Wagner Group, nuclear weapons, and dictatorship. What is happening in Belarus and what is its role in the war with Ukraine

Why is Lukashenko afraid to directly confront the Ukrainian army, why does the dictator need nuclear weapons in Belarus, what are the Wagner mercenaries doing there, and what are the sentiments in Belarusian society? Read below in the material by RBC-Ukraine.

From the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Belarus has taken an actively pro-Russian position. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko allowed the Kremlin to use its territory for the deployment of troops and an attack on Ukraine from the north. Following this, he essentially repeated Russian troops’ narrative by claiming that Ukraine itself was preparing an attack on Belarus.

After a year and a half of war, Russia deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus, causing a significant resonance worldwide. Mercenaries from the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) are amassing in the border territories of the republic, and Belarusian army helicopters are staging provocations near the Polish border. While supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine, Lukashenko’s regime hesitates to send its citizens into the conflict.

Mercenaries for hire

Fighters from the Wagner PMC began massively arriving in Belarus at the end of June, following the unsuccessful “March on Moscow” led by their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. There are estimated to be around 4 to 5 thousand mercenaries in the country. However, there is not a single word in the public space of Russia about why the private military company officially acknowledged by dictator Vladimir Putin is being localized in Belarus.

At the end of July, Russian propaganda began actively spreading the narrative that the Wagner mercenaries were supposedly heading towards the Suwałki Gap — the land border between Poland and Lithuania. Their actions prompted heightened readiness among Polish security forces.

Belarusian analysts and experts converge on the idea that the Wagner mercenaries came to the republic primarily to train the armed forces and local territorial defense. Mainly, they are needed to pass on their combat experience to Belarusian military personnel who haven’t participated in conflicts on the scale of Ukraine’s war with Russia, notes Belarusian journalist Yan Avseyushkin.

“They are involved in training Belarusian military personnel in territorial defense. It’s not a secret; Belarusian propaganda highlights it, and people talk about it. The emphasis is precisely on the fact that these are individuals with combat experience; they can provide what the Belarusian army has never had,” notes Avseyushkin.

Belarusian military personnel are being trained not by former Russian prisoners but by fighters with real experience in military conflicts in Syria and African countries. Currently, the mercenaries are stationed in the village of Tsel in the Asipovichy District which is about 300 kilometers away from the Ukrainian border. According to Anton Motolko, the founder of the Belarusian Hajun project, a small number of instructors-Wagner members are located in the Vitebsk region, where they also undergo training on one of the training grounds.

“I believe that Belarusian military personnel are interested in such training. If we remove the moral aspect, training individuals undoubtedly imparts more knowledge than ordinary exercises on training grounds with theorists,” Motolko mentions in a conversation with RBC-Ukraine.

According to experts, Lukashenko needs the Wagner mercenaries to strengthen his own regime. However, the mercenaries themselves are kept in a barrack-like situation and are not allowed to “mingle,” said Gennady Korshunov, former director of the Institute of Sociology at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.

“Lukashenko is seeking ‘legionnaires’ who will reinforce his position as an occupying administration. I think he understands, first and foremost, that Wagner members won’t be subservient to him. But he’s looking for any opportunity to bolster his stance in this confrontation with society,” Korshunov pointed out.

The Belarusian dictator hopes that the PMC mercenaries, if not directly involved in suppression, will at least teach local security forces and military personnel how to quell isolated conflicts, if they escalate into civil clashes. However, the regime can’t accurately predict whether they can effectively leverage the new mercenary force. Therefore, according to analysts’ assertions, Lukashenko and the officials under his command are attempting to swiftly “ride the wave,” taking advantage of the situation.

See also: “We will win in Ukraine, squeeze Lukashenko out and take power”: Belarusian volunteer fighting in the Ukrainian army

“Moreover, the behavior of some regime representatives is quite illustrative, particularly that of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Nikolay Karpenkov. He’s essentially a henchman of the Belarusian regime. Karpenkov was one of the first to visit the camp of the Wagner members, where they almost got into brawls, took photos, and so on,” adds Korshunov.

The society itself is largely dissatisfied with the presence of the Wagner memebrs near them. The mercenaries are known for their brutality, and besides that, they don’t directly obey Belarusian authorities — the Kremlin remains their ultimate controller.

