Could Belarus invade Ukraine this winter?

“There are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where the events that happen change life for decades”

The sudden death of Vladimir Makei, the Belarusian foreign secretary, indicates a power struggle behind the scenes in Belarus. Reports of how he died remain speculative, equally the suggestion is that foul play was involved. Makei had been stridently opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and just as importantly, prior to the war had believed the future for Belarus was to practice equidistance between the west and Russia and had been a key figure in trying to improve relations. He was also a well respected official within the administration with significant influence on policy.

As one of Lukashenka’s key lieutenants, there is also evidence he was opposed to the acceleration of the act of union between Belarus and Russia, first signed in 2000 and had been seeking to block any further integration. However, with the onset of war, the voices calling for the acceleration of the act of union have increased. For now Lukashenka stands in the way of doing this, however, if he was to be replaced by a more pliant leader, (Stanislav Zas has been mooted), the following steps could be implemented quite quickly. Eliminating Makei means that a leading figure who would have been a lightening rod for those within the country wanting Belarus to stay out of the war as much as possible and made leader to ensure this, has been eliminated. Indeed, as recently as July 1 of this year, Putin himself had stated the unprecedented sanctions and pressure being applied by the West was accelerating the unification of Belarus into Russia. Similarly, students of history will know, that Belarus when translated means “White Russians.”

In the same way, for the Russian military, they can no longer afford to have Belarus in tacit support. They need the Belarusian army to be fully integrated so they can open up a third front, on Ukraine’s western border, where this needs to be as soon as possible, whilst reservists are being trained up, to prevent the Ukrainians from obtaining any further gains. This is straight out of the ‘seige of Leningrad’ Russian military playbook where a flanking army encircled the Germans, cutting off their supply lines and forced them to surrender. In the same way, for the Russian military planners, to be able to invade via the west, seal the border with Poland and prevent resupply is becoming increasingly necessary.

The Russian economy is now pivoting to a war footing, equally the west is yet to do so, where for context, the latest reports suggest that the Ukraine is using on a daily basis, four times more artillery shells than the entire amount being manufactured in the USA. Russia whilst struggling has historically always retained a large stockpile of munitions, something NATO has seemingly failed to do. This has led to concerns amongst European countries that supplying Ukraine any more than they have done will lead to insufficient munitions in reserve.

Meanwhile Putin is coming under increasing pressure domestically. Famously it was the mothers of the fallen soldiers who were pivotal in leading the protests that led to the fall of the USSR towards the end of the Afghanistan war. Putin as a student of history will know this and will be conscious that the mobilisation of troops whilst necessary to maintain the pressure on the front lines, has led to increased questions being asked of his regime. His staged meeting with Mothers of fallen soldiers is testament to that. That combined with further waves of sanctions being targeted at an ever widening circle of Russian business people with Kremlin connections and there is with that, a real danger of regime change, especially as rumours of his ill health circulate.

For the Ukrainians, simply surviving is to a certain extent winning and whilst winter is now upon the country, every day that passes, is one closer to spring. Western allies are slowly ramping up their arms manufacturing and there is an acknowledgement across all NATO capitals that Ukraine can’t be allowed to lose. However, the cost of war is high for all the west and increasingly there are voices emerging who suggest that a deal with Russia is the only way to end the war and this winter could be the time to strike such an accord.

Therefore for Putin, the plan for victory is becoming increasingly clear. He no longer expects to take over all of Ukraine, nor does he require regime change in the country. Victory could be as simple as formalising a treaty that locks in the land gains obtained since 2014. (Crimea, Sea of Azov Coastline, Luhansk and Donestsk) At that point while the cost of the war could be defined as a high price, assuming the West ratifies the deal and acknowledges the new territories as Russian, there would then be a pathway to slowly de-escalating, removing sanctions and returning to a more normal equilibrium. Hence the current mobilisation is designed to fortify, where only the Wagner Group are pushing west.

In the background, the increased move by Putin to make this a war of cultural identity and the fight to preserve the values of the nation, has meant that the average Russian is now being bombarded by propaganda not just by the state and media but by the Church as well. A total war by an increasingly totalitarian state. Hence there are now rumours of a million plus men being called up to military service in spring in Russia if the war is not won by then.

However, while the west continues to support Ukraine militarily, bringing them to the negotiating table is nigh-on impossible. Hence the lessons of Leningrad and the relevance of Belarus. A full on assault of Kyiv from the north is probably now impossible. The border north of the capital has been heavily mined and fortified. However, an invading army sent to Rivne and from there to even as far as Lviv, if successful would act to seal the border and prevent further military re-supply. In the meantime, the continued bombings of Ukraine act to both force the EU to supply the Ukraine with power driving up domestic prices, and use up expensive AAM missile systems so Russian Aircraft can operate with impunity.

At that point, the Ukrainians would have no choice but to negotiate. That would be the plan anyway. Even if unsuccessful, it would act to tie up the Ukrainian army and put them on the defensive, increasing the chance of stalemate, which would lead to the increased prominence of voices stating that an outright Ukrainian victory is not possible, and they should negotiate a settlement with Russia.

Can Ukraine resist? At this point, the West would be wise to remember the maxim attributed to Putin himself, “escalate to de-escalate.” Russia is already domestically reporting that it is at war with NATO, so arguably, this winter before the next wave of conscripts arrive, now is the time to fully engage. If the red line that NATO is operating on is that no NATO armed forces should enter Ukraine, at the very least they can:

  • Organise advanced AAM systems to create complete security against missile strikes
  • Supply longer range artillery systems to force Russian munitions hubs every further back
  • Start training Ukrainian forces in advanced drone weaponry, so they can be targeted towards the front line where Russian fortifications are most built up

Indeed, in fairness, these things are all slowly happening and the positive is that Western Governments are remaining remarkably united in their support of Ukraine. Assuming that continues, Ukraine’s victory is inevitable. What that means for Russia is another question.

About the author: James Chaplin
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