The likelihood of another assault on Ukraine from Belarus has risen over the past month. We now assess that this is a reasonable possibility (45%) in the near term.
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly's Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 11 November 2022.
We have revised this because of increasingly hostile rhetoric from the Lukashenko government, the movement of Russian forces into Belarus as part of the ‘regional grouping’, and a continued high tempo of military drills in southern Belarus, near Ukraine. In our assessment, this suggests Belarus is preparing a pretext for its intervention in the war. Or at the very least, that it is willing to allow a renewed buildup of Russian forces on its own territory.
We do not assess that an assault from either Russia or Belarus is likely in the near term, specifically because the following key indicators or clear signs of preparation for an attack have not been met:
- Tens of thousands of Russian or Belarusian forces amassing near the border
- Russian or Belarusian units moving to staging positions
- Russian or Belarusian forces setting up supply and medical lines near the border
Belarus participating in any assault would almost certainly strain relations with the Belarusian military. This would raise the likelihood of mutinies and of some senior military figures withdrawing their backing for President Lukashenko.
Shifting dynamics in Belarus
Minsk’s hostile rhetoric towards Ukraine has intensified in recent months. In October, President Lukashenko accused Ukraine of planning to attack Belarus; in June, he claimed Ukraine had fired missiles at Belarusian military posts. The government also said recently that it had introduced a ‘counter-terrorist’ strategy, though the details of this are unclear. In our analysis, these suggest Lukashenko is constructing a pretext for either intervening directly in the war or allowing Russian troops to launch another assault from its territory.
Belarus has also intensified efforts to threaten Ukraine’s northern flank. There have been numerous readiness checks, mobilisation drills and exercises in recent months, mostly in southern Belarus. And in October, Belarus announced it would host a ‘regional grouping’ of Russian and Belarusian soldiers. At present, this consists of roughly 9,000 troops; Ukraine warned in September that Belarus was preparing to host 20,000 Russian troops, but we were unable to verify this. Independent Belarusian media outlets said in October that Lukashenko had ordered a ‘covert’ mobilisation, but the details of this remain unclear.
Assault still not likely
We do not assess that another attack from Belarus by either Russia or Belarus is likely in the near term. And at this point, Russian military deployments in Belarus and associated drills are probably still an attempt to divert Ukrainian forces from elsewhere. This in itself would benefit Russia, given Ukraine’s current momentum in the conflict and the potential military benefits of mobilisation in Russia are still likely a few months away. There are two main reasons why we do not assess an assault from Belarus to yet be likely.
The first is that the number of Russian and Belarusian forces in Belarus probably remains insufficient to mount an attack. While an attack with a relatively small force is plausible, we doubt Russia and Belarus would consider this. It would be unlikely to have a significant operational benefit and come at significant costs, particularly while Russia remains hamstrung by insufficient manpower, strained logistics and poor morale. Based on Russia’s initial invasion, there would probably be tens of thousands of troops along the border if an assault from Belarus was likely or imminent.
The second reason an assault is still unlikely is the posture and readiness of Russian and Belarusian troops in Belarus. While Belarusian troops have been in a heightened state of readiness since the invasion in February, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said in October they had not yet seen the logistical and medical support in southern Belarus that another assault would likely require. And we have also seen no indication that Russian or Belarusian troops are concentrating in specific points along the Ukrainian border, nor that such units have moved to staging positions there. These were both key signs that an invasion was likely in February.
Indicators for attack from Belarus
We assess with a high degree of confidence that it would become clear Russia or Belarus were planning an assault well before the attack itself. This is based on the run-up to Russia’s invasion in February; there were clear indicators of those preparations as far back as December. On this basis, there is little sign that any assault is imminent or likely. Still with this in mind, we have listed below several high-level, early-warning indicators that would suggest the likelihood of an assault from Belarus is rising. So far, none have been met.
- Belarus declares mobilisation
- Russian and Belarusian troops move to staging positions near the Ukrainian border
- Russian and Belarusian forces erect supply lines and medical units near the Ukrainian border
- Russian and Belarusian forces concentrate tens of thousands of troops near the border
- Russia moves tens of thousands of troops into Belarusian territory
- A major attack or incident on Belarusian territory, which Belarus blames on Ukraine
- Belarus declares martial law in its southern regions
The most important of these indicators is Belarusian mobilisation. This is largely because Belarus would probably need to do this to generate meaningful combat power. It currently has roughly 45,000 active duty personnel in total and is probably unwilling to commit the entirety of its active personnel to any one assault. This is particularly while it would probably require the support of a proportion of this to deal with any domestic backlash. But so far, we have not seen any indication that Minsk is considering mobilisation – or at least a wide-ranging or large one.
Domestic implications of Belarusian intervention
A Belarusian assault would probably be highly destabilising for Lukashenko’s regime. The army and security services remain a key bastion of support for the government, particularly since its suppression of anti-government protests in 2020. It is currently unclear to what extent high-level officials would support any invasion, though a Belarusian opposition politician-in-exile claimed in March (without providing any evidence) that several senior military officers resigned and fled the country over the invasion.
In any case, we assess that civil-military relations would significantly worsen if Belarus launched an attack on Ukraine. Ukraine has fortified its border with Belarus in recent weeks, and the strength of its resistance against Russia means we assess that Belarusian involvement would likely come with heavy losses. This is particularly since the army seems poorly trained and inexperienced, relative to those forces guarding Kyiv and Ukraine’s northern border. Precedent from Russia’s invasion suggests such dynamics quickly drive up the risk of mutinies, having a cascading impact on high-ranking military officials’ support for any assault.
Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi on September 26, 2022. Photo by Gavriil Grigorov via Getty Images.