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Amid Worries Over Russian Forces In Belarus, Former Security Officer Says Belarusian Conscripts Won't Fight

Multiple-rocket launchers fire on a snow-covered field during joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at a firing range in Belarus in February 2022.
Multiple-rocket launchers fire on a snow-covered field during joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at a firing range in Belarus in February 2022.

Belarus’s armed forces could face widespread desertion from conscripts should the country’s strongman leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, order an invasion of Ukraine, a former senior law enforcement official said.

The prediction by Alyaksandr Azarov, who represents an association of former Belarusian security officials, comes amid conflicting signals about whether Lukashenka may finally decide to commit Belarusian troops to the Ukraine invasion, now in its 12th month.

In the run-up to last February’s invasion, Russia held large-scale military exercises in Belarus. But as the exercises wound down, many of the 30,000 Russian troops stationed there were then used to invade Ukraine, in an unsuccessful push south to seize the Ukrainian capital and topple the government.

But while Lukashenka’s government has allowed Russia’s military wide leeway to use Belarusian territory, Lukashenka has sidestepped pressure from Moscow to actively join the invasion.

In November, satellite imagery obtained by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service showed that thousands of Russian troops may have returned to Belarus, renewing questions about another incursion into Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Russia and Belarus expanded joint military training exercises, doing drills that drew on Russian experience in Ukraine. And the two countries’ air forces also held joint exercises that were completed last week.

Lukashenka also was shown earlier this month visiting a military base where Russian troops were stationed, to meet troops and discuss the joint military drills.

WATCH: Ukraine is preparing for the possibility of a new, large-scale offensive by Russian forces early in the new year. Russia continues to amass troops in neighboring Belarus, a country that Moscow has used as a launching ground to attack Ukraine. Thus far, Belarusian forces have not joined Russia's war on Ukraine.

Ukrainian Forces Prepare For Possible Attack By Belarus
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In an interview broadcast on January 29 on Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, Azarov, who served as a lieutenant colonel with the Interior Ministry’s organized crime unit (known as GUBOPIK), said Lukashenka’s intentions are very difficult to understand.

“Today, he says one thing, tomorrow another. But he says what suits him,” said Azarov, whose organization, BYPOL, was founded in 2020 in the wake of unprecedented mass protests that erupted when Lukashenka claimed victory in a disputed election. BYPOL stands for Union of Security Forces of Belarus.

“Everyone, including Lukashenka, understands that Ukraine is not going to attack, and will not attack, the territory of Belarus. It seems to me that this is more aimed at the Belarusian audience and the Russian audience” -- at Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azarov said.

“In general, the Belarusian Army partially supports Russia, but the majority [of soldiers], of course, do not,” he said. “But no one wants to fight. They hope it doesn’t come to that. The Belarusian Army has never been involved in any military actions since gaining independence” from the Soviet Union in 1991.

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He said that if Belarussian commanders were to call a general mobilization, the vast majority of conscripts would look to avoid fighting.

“We talked with officers, and they say that if hostilities begin, then 90 percent of conscripts will think about how to desert,” Azarov said. “They won’t take part in hostilities. At least they will try not to take part.”

Still, Azarov said, the groundwork for a possible invasion of Ukraine is under way. The joint exercises being conducted, he said, are of an offensive, not defensive, nature.

“If you take everything that is happening in Belarus, everything is in preparation for invasion. The air force exercises are taking place now. This is also preparation for invasion,” he said. “Moreover, Russian aviation is doing [offensive maneuvers], and Belarusian aircraft are playing the role of escort, cover, and protection of Russian aviation.”

Belarusian opposition leader Pavel Latushka also warned this month that Belarusian authorities could soon begin a military mobilization. He said employees of domestic security and law enforcement agencies have been forced to turn over their passports, effectively barring them from leaving the country.

The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank, said Russian forces are clearly using Belarusian military infrastructure, including bases, supply chains, and railroads, but that there is no indication that Russian forces are starting to position themselves for offensive operations in Belarus.

During a trip to the western city of Lviv on January 11, Ukraine’s president called on his country’s forces to "be ready" at its border with Belarus.

"We understand that, apart from powerful statements, we do not see anything powerful there,” Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in remarks released by his office. "But nevertheless, we must be ready both at the border and in the regions."

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    Volodymyr Mykhaylov

    Volodymyr Mykhaylov is a correspondent and presenter for Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. ​Mykhaylov​ was born in Donetsk and witnessed first-hand the occupation of his hometown by pro-Russia separatists in 2014. He previously worked as a correspondent for the Ukrainian TV channel ICTV and has covered military operations in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea.

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