As for the notion that Wagner mercenaries are being amassed for another attempt to advance into northern Ukraine, analysts are in agreement that in the current situation, it’s practically impossible. There are too few mercenaries to initiate an offensive, and they won’t be able to proceed alongside the Belarusian military. The issue here isn’t that Lukashenko is resisting Putin and actively avoiding direct confrontation with Ukrainian forces.

According to Motolko, this idea was created by Russian and Belarusian propaganda. In reality, Lukashenko is afraid that by starting a war with Ukraine, he would lose power. The Kremlin, based on sociological data, understands this, and it doesn’t want to lose a convenient figure like the Belarusian dictator.

“If Belarusian military personnel were to go to Ukraine, we see the following scenario — a third would be killed immediately, a third would switch sides to join the Ukrainians, and a third might turn their weapons against their commanders, because really, what’s the point? Even this propagandistic narrative about ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ and such is not supported. Lukashenko understands that this would be the end of his system of governance, as he would lose the army as his defense,” Motolko remarks.

Lukashenko’s phantom pain

At the end of March, Putin announced that he would deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus. This was supposedly a “response” to the transfer of depleted uranium shells to Ukraine from the United Kingdom. By propagating the situation effectively, the Kremlin decided to retaliate. In Poland, in response to Russia’s actions, they stated their willingness to join the nuclear exchange program among NATO countries.

“We don’t want to sit idly by while Putin poses various threats,” added Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Ukraine has approached this situation rather calmly. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted that Putin would not use nuclear potential because he “loves life very much.”

The position of the Belarusian regime itself is not considered in the dialogue between states, and this is another fact that demonstrates that the current authority in Belarus is entirely subservient to the Kremlin. Even in the case of nuclear weapon usage, it will rely on decisions made by the Russian government. At the same time, Lukashenko himself tries to portray the situation as if tactical nuclear weapons are being transferred for his personal use.

“Throughout his rule, Lukashenko has expressed with regret on multiple occasions that Belarus gave up its nuclear weapons in the early 90s. So, he definitely holds some sort of phantom pain about this issue. He tries to imply that the nuclear weapons are being handed over almost to him, even though in reality we understand perfectly whose hands these are. It’s like giving nuclear weapons to a puppet, but the strings will still lead to the Kremlin,” noted Avseyushkin.

Through propaganda, the Belarusian dictator conveys to the society that he now personally possesses nuclear weapons. Perhaps the regime is attempting to turn tactical nuclear weapons into another lever of pressure on Belarusians, or it’s an effort to show the society that the regime is strengthening and has “influential friends.” The Belarusians themselves have formed what sociologists define as an “anti-nuclear consensus.”

“Supporters of deployment — those who endorse the placement of nuclear weapons range from around 25% (according to internet surveys) to 35% (based on telephone surveys). In any case, it turns out that more than half — from 60 to 70% are those who are against it. In other words, an anti-nuclear consensus exists in Belarus,” emphasizes Korshunov.

Accurately predicting whether nuclear weapons will be used in Belarus is impossible. It is evident that for the Kremlin, deploying tactical nuclear weapons in a subordinate state is intended to in some way intimidate the West and compel it to refrain from assisting Ukraine. In reality, we see that the intensity of aid does not depend on this issue.

Internal occupation

In 2020, presidential elections took place in Belarus. At that time, Lukashenko had already been ruling the country for 26 years, and previous presidential elections had mostly resembled the reappointment of the dictator for another term. However, these elections clearly demonstrated that Belarusians needed a new leader. Several opposition candidates registered, during debates Lukashenko openly insulted his opponents, and then most of them were arrested, leaving only Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya free.

See also: Wagner is already in Belarus: who is in greater danger?

Independent observers reported massive falsifications in the vote count even at the level of district polling stations. According to observations by various non-governmental organizations, Lukashenko garnered around 34%, while Tsikhanouskaya received 56%. Online surveys showed that only 3% of the population was willing to vote for the dictator. When state media announced that Lukashenko had received a whopping 80% after the vote count, Belarusians took to the streets in protest.

Today, three years after these events, the situation in Belarus is referred to as “internal occupation.” Out of the 9 million Belarusians, about a third have directly or indirectly confronted the regime in its various manifestations. The pressure on society itself has become more structured, a certain hierarchy has emerged. For instance, the long-standing Institute of Deputy Ideologues found new relevance.

“The Institute of Deputy Directors for Ideological Matters is most often managed by former KGB personnel who retire. They control everything — from large factories to newspapers. Plus, it includes the education system, various pre-education systems, and military-patriotic clubs, which are planned to be significantly expanded under the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” says sociologist Korshunov.

