- The overall threat of a Belarusian invasion of north-west Ukraine is assessed as
- The threat of activity emanating from Belarusian Armed Forces’ Special Operations Forces is assessed as
- The threat from additional Belarus military exercises in the border region to fix Ukrainian units and attention is
- The Belarusian Armed Forces (BAF) are highly unlikely to conduct offensive operations into Ukraine without significant (and overt) Russian military support.
- The BAF are unlikely to be able to conduct preparations for an invasion without being publicly exposed and reported on by Western governments and agencies.
- BAF support for an invasion is likely limited, and if such action is ordered may result in refusal to follow orders, or in extremis, a coup.
- President Lukashenko is almost certainly reliant upon Russia and President Putin to retain power.
Belarusian Armed Forces (BAF)
The BAF consists largely of Soviet-era equipment and is inextricably tied to the force and command structures of the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF). Belarus’ defence cooperation with Russia spans all levels of defence planning. The entire Belarusian ground and special forces are part of a Regional Group of Forces (RGF) with Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army, an arrangement that in wartime (against NATO) would effectively put these forces under the command of Russia’s Joint Strategic Command West (via the Belarusian General Staff).
The BAF has been undergoing some modernisation since the 2016-2020 State Armament Plan, although this has been superseded by the 2019 ‘Belarus Defence Plan and the Armed Forces Development Concept until 2030’. However, the pace at which legacy equipment is being replaced indicates it will take up to another decade at current levels to replace or upgrade most existing equipment. Belarus does have significant numbers of legacy equipment in storage; however, this would need to be thoroughly serviced prior to deployment. The crewing and deployment of this equipment would largely depend on general mobilisation to provide the required personnel.
According to assessments from 2021, the BAF currently have available approximately 8 Tank Battalions and 14 Mechanised Infantry Battalions without general mobilisation. These units are also required to cover the western borders with Lithuania and Poland. The only fully-manned organisation in the BAF is the Special Operations Forces (SOF), which include an Airborne Brigade, an Air Assault Brigade, and one Spetznaz Brigade – which includes supporting units totalling approximately 5-7000 personnel.
The BAF are unlikely to be willing participants in the war in Ukraine. They reportedly fear a loss of sovereignty for Belarus under the Lukashenko regime due to the inextricable links to Moscow. It is likely that the BAF have observed RFAF tactics and activities in Ukraine and realised that they are not ready to partake in high-tempo large-scale operations, nor can they sustain the same levels of losses as the RFAF due to limited equipment and reserves.
Current Situation – Political
President Lukashenko and his regime are effectively propped up with military and economic support from Russia. In the 2020 election, there were nationwide protests after accusations of election rigging following Lukashenko’s sixth consecutive election victory in August. Following the protests (and subsequent arrests) the United Nations Human Rights Office made several accusations of torture and abuse of detainees by the Belarusian police and security services. Since then, Lukashenko has relied increasingly on Russia to bolster both his military and economy – at the price of unwavering support to President Putin and the RFAF.
Lukashenko has been parroting Kremlin-approved rhetoric since well before the commencement of hostilities in February 2022; this appears to have increased in recent weeks. Belarus is now set to receive Iskander-M nuclear-capable launchers and S-400 Air Defence systems from Russia. Russia has also vowed to update Belarusian military aircraft, so they are capable of carrying a nuclear payload. Lukashenko has been aiming to acquire these systems for over a year, claiming to need them in case of invasion by NATO countries from the west. On 25 June 2022, Lukashenko gave a speech at a rally commemorating the Soviet liberation of Minsk in World War 2, saying that he had supported Putin's campaign against Ukraine "
Western countries have decried and sanctioned Belarus for their assistance to the RFAF ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine. Whilst these sanctions are likely to impact on the Belarusian people in the medium term, they are almost certainly insufficient to drive a wedge between Lukashenko and Putin. Lukashenko is aware of his unpopularity and realises that his regime's survival is not guaranteed in the face of a public uprising if he loses Russian support or support from the BAF. Scott Rauland, the former chief of mission at the United States Embassy in Minsk, told The Daily Beast that Lukashenka appears to be staging an elaborate show of loyalty to Putin. Rauland said “
Current Situation – Military
The RFAF continues to launch missiles from within Belarusian territory and airspace at targets in Ukraine and has done since the start of the conflict in February 2022. Russian Air Force (VKS) tactical and strategic aircraft continue to launch cruise missiles from Belarusian airspace – largely targeting areas in the west of Ukraine including Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa. It is highly unlikely that Iskander missile systems fired from Belarus are under the command of the BAF. It is highly unlikely that BAF Tochka-U units have been used to strike targets in Ukraine.
