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How Russia occupied Belarus without a single shot and what consequences it caused for security


The word "occupation" is perceived in the mass consciousness as something that has arisen as a result of war. Maybe this is why Europe and the United States prefer not to notice Russia’s de facto non-belligerent occupation of Belarus. But it is no longer possible to ignore its consequences today. After all, if the occupation of a country in the very center of Europe is ignored for a long time, it will eventually lead to war anyway. Even if the occupation that preceded it had occurred without a single shot being fired.

In the past occupation was viewed as a result of the military actions between the states and therefore it was called "belligerent occupation". But the events of the 20th century demonstrated that the link between occupation and war is not indispensable — it could be a result of a threat to use force in order to make the other government to concede effective control over its territory to a foreign power or an outcome of the agreements concluded between "strong" and "weak" states.

This tendency was confirmed in the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 Аugust 1949 that extends the regime of occupation "to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance". This phenomenon can be defined as the effective control of a State over a territory to which that State has no sovereign title, without the will (volition) of the sovereign of that territory.

Contemporary practice shows that occupants prefer not to establish direct administration. In the second half of the 20th century the outlawing of war provided incentives for invaders to act through their proxies and avoid direct responsibility. They would rather make use of the existing structures of administration or try to set up a puppet government. In this case they would tend not to acknowledge the applicability of the law on occupation to their own or their proxies' activities and would deny any international responsibility for them.

On the basis of the above-mentioned doctrine provisions, it could be concluded that Belarus has been subjected to the "non-belligerent" occupation by the Russian military forces with the default consent of the puppet government of the illegitimate Lukashenko, which has led to the evident loss of the sovereignty in the political and military spheres ("the authority of the legitimate power having in fact passed into the hands of the occupant" - Article 43 of the Hague Convention of 1907).

What are the signs of a de facto non-belligerent occupation of Belarus by Russia?

1) The occupier (Russia) controls the occupied territory and uses it for its military purposes;

2) There is no visible indication that Lukashenko can impede any action by the Russian army;

3) Russia uses the "acquiescence" of Lukashenko’s puppet government, which has no legitimacy, to cover up its actions and to avoid giving Belarus the status of occupied territory;

4) The start of the occupation took place without a declaration of war — the occupier was covered by formal legal grounds (military exercise plan, membership in the CSTO, Union State);

5) International treaties and arrangements that were used as formal grounds for the deployment of troops were subsequently grossly violated (the army of the Russian Federation remained on the territory of Belarus after the end of the military exercises and subsequently attacked Ukraine). These actions suggest that the Kremlin originally planned to use the territory of Belarus to invade Ukraine. As a result, the territory of Belarus was used for an aggressive attack on a third country, although neither the Treaty on the Union State nor the Collective Security Treaty, to which Belarus is a signatory, provides for the engagement in wars of aggression. Neither does the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, nor its Military Doctrine. Besides it was a violation of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborhood and Cooperation, concluded on 17 August 1995 between Belarus and Ukraine, under which inviolability of their borders was recognized, and the subsequent Treaty on the State Border between Ukraine and the Republic of Belarus of 12 May 1997.

6) At the time of the occupation Lukashenko was not recognised by the civilized world as a legitimate president after losing the elections in the summer of 2020 and maintained his power in the country de facto illegally.

How was it possible that in the twenty-first century the occupation of a European country took place without a single shot being fired?

In August 2020, A. Lukashenko lost the election to democratic candidate S. Tsikhanouskaya and retained power by force of arms. After hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in peaceful protest against the stolen election — Lukashenko unleashed the most massive repression in modern Belarusian history. Dozens of people have been killed, thousands are in prison, tens of thousands have gone through torture in prisons, and hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have left the country for fear of persecution.

The only country among Belarus' neighbors that recognised Lukashenko as president and helped him hold onto power was Russia. Without Russia’s support he had no chance of making it. After losing the presidential election, Russia announced that it was "ready to provide military assistance" to Lukashenko to keep him in power. For the Belarusians this effectively meant a threat of military invasion. And given that it is well known in Belarus that after the victory of democratic forces in Ukraine Russia invaded its Eastern regions and unleashed a war that killed 14,000 people, the threat was very real. Now, in 2022, the Russian army is on the Belarusian land.

