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Military cooperation with Russia continued, authorities began trial in absentia of opposition figures, and govt sought ways to strengthen cooperation with Tajikistan.
Military activities with Russia continued amid fears of more Belarusian support in Ukraine. President Lukashenko 6 Jan visited training ground in south-western Brest region bordering Ukraine where Russian troops are stationed. Defence ministry same day announced arrival of more Russian military equipment and aircrafts. Authorities 16 Jan-1 Feb held joint tactical flight exercises with Russia; govt 15 Jan said drills were “purely defensive” amid growing fears Belarus plans to deepen involvement in Ukraine. Former security official 29 Jan warned army could face mass desertion if Belarus invades Ukraine. Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen 10 Jan announced new sanctions against Belarus for “role in this Russian war”.
Authorities proceeded with trial in absentia of leading opposition figures. Amid govt’s continued crackdown on dissent, trial in absentia of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and four associates, indicted among other charges for treason and conspiring to seize power, 17 Jan began in capital Minsk. European Union High Representative Josep Borell same day condemned “fabricated charges” and Belarus’s “brutal persecution” of opposition leaders, while U.S. imposed visa restrictions on 25 officials for continued repression and “politically motivated trials”.
In other important developments. News agency Belta 4 Jan reported that Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin met with Tajik counterpart Sherali Mirzo in Belarus; two reportedly discussed “security matters in the responsibility area of the Collective Security Treaty Organization” and ways to advance bilateral cooperation.
Increased military activities and Russian President Putin’s visit to capital Minsk raised concerns in Ukraine; crackdown on opposition persisted.
Putin visited Minsk amid stepped-up military activity, fuelling concern in Kyiv. State news agency BelTA 7 Dec reported govt plans to move troops and military equipment 7-8 Dec as part of “counterterrorism” exercise, 13 Dec reported “sudden check of combat readiness” had begun. Meanwhile, Russian President Putin 19 Dec met with President Lukashenko in Minsk as Russian news agency Interfax, citing Russia’s defence ministry, same day reported that around 9,000 Russian soldiers, stationed in Belarus since Oct, will conduct “tactical exercises”; announcement fuelled fears that Belarus plans to deepen its involvement in Ukraine. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya same day warned that chance of govt sending troops to Ukraine “might increase in coming weeks” while authorities 21 Dec temporarily restricted access to parts of south-eastern Gomel region bordering Russia and Ukraine. Lukashenko 22 Dec said exercises were defensive.
Ukrainian missile entered Belarusian airspace. Minsk 29 Dec said it downed Ukrainian S-300 air defence missile close to Ukraine border; foreign ministry summoned Ukrainian ambassador, demanding Ukraine “conduct a thorough investigation”. Ukraine’s military same day acknowledged missile was Ukrainian, saying it was “the result of air defence”.
Repression of dissent continued. Court in Minsk 2 Dec sentenced journalist Dzmitry Luksha to four years in prison and two associates to over two years and 18 months in prison for activities that “disrupt social order”; 13 Dec sentenced four activists to between five and ten years in prison for “facilitating extremist activities”, among other charges. Court in Gomel 27 Dec sentenced three activists to over 20 years in prison each for sabotaging railway line used by Russia for transporting military equipment and weapons for Ukraine war in Feb 2022.
Crackdown on political opposition continued apace; Western powers threatened Minsk over its support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Authorities handed down prison sentences to opposition leaders. Court 3 Nov sentenced leader of opposition United Civic Party to 30 months in prison and two associates to 18 and 12 months in prison for actions that disrupted civil order. Similarly, trade union leader Alyaksandr Mishuk 15 Nov received 30-month prison term for “actions against national security”. Trial against ten members of Workers’ Movement, indicted for high treason, 9 Nov began in Homel city. Meanwhile, authorities 29 Nov transferred leading opposition figure Maryya Kalesnikava, sentenced Sept 2021 to 11 years in prison, to hospital where she was placed in intensive care.
G7 warned Belarus against deepening support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. G7 4 Nov urged Belarus to “stop enabling Russia’s war of aggression” and warned that “more direct” Belarusian involvement would see G7 impose “overwhelming additional costs on the regime”. President Lukashenko 23 Nov dismissed rumours of military involvement in Ukraine during Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization summit in Armenia, saying “it is not Belarus’ role”. Meanwhile, Canada’s govt 22 Nov imposed new sanctions on 22 Belarusian officials and 16 companies for “facilitating and enabling” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Authorities deployed joint regional force with Moscow after Minsk accused Ukraine of planning attack, while authorities continued crackdown on dissent.
