The ongoing crisis in Crimea has put many world leaders in awkward positions, but perhaps none more than Alexander Lukashenko. The president of Belarus since 1994, Lukashenko has just witnessed two of his worst nightmares in neighboring Ukraine. First, he watched as a mass movement in the streets of Kiev overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, a fellow client of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then the Russian Duma voted to give Putin the power to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty in order to “protect Russia’s interests and those of Russian-speakers,” which Putin promptly did. Since at least 70 percent of Belarusians are Russian-speakers (though only 8 percent are ethnic Russians), and all of Belarus lies within a day’s drive of Moscow, Russia has established a precedent in Ukraine that could easily justify sending tanks to Minsk.
Lukashenko now finds himself potentially enabling an invasion of Ukraine while refusing to endorse it. Last week, Russia transferred six fighter jets and three transport planes to Belarus in response to a NATO buildup in neighboring Poland and the Baltic states. Russian and Belarusian troops continue to hold joint training exercises, and if Putin opts to invade the Ukrainian mainland, his forces could reach Kiev from Belarus in mere hours.
At the same time, Lukashenko has spoken in favor of maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and Belarus has yet to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A statement this week by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed that “Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are brotherly states intertwined by the common history that goes back centuries” and criticized “one-sided, biased interpretation of the principles of international law to satisfy geopolitical interests” while remaining vague on what exactly that means. This is language designed to excuse Putin’s actions in Ukraine without directly supporting them. Further complicating matters, Lukashenko has expressed interest in maintaining diplomatic and economic ties with Ukraine’s new government, which Putin regards as illegitimate and refuses to recognize.