It is also important to note that after the European sanctions had been imposed, Russia helped and continues to help the Lukashenko regime stay afloat financially by creating conditions to circumvent the sanctions and by actually sponsoring Lukashenko. It is now clear that the purpose of all these investments was to gain possession of the territory of Belarus as a springboard for the attack on Ukraine.

Just as it is obvious that without the possibility of free access to the territory of Belarus and without such a bridgehead, Russian troops would not have been able to invade Ukraine from the territory of Belarus by the shortest route to Kiev and would not have been able to strike at the center of Ukraine with aircraft and missiles from the shortest possible distances.

But the danger of the Russian aggression using the Belarussian bridgehead threatens not only Ukraine.

Not only propaganda, but also Russian state officials themselves are already directly talking about the possibility of an attack on Poland and Lithuania from the territory of Belarus. May these words be seen as empty threats? Perhaps, but the experience of 2022 has shown that any threats from Russia should be treated as real if it has a physical possibility to realize them. And this possibility is determined by where the Russian army is at the moment of the threat. And now it has already come close to the borders of the EU through the territory of the occupied Belarus.

So far they have only attacked Ukraine, where tens of thousands of people have already died and more are dying every day, where a number of Ukrainian cities have simply been wiped off the face of the earth. But even if there is a truce (or peace) between Russia and Ukraine and the hot phase of the conflict stops — will anything change in terms of regional security in Europe?

No, absolutely not. Obviously, Russian troops will not leave Belarus until they are forced to do so. They will stay and pose a constant threat to the European Union and Ukraine.

Nevertheless, no one even thinks of making demands to the Kremlin for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Belarus. Why?

Simply because there are allegedly no grounds for it — after all, Lukashenko says everywhere that he "voluntarily invited the Russian army". And everyone seems to have already forgotten that he has no right to invite anyone on behalf of the Belarusians — after all, he lost the elections and retained power only by force of arms and Russian money against the will of the absolute majority of Belarusians.

Was it possible to avoid this?

Of course it was. If the EU and the US had been as active in helping the Belarusians in their struggle for freedom as they are now helping the Ukrainians, there might not have been a war in Ukraine. We could have avoided tens of thousands of casualties. If the same sanctions had been imposed on Lukashenko as are now being imposed on Russia, he would not have retained the power.

Today, this is openly confirmed by Lukashenko himself, who openly states that if the "Maidan" had succeeded in Belarus, Russia would not have been able to launch an operation in Ukraine:

"There was a desire to cut off here and draw a red line for Russia. Ukraine was already there, Belarus had to be put next to them. And the operation (Russian invasion of Ukraine — editor’s note) could not have been carried out when the two republics would have been crushed by them (Western countries — editor’s note)".

— Lukashenko said during a meeting with Melnichenko (governor of Russia’s Penza Oblast) on 31 March.

What should be done first to remove the threat to the EU presented by the Russian troops in Belarus?

It is necessary to realize the fact that without Lukashenko in power, Putin would not have obtained a springboard for an attack on Ukraine. To realize that in order to take action:

1) Recognise Belarus as a territory occupied by Russia. This would allow as a first step to demand the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Belarus.

2) Place Lukashenko and his government in international isolation, excluding all its representatives from international relations. This would prevent Russia from using Lukashenko’s puppet government, which sends politically motivated requests for wanted persons to Interpol and uses its voice at the UN to promote Russian propaganda narratives.

3) Warn that further use of the Belarusian territory for aggression, and not withdrawing the Russian troops would entail even tougher sanctions than have been imposed on Russia. This would force Lukashenko to reconsider the risk-benefit ratio with regard to trading the territory as a springboard for an attack on the EU.

4) Make clear that no action infringing upon Belarus' sovereignty will be legally enforceable, and avoid the annexation of Belarus.

5) Prevent steps announced repeatedly by Russia — and confirmed by Lukashenko’s puppet government — to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Without these actions, any ceasefires or peace agreements will only move the military conflict in Ukraine from an active to a waiting phase. With the Russian troops on the territory of Belarus, there remain threats of new aggressive actions not only against Ukraine…

Mikhail Kirilyuk

Legal Affairs Officer of the National Anti-Crisis Management, Member of the Coordination Council

Pavel Latushka

Member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council, Head of the National Anti-Crisis Management, Ambassador, ex-Minister


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