Govt ramped up military cooperation with Russia amid war in Ukraine. President Lukashenko 10 Oct alleged Ukraine was planning strikes on Belarus and announced joint deployment of forces with Russia. G7 (Canada, France, Italy, Japan, UK, Germany and U.S.) 11 Oct called joint force proof of “regime’s complicity with Russia”. Russia 15 Oct began sending equipment and troops, while defence ministry 16 Oct said they expected to host just under 9,000 Russian troops. Authorities 17 Oct announced live-fire exercises and missile launches as part of “training activities” in east and centre of country. Meanwhile, FM Vladimir Makei 14 Oct told Russian Izvestia newspaper that govt was introducing “counterterrorist regime” in response to expected provocations from Ukraine, giving security forces broad powers to detain people or restrict free movement.
Crackdown on dissent continued apace. Following sentencing of four independent media representatives in Minsk District Court, EU 7 Oct criticised govt’s “brutal crackdown”, “long prison sentences” and “appalling conditions” in detention. Meanwhile, in trial dubbed “Autukhovich case”, court 17 Oct sentenced main defendant Mikalay Autukhovich to 25 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attack and conspiring to seize power; remaining eleven defendants received sentences of up to 20 years.
President Lukashenko denied rumours of mobilisation to support Russia’s war efforts, crackdown on opposition continued.Army conducted military exercises, Lukashenko dismissed mobilisation rumours. Defence ministry 8 Sept announced military drills near border with Poland, which lasted until 14 Sept. Following Russia’s partial military mobilisation over war in Ukraine (see Russia) and subsequent rumours of similar measures in Belarus, Lukashenko 23 Sept clarified that “there will be no mobilisation”.Crackdown on opposition continued. Court in Minsk 5 Sept sentenced five people – including U.S. citizen Yuras Zyankovich – to between 2.5 and 11 years in prison for attempting to seize power through assassination of Lukashenko; Zyankovich was also found guilty of creating extremist group. Court 16 Sept sentenced Syarhey Kanavalau to 15 years in prison for damaging railways that supply weapons and troops for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Crackdown on dissent continued apace, air force conducted exercises with Russia, and govt agreed to strengthen economic ties with Iran. Govt continued crackdown on independent media. Notably, court 3 Aug sentenced journalist Iryna Slaunikava, who works for Polish broadcaster Belsat TV, to five years in prison for “leading an extremist group” and “disrupting social order”. Poland next day summoned Belarus’s chargé d’affaires over case. Russia 9 Aug extradited activist Yana Pinchuk to Belarus despite repeated warnings that she risked torture upon return; govt has accused Pinchuk of inciting hatred and endangering national security. On two-year anniversary of disputed presidential election that prompted mass protests, opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya 9 Aug named “interim government”; according to Tsikhanouskaya, govt will be responsible for “transit of power from dictatorship to democracy”. Meanwhile, EU 8 Aug called for Belarus to respect “democracy and the rule of law”, while U.S. 9 Aug imposed visa restrictions on “100 regime officials”. Air force 9-11 Aug, 22-25 Aug held military exercise in Belarus and Russia respectively. China 17 Aug announced joint military drills “in near future” with Belarus, Russia, India, and others, insisting drills have “nothing to do” with international tensions. President Lukashenko 17 Aug approved draft agreement for military-technical cooperation on research, development and production of weaponry until 2025 with Russia. Belarus and Iran 27 Aug signed Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen economic relations, with one official saying “Iran and Belarus can put neutralisation of sanctions on their joint agenda”.
Govt and Western powers imposed tit-for-tat sanctions, and crackdown on opposition continued. UK 4 July introduced new sanctions worth £60mn, saying govt “continues to actively facilitate” Russia’s war in Ukraine. Responding to “hostile” actions, govt 29 July recalled ambassador to UK but insisted that communication channels will remain open. In response to Western sanctions, govt 5 July said it would freeze foreign shareholdings in 190 Belarusian companies from “unfriendly” countries. Opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya 22 July dismissed recent reports that President Lukashenko wants military to play more active role in Ukraine, citing significant opposition to war, even within military. Meanwhile, crackdown on dissent continued. Court 13 July sentenced journalist Katerina Bakhvalova (pen name Katerina Andreyeva) to eight years in prison on charges of “state treason”; she was already serving two-year sentence for “violating public order”. Russian court in St Petersburg 21 July upheld decision to extradite activist Yana Pinchuk, whom Belarus accused of inciting national hatred and endangering national security; Pinchuk same day said she risks torture upon return. Minsk court 29 July began trial against political activists, including leader of opposition party Belarusian Popular Front, Ryhor Kastusyou; Human rights organisation Amnesty International same day called trial “desperate attempt