Three years ago, Belarusians took to the streets to protest the fraudulent presidential elections that saw dictator Alexander Lukashenko reelected as president for the sixth time. The regime responded with a brutal crackdown, leading to the West breaking off diplomatic relations and imposing sanctions. Since then, Lukashenko has adopted an increasingly belligerent stance against his Western neighbors by orchestrating a migrant crisis, aiding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hosting Wagner Group mercenaries, and authorizing the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil. While these provocations serve the Kremlin’s interests by destabilizing NATO’s eastern frontier, Lukashenko hopes they will pressure the European Union to normalize relations and lift sanctions as his country grows more isolated and dependent on Russia.
Compared to other post-Soviet countries, Belarus has achieved minimal political and economic reforms. By maintaining a largely state-controlled economy—heavily dependent on Russia—and strengthening the internal security apparatus, Lukashenko has consolidated power since he attained the presidency in 1994. There have been sporadic attempts to improve relations with the West, most notably in 2008 after Russia attacked Georgia, and again in 2015, after the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Both attempts led to the release of political prisoners and the rise of pragmatic and reform-oriented technocrats seeking to reduce ties with Russia, such as the late Vladimir Makei. Ultimately, efforts to normalize relations were short-lived, and Lukashenko reverted to mass repression and human rights violations after the 2010 and 2020 presidential elections.
The 2020 anti-government protests were the largest in Belarus’s history, with over 200,000 people marching in the streets of Minsk demanding Lukashenko’s resignation. Had the Kremlin not provided political support to the regime and offered to intervene militarily, perhaps Belarus’s story would have taken a different path. Russia’s intelligence apparatus worked closely with their Belarusian counterparts to help suppress protests, and it’s likely they provided intelligence on the whereabouts of opposition activist Roman Protasevich, allowing the regime to hijack Ryanair Flight 4978 in 2021.
The fact that Lukashenko needed Kremlin support to survive undermined his authority and legitimacy within his own government. This allowed Russia to develop closer ties with other key regime figures and infiltrate Belarus’s security apparatus. Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Nikolay Karpenkov, who heads both Belarus’s security forces and the Main Directorate for Combating Organised Crime Corruption (GUBOPiK), played a crucial role in suppressing protests and is a staunch supporter of Russia. He often overshadows his superior, Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan Kubrakov, and is one of Russia’s preferred candidates to replace Lukashenko. Aware of Moscow’s tendrils, Lukashenko has tried to limit its influence by naming Ivan Tertel, who has few ties to Russia, as the head of the State Security Committee (KGB).
Even though some members of the security apparatus are apprehensive of Russia’s encroaching influence, they remain anti-West and have a vested interest in preserving the regime. Furthermore, the Russian Ambassador to Belarus, Boris Gryzlov, is very close to the siloviki (Putin’s inner circle) and helps reassert Russia’s influence while keeping an eye on the internal power dynamics in Minsk. Belarus’ pragmatic technocrats have been sidelined, especially after the sudden and mysterious death of Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei in November 2022, who happened to be one of the few figures openly hostile to Russia.
With Belarus now cut off from Western markets, its economy has become even more dependent on Russia, which is by far its largest trading partner. Minsk’s weakened bargaining position has allowed Moscow to accelerate plans for economic integration and defense cooperation within the Union State of Russia and Belarus. In 2021, both countries signed twenty-eight agreements, including a unified tax system, oil and gas market, and customs union. Ironically, when the Union State was first conceptualized in the late 1990s, Lukashenko pushed for greater integration between the two states, hoping that he would lead the union and take power in the Kremlin after Boris Yeltsin.
Although the opposition, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is supported by the West and most Belarusians, it is unlikely that they will be able to overthrow the regime. The constitutional amendments, passed in February 2022, allow Lukashenko to secure lifelong immunity from prosecution and retain power post-presidency as President of the All Belarussian People’s Assembly. The amendments also enable the permanent deployment of Russian troops and nuclear weapons in Belarus. Lukashenko may retain an honorific title but gradually lose actual power within his own country, whereas Russia’s influence is likely to stay for the foreseeable future.
Lukashenko hoped hosting Wagner troops, thanks to his mediation efforts during Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny in June 2023, would provide greater security from Russia. The bold assassination of Wagner’s leadership two months after the mutiny served as a message to Russians and allies alike, including Lukashenko, that betrayal is an unforgivable sin. Lukashenko has inadvertently traded his country’s sovereignty to remain in power for a few more years.
Kelly Alkhouli is a political consultant and director of international relations at the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA).