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Amid Mobilization Rumors For Putin's War Next Door, Belarusian Mothers Scramble To 'Hide The Children'

Belarusian soldiers at a joint exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus in September 2021.
Belarusian soldiers at a joint exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus in September 2021.

When tens of thousands of Russian troops poured across the border into Ukraine at the start of Russia's unprovoked invasion in late February, including from Belarus, Alena felt more than just fear.

"He is my air, the meaning of life," she said of her only son, who was conscripted into Belarusian military service in May 2021. "I felt more than just fear for my son. I don't even know how to describe it. It was wild horror. I was hysterical, just sobbing in the restroom at work."

RFE/RL is using pseudonyms and withholding details of all the women quoted in this story to ensure their safety and that of their families.

Without providing evidence, Lukashenka accused Ukraine and its Western allies of "planning strikes on the territory of Belarus" that could include "sabotage, terrorist attacks, and...a military mutiny in the country."

Thankfully, Alena said, her son reassured her that he was safe. And a "zampolit," the Soviet-era term for political commissars within Belarus's military, soon told her that no one was sending any Belarusians anywhere.

As it turned out, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka was allowing Russia to use Belarus as a staging ground for the invasion, including for a failed ground offensive aimed at capturing Kyiv. But Minsk has firmly maintained that its troops have not directly participated in any of the fighting.

Now, nearly eight months and tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian casualties later, as Moscow's invasion grinds on and the rest of the region girds against the spread of the conflict, Alena and thousands of other mothers of Belarusian conscripts again fear for their sons' safety.

Belarus has long been reliant on Russia for energy supplies, as well as economic and political support, and Lukashenka's dependence on Moscow has skyrocketed amid a clampdown on the opposition following a flawed presidential election two years ago.

After a weekend meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenka this week accused Ukraine, Poland, and NATO of "trying to drag us into a fight."

But moves by him and other Belarusian officials this week have sparked public fears that they are planning a hushed mobilization as pressure from Moscow grows on Minsk to more actively support Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking as the mother of a fighting-age Belarusian amid fresh rumors of mobilization, Alena said, "The unrest in us all was, and will be, and won't be going anywhere."

More Than Rhetoric

Russia's military campaign has by most outside accounts proceeded poorly, highlighting political and intelligence failures, weaknesses in military command and logistics, rampant corruption and incompetence, and a reliance on ill-trained troops and mercenary forces.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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Putin last month announced a "partial mobilization" that the Kremlin says is aimed at conscripting at least 300,000 fresh troops to reinforce tens of thousands of Russians already in Ukraine -- a move that many analysts said was a sign of the Kremlin's increasing desperation to alter the course of the war.

This week, without providing evidence, Lukashenka accused Ukraine and its Western allies of "planning strikes on the territory of Belarus" that could include "sabotage, terrorist attacks, and...a military mutiny in the country."

Then he announced the creation of a joint "regional military group" comprising Russian and Belarusian troops.

Following Lukashenka's comments, the Defense Ministry announced an inspection of Belarus's armed forces.

G7 leaders and NATO publicly urged Belarusian authorities to avoid contributing to "Russia's war of aggression" against Ukraine.

Days later, on October 14, Lukashenka doubled down with a heightened state of terrorism alert and specified that up to 15,000 Russian troops would be arriving in Belarus to man the joint military group, near its southern border with Ukraine.

The first of those Russian soldiers arrived in Belarus on October 15, the Belarusian Defense Ministry announced, alongside images of troops being welcomed with bread and salt by women in traditional Belarusian clothing.

The deputy chief of Belarus's military general staff, Viktar Tumar, said the force was "purely of a defensive character," with the Belarusian and Russian soldiers as its "backbone." He said its aims are to "ensure a parity of military security and to support peace."

Out Of Touch?

Lukashenka's lack of popularity could make any mobilization effort challenging.

Maria told RFE/RL's Belarus Service this week that her son "has been on the run from the military commissar for three years," since his expulsion from university.

He doesn't live at his registered address and so far, she said, he's mostly managed to "simply ignore the military commission, and that's it," despite repeated summons.

Maria said that after the announcement of the Russian mobilization last month, "all women began to worry -- for their sons [and] for their husbands."

WATCH: Residents of the Ukrainian village of Moskali, in the Chernihiv region, are worried there could be a new attack from Belarus after reports of a buildup of Russian troops near the border.The village was occupied for more than a month when Russian forces invaded on February 24.

Ukrainian Border Village Fears New Invasion From Belarus
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Many of them are carefully studying ways to avoid conscription into military training, she said, including through deferrals for disabilities or other medical conditions.

Belarusian lawmakers recently drafted legislation to cancel a deferral of conscription for young Belarusian students abroad.

Tatsyana told RFE/RL that despite her son's desire not to go abroad to study, she and her husband are now trying "to hustle so that our son can go study abroad while it's still possible."

Their attempt to get him a visa recently failed. "There are intermediaries," she said, "[but] they charge a lot of money."

They are now exploring other avenues "because staying here for my son is not an option."

'Political Suicide'

Belarusian opposition leaders forced into exile by the crackdown after Lukashenka declared himself the winner of a sixth presidential term two years ago have linked the political fates of Ukraine and Belarus.

Lukashenka's main challenger in that election, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told RFE/RL this summer that "without a free Ukraine, there cannot be a free Belarus." She has accused Lukashenka of "treason" over his actions with respect to Ukraine.

This week, amid the mobilization rumors, Tsikhanouskaya said Lukashenka would be committing "political suicide" if he entered the war directly.

WATCH: The Ukrainian Army, National Guard, and State Border Guard Service have been conducting joint exercises near the border with Belarus. These exercises have been going on since Ukrainian forces liberated the Chernihiv region from Russian troops.

Ukrainian Forces Prepare For Potential Attack By Belarus
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Beyond other signs of the widespread unpopularity of Russia's war in Ukraine among the Belarusian public -- whose views are especially difficult to track amid the current crackdown on dissent -- hundreds of Belarusians inside the country and more abroad are believed to have enlisted to fight alongside Ukrainians against Russian troops.

Dozens of people have been detained for allegedly organizing or participating in a campaign to damage Belarusian railways to impede the progress of Russian troops and supplies of arms into Ukraine since the start of the war.

Some of the alleged "railway guerrillas" have been given long prison sentences.

Lukashenka's unpopular concessions so far to Moscow in the Ukraine war haven't been lost on the mothers of young Belarusians.

Margarita, whose son is serving in the Belarusian Army and is currently deployed near the Ukrainian border, told RFE/RL this week that she instructed him to "run in the opposite direction or surrender" if he is ordered to fight Ukrainians.

She said mothers worried about their own sons amid rumors of an imminent call-up should "hide them somewhere."

"You just need to not go to the military office and hide the children," Margarita said, "so they're not going to fight for other people's interests."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
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    RFE/RL's Belarus Service

    RFE/RL's Belarus Service is one of the leading providers of news and analysis to Belarusian audiences in their own language. It is a bulwark against pervasive Russian propaganda and defies the government’s virtual monopoly on domestic broadcast media.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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