousands of protesters, Lukashenko claimed fraudulent victory. For months, Lukashenko’s grip on the nation tottered, with Belarusian citizens around the country marching for his ouster. The dictator clung on, hanging by the fingernails.
And then Moscow stepped in. Providing funds, providing bodies, the Kremlin shoved Lukashenko back onto the presidential pedestal. With a weak-kneed European Union and a Trump administration focused more on trying to steal its own election, the West watched a moment of potential transformational change in Belarus fizzle out, unwilling to muscle Lukashenko from office.
We’ve now seen the consequences. The dictator jailed and exiled his opposition. He bashed skulls, brutalized protesters, snatched continued dictatorship from the jaws of democratic defeat. He also dragged European planes out of the sky, kidnapping dissidents in the process. The West watched and wrung its hands, all while Putin shouldered Lukashenko’s brittle regime.
It’s not hard to see why Putin got involved. In buttressing Lukashenko’s regime, Russia became Belarus’s outright suzerain. Putin became Lukashenko’s patron—or, put another way, Lukashenko transformed into Putin’s lapdog. Any sense of Belarusian independence remained in name only. And Moscow wouldn’t have it any other way.
All of which has meant additional horror for Ukraine. Rather than facing Russian troops streaming only from the east and south, it must contend with Moscow’s battalions scouring the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, freely welcomed by Lukashenko. Officials in Moscow claimed the troops were in Belarus for “drills”—a claim about as convincing as the previous lies that the Kremlin would never launch an outright invasion of Ukraine proper. Already, missiles have begun to rain on Ukrainian territory from Belarus.
Things culminated on Sunday, when Lukashenko oversaw a sham constitutional referendum that renounced Belarus’s non-nuclear status. As one of the handful of post-Soviet states (alongside Ukraine) that handed off its nuclear weaponry in the mid-1990s, Belarus previously mandated it would never return to hosting any nuclear arsenal, either foreign or domestic. So much for all that.
At this point, it’s just a matter of time before Belarusian troops join their Russian counterparts in invading Ukraine. On Sunday, a White House official said that Belarus was set to do just that, linking its forces with the Russian troops targeting Ukrainian soldiers and civilians alike. The number of invaders seeking to carve Ukraine, that is, is set to double.
The prognosis is dire and growing darker by the day. But then, things are still contingent. And Lukashenko may be looking askance at the first week of the war, realizing he’s tied himself to a madman, and seeing that the facts thus far—Kyiv still standing, Ukraine dominating the information space, crippling sanctions set to decimate his patron’s economy—don’t augur well for a lapdog.
For the longer things drag in Ukraine, and the bloodier Putin’s nose, the greater the likelihood that Ukraine becomes the deathbed of a pair of dictators who ended up too far over their skis. And Belarusians remain ready to help make that a reality. Tsikhanouskaya, living in Lithuania, said over the weekend that “a majority of [Belarusians] don’t support this war,” citing polls showing barely 10 percent of the country backing Russia’s myopic invasion. That number is almost certain to shrink once Belarusian bodies begin returning and once Belarusians realize the level of devastation Putin has in store for Ukraine.
There is an odd parallel building out of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Where the Kremlin despot saw his moves as necessary to restore the historic “unity” of Russia and Ukraine—based on the fact that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” as he’s said—his moves have only confirmed that Ukraine remains a nation apart. Putin’s irredentism is crafting, in real-time, a renewed Ukrainian identity—a national mythos, forged in the fires of a historic fight for independence.
Yet Ukraine may not be the only nation renewed, and finally free, should Putin’s madness fall short. If things go sideways—as economic collapse cascades across Russia (and beyond), and as Ukrainian drones and troops and airmen continue sending zinc coffins back to Russia—Putin is not the only despot to risk toppling. Because if and when the Russian tyrant goes, his Belarusian counterpart won’t be far behind. And Belarusians can finally finish their national project, and finally be freed of their own despotic foot soldier in Putin’s fratricidal war.