In total, there are about 7-8 levels in the repressive machine of the Belarusian regime, explains the expert. The authorities control all media, for which Lukashenko “invited” journalists from the propagandistic media outlet Russia Today. They started working on state channels instead of those who were dismissed due to ideological reasons. However, for Belarusians, it’s evident that the journalist appearing on their TV screen is not “one of them” — some presenters even confuse the name of the country.

Any non-state channels on social media are prohibited — subscribing or “liking” can result in imprisonment. Those who donated funds to democratic initiatives during the revolution have been subjected to a different form of punishment — they are required to pay amounts ten times higher than their own donations to the state. This is presented to people as a form of “forgiveness” from the government. Criminal cases, including charges of “terrorism,” have been opened against those who actively participated in the 2020 revolution, leading many of them to have to emigrate.

Belarusians are under surveillance — in one part of Minsk, the number of external surveillance cameras is being increased to 30,000. Similar cameras are even being considered for installation in taxis.

“The state we are in can be described as a cold civil war. Someone didn’t sign for Lukashenko in 2020, and then lists come to work — fire these and those. Or a person comes and says — show me your phone. In the end, they might either fire you, or send you away for a day, or if luck is not on your side, open a criminal case,” notes Avseyushkin.

The propaganda itself is practically indistinguishable from the Russian one. They are trying to convey the same message to Belarusians as they do to Russians — that Ukrainians are enemies, that if Russians hadn’t attacked, Ukraine would have attacked, and that the Ukrainian government is a “Nazi junta.” Under a regime of total control, it’s difficult to track the real sentiments of Belarusians regarding the war in Ukraine.

According to Avseyushkin, around 50% of the youth are rather unsupportive or unequivocally unsupportive of Russia’s actions. With the older generation, it’s more complicated — the level of support for Russia’s military actions is higher. Sociologist Korshunov notes that in such surveys, there’s a so-called “fear factor,” where respondents are afraid to answer what they truly think.

“Therefore, when the question of war or geopolitical orientations arises, a significant number of people choose a neutral position. When we talk about war, the primary stance is to end the war as quickly as possible,” notes Korshunov.

There are also supporters of the regime in society, who locals refer to as “Yabatki.” They mainly engage in monitoring the actions of their colleagues or neighbors and are ready to provide necessary information to the authorities. However, Belarusians themselves do not share the same set of values as Russians, adds Motolko. For instance, the slogan “We can do it again” never really caught on in Belarus, unlike its popularity in Russia.

“Moreover, the phrase ‘Women still give birth.’ For Belarusians, any life is a value. This holds true for Ukrainians, for Europeans. It’s an absolute principle,” Motolko adds.

Under current conditions in Belarus, protests are practically impossible, claim sociologists. However, the regime itself actively prepares for them. According to Yan Avseyushkin, the authorities have studied the experience of the Russian-Ukrainian war, are forming special units to combat partisans, and even provide them with heavy weapons.

“So, they are preparing for war, not just protests,” Avseyushkin adds.

The victory of Ukraine in its war against Russia is seen by both Avseyushkin and Korshunov as one of the determining factors that could help Belarusians take to the streets again and overthrow the dictatorial regime.

“That’s why Belarusians essentially donate to Ukraine, volunteer, and do whatever they can. That’s why we had our railway partisans who disrupted the movement of trains carrying supplies for Russians. That’s why Belarusian Hajun still operates. We do what we can,” notes Korshunov.

The Belarusian Hajun represented by Motolko itself adds that the victory of Ukraine in the war and successful protests against Lukashenko are two factors that complement each other. The success of the Ukrainian Armed Forces will aid Belarusians in overthrowing their government, just as protests in Belarus will assist Ukraine in achieving victory.

“I believe that changes in Belarus will greatly expedite Ukraine’s victory, and this acceleration will be significant. It will have a strong impact, especially on Russia’s positions as a state on the international stage,” Motolko believes.

Currently, Belarusians find themselves in a situation where protesting is difficult, mainly because it’s challenging to identify who is “on their side” and how numerous they are. But since dictators don’t step down willingly, two options remain — either waiting for events to unfold naturally or overthrowing the regime themselves. Which option Belarus will choose will be revealed over time.

Originally posted by Yuliia Akymova on RBC-Ukraine. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Lukashenko intimidates with Wagner Group: how Poland is preparing for military provocations from Belarus

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