One reason Russian leader Vladmir Putin believed he could quickly conquer Ukraine was Russia’s success in keeping neighboring Belarus subservient t0 Russia. Both Belarus and Ukraine share a border with each other and Russia, and both were former parts of the Soviet Union that dissolved into 14 new nations in 1991. While Belarus and Ukraine faced similar problems and opportunities after 1991, only Belarus had a Soviet-style leader in charge most of the time. More so than in Ukraine, in Belarus tampering with the vote has been common since the 1990s but it got worse and worse as more voters turned against the government via larger and larger pro-democracy demonstrations. For 26 years Belarus president-for-life Alexander Lukashenko has ruled as a loyal ally of Russia. That has not helped the Belarussian economy or improved the lives of Belarus voters. A new post-Soviet Union generation of voters has seen how life is better in democracies, especially other former victims of Russian rule like neighboring Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine. They blame Lukashenko for the poverty and mismanaged economy in Belarus, as well as an incompetent response to covid19.
This dissatisfaction created a crisis right after August 9th 2020, when Lukashenko was elected to another term. Unlike past rigged elections, this time there were major and sustained anti-government protests triggered by government incompetence and decades of rigged elections, corrupt rule, and inability to do much of anything effectively. Since the late 1990s Lukashenko has won reelection with 80-90 percent of the vote in visibly fraudulent voting. Lukashenko has been in charge since 1994, when he consolidated power in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the creation of Belarus. Lukashenko is a Soviet-era official who runs Belarus like the Soviet Union still existed. Belarus is a police state where elections and everything else are manipulated to keep the politicians in power. It's a tricky business, but so far Lukashenko has kept the security forces up to snuff and on his side. He bribes or bullies key officials to keep the country running. Lukashenko has maintained good relations with Russia, getting him cheap fuel supplies and other aid. Belarus is small (9.5 million people) compared to neighbors Russia (146 million) and Ukraine (42 million) and Russia is feared because it wants to absorb Belarus and Ukraine to rebuild the centuries old Russian empire that the czars created and the communists lost. Lukashenko, like most Belarussians, opposes annexation by Russia. At this point Russia is not seeking to annex Belarus or send in security forces to help suppress what has turned into a rebellion against Lukashenko.
By 2021 Lukashenko was becoming more of a liability for Russia but is currently still a “favored ally.” Russia would like to be rid of Lukashenko but there is no one in Belarus with his skills and experience. Russia has created a major problem for itself in Belarus. Not as bad as the mess in Ukraine, but still another setback in the Russian effort to rebuild the Soviet-era Russian empire.
After the 2020 election fiasco, several hundred Belarussians fled the country and established themselves in eastern European nations. There they sought to organize an opposition operation inside Belarus and overthrow Lukashenko. They solicited money and other assistance from Western countries but have been unable to agree on how to proceed. Some of the expatriate Belarussians blame Russia, which has kept in touch with the exiled Belarussians and caused discontent via threats and rumors about what is going on in Belarus and Ukraine. While the Ukrainians have been able to defeat these Russian tactics, which was one reason Putin went to war with Ukraine, the Belarus opposition has been neutralized. Russia advised Lukashenko to let his opponents seeking to leave Belarus do so. Just make sure to add some reliable intelligence agents to clandestinely monitor the exiles and carry out disinformation and other operations as needed. Ukraine arrested or drove most of these Russian agents out during the first few months of the 2022 war, where Ukrainians took their nationalism to new levels. That never happened in Belarus. The Lukashenko faction and Russia want to keep it that way.
Despite all that Belarus is still a troublesome neighbor but is also capable of assisting Russia. For example, Belarus proved useful to Russia after the 2022 invasion. Belarus colluded with Russia to help Russia obtain spare parts for military aircraft operating over Ukraine. Belarus is subject to some sanctions because of its support for Russia but not nearly as many sanctions as Russia itself. Belarus can still get spare parts for military and civil aircraft, but transferring any of those to Russia would get Belarus subjected to the same aircraft-related sanctions Russia is suffering from. Ukrainian military intelligence discovered and publicized this deal, which enabled Western nations to use their space satellites and embassy personnel to check up on this activity
The Ukrainians probably got the tip from pro-Ukrainian Belarusians. There are a lot of those in Belarus. That’s how the West found out that in late July Belarus agreed to send 200 soldiers to Syria to replace the many more Russian troops brought back to Russia to replace losses in Ukraine. Belarus has refused Russian requests to send its troops into Ukraine. While Lukashenko is pro-Russia, most Belarussians are not and some openly support Ukraine.
The Belarussian government continued to cooperate because Russia had been propping up Lukashenko, who faced large scale demonstrations after the 202o elections protesting his misrule and vote rigging. Russia sent in troops that enabled Belarus to deploy all its more reliable security forces against the demonstrators. Despite that, Belarus would not send its troops into Ukraine but a month after the February invasion began did cooperate in secretly treating Russian casualties. Belarus medical personnel were more willing to talk about what was happening with all those dead and wounded Russian soldiers and it eventually became known that Belarus railroad staff were cooperating with their Ukrainian counterparts to sabotage railroad access to Ukraine for Russian trains crossing the border parts of Ukraine the Russians considered safe.
Many Belarussians continue supporting Ukraine and sabotaging the Russian war effort. Some of the sabotage came in the form of timely reports on what Russian troops were doing in Belarus. After the second month of the invasion Russian soldiers were allowed to freely loot and some managed to get back to Russia with a lot of loot. Many of the retreating troops passed through Belarus, where local and international media were free to report on them. Belarussian police also ignored the large amount of loot being sold in hastily organized markets, or shipped via parcel shipping offices that regularly sent packages to Russia. It was obvious that many of the Russian soldiers brought civilian goods looted from Ukrainian homes and businesses as they were being forced out of northern Ukraine
New troops headed for Ukraine early in the war arrived via Belarus. These new arrivals became aware of the truckloads of dead or wounded Russian soldiers returning and Belarus hospitals crowded with Russian wounded. Returning Russian soldiers told the new troops that the Ukrainians were putting up quite a fight and Russian units were taking heavy losses, especially in terms of armored vehicles, including tanks, destroyed by Ukrainians using portable weapons. The Russian military took their wounded, at least the ones the Ukrainians didn’t capture, back to military or militarized civilian hospitals in Russia and neighboring Belarus. Many of the badly wounded arrived dead, and their deaths and the condition of the surviving Russian troops were declared state secrets. There were severe punishments for those who revealed to the public what was going on. It was less obvious what returning Russian commanders were telling officers in the newly arrived units. Most officers are circumspect in their comments but some are clearly fed up with how the Russian efforts are being mismanaged after only six weeks of fighting. Since then, the situation has gotten worse for Russia and that encourages Belarussians because a Russian defeat in Ukraine might mean a new government in Russia that would end Russian support for the corrupt Belarussian ruler.
Because of the 2022 sanctions, China is now Russia’s largest trading partner and, together with Belarus and a few other nations, continues to trade with Russia. The other half is currently halted, or soon will be, by sanctions. Russia has experience in evading economic sanctions and knows that greed in notoriously corrupt countries provides customers willing to switch to heavily discounted Russian oil. Belarusians don’t want their nation to be hit by Russia-level sanctions and that makes it difficult for the Belarussian government to carry out any sanction-violating scheme with Russia.
Putin has been in power for two decades and initially thought Russia could exploit the Russian minorities in the Baltic States and other new countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. After independence in 1991 many nations formerly part of the Soviet Union found they had large Russian minorities that they had accumulated during years of “Russian occupation.” In many of those nations the Russians were not welcome and many went back to Russia. In the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine these Russian minorities noted the chaos in Russia and most adapted to their new homeland by learning the local language. This was difficult in Estonia, which was ethnically related to Finland and natives, like those in Hungary, spoke a distinct Central Asian language. Many Russians in Estonia, Finland and Hungary never bothered to do that when Russia was in charge. After 1991 most Russian speakers in these new nations realized learning this difficult language was worth the effort, and Russia found they could not rely on these Russian minorities to support Russian efforts during another attack and occupation. Russia tried to use this angle in Ukraine, but most of the Ukrainian Russians resisted and still do. This often meant leaving Russian occupied portions of Ukraine and later taking up arms to fight the 2022 invasion. A similar thing happened in Belarus, which prevented Russia from persuading Belarus to send troops in Ukraine. Worse, many Belarussians supported Ukraine and sabotaged the Russian war effort.
Putin thought many of these ethnic Russians outside Russia could be persuaded that reforming the Russian empire was a good thing. That was definitely not the case. Putin put the blame on NATO for influencing or coercing these ethnic Russians to oppose Putin’s plans. The only nation where Putin found some support was Belarus and there was not enough support to make it possible to peacefully absorb Belarus.