In June 2022, Belarusian President Lukashenko announced the formation of a ‘Southern Operational Command’ to cover the border region with Ukraine. It is currently unknown how the BAF will ‘force generate’ enough staffing and equipment for the new command without weakening other defensive axes - predominantly to the west. Additionally, the RFAF has reportedly deployed Pantsir S-1 and S-400 Air Defence units to the Belarusian border with Ukraine.
In June 2022 the BAF conducted readiness exercises on their southern border; however, these had been planned and western/Ukrainian forces were aware they were taking place. The exercises included the emplacement of Early Warning radars and unspecified Electronic Warfare equipment along the border, as well as defensive field exercises.
Map reportedly showing the training grounds that will be used in Belarus. Note that activities near the Ukrainian border are not disclosed. Source: @MotolkoHelp
On 3 July 2022, Lukashenko claimed that a Pantsir-S1 Air Defence system had intercepted and shot down a number of missiles fired from Ukraine at BAF targets in southern Belarus
Belarus and Lukashenko have been accused of waging ‘hybrid war’ against neighbouring European Union states – namely Lithuania and Poland. They have been accused of ‘weaponising illegal immigrants’ by escorting them through Belarus and to the borders to overwhelm border security posts and create internal problems within Lithuania and Poland.
Indicators and Warnings of Invasion from Belarus
The following table is not exhaustive but covers some of the major indicators and warnings that would demonstrate Belarus is going to directly invade northern Ukraine. The baseline is set on 5 July 2022, and future iterations of this report will show any changes – either towards participation or otherwise.
- Without significant mobilisation (or retention on active duty of forces which have conducted ‘snap readiness exercises’) Belarus has insufficient combat power to secure its own borders and concurrently conduct conventional offensive operations into Ukraine.
- Any Belarusian offensive action in Ukraine would almost certainly require support from the RFAF.
- Belarussian troop movements near the border with Ukraine are likely to be used as a demonstration (in military terminology, a demonstration is an attack or show of force on a front where a decision is not sought, made with the aim of deceiving the enemy) to fix Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) units and prevent them resupplying the eastern front.
- The highest-readiness BAF elements are SOF and Airborne/Air Assault units. However, much like their Russian counterparts, they are lightly equipped and ill-suited to large-scale conventional manoeuvre operations.
- It is a realistic possibility that the RFAF have demanded/requisitioned stocks of Tochka-U and other indirect-fire ammunition from the BAF and storage units in Belarus due to high levels of use and the impact of sanctions on domestic Russian production. This would reduce the operational availability of these munitions for use by the BAF in the event of them directly joining hostilities.
- If compelled to partake, BAF could use long-range strike (including indigenous B-200/-300 Multiple Rocket Launchers and Tochka-U short-range ballistic missiles), targeted by SOF units, to strike road and rail networks and disrupt both western aid and UAF reinforcement/resupply.
- Lukashenko must tread a fine line between showing support to his Russian patron and preventing direct military participation in the Ukraine war. If the BAF are committed and incur significant losses, this may catalyse an uprising to overthrow Lukashenko for acceding sovereignty to Russia and dragging BAF into a war they are not ready for and do not want.
- It is a realistic possibility that the BAF would refuse an order from the RFAF to directly participate in hostilities on a large scale. Belarusian SOF may be used for deniable operations to disrupt Ukrainian rear-area activity.
- It is likely that with the prevalence of NATO Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets along the Polish and Lithuanian borders, it would be almost impossible for Belarus to mobilise or pre-position forces without western governments becoming aware. Since before the conflict western intelligence agencies and militaries have been releasing reporting and assessments to publicise nefarious activity, coalesce international support for Ukraine, and to deter Russia by removing the element of Operational surprise.
It is unlikely that the BAF will be able to launch an invasion of north-western Ukraine without any advanced notice or tripping more of the indicators and warnings. Belarusian rhetoric is likely to remain loud and inflammatory as Lukashenko seeks to maintain favour with the Kremlin without undermining what little public support he has left. The amount of preparatory activity required to launch any offensive activity greater than a raid would almost certainly provide at least 96 hours' notice prior to occurring. Accusations of UAF military strikes or SOF operating within Belarus are likely to be the most significant indicator of impending military activity.
- Estonian International Centre for Defence and Security paper - The Belarusian Armed Forces Structures, Capabilities, and Defence Relations with Russia – by Konrad Muzyka. Dated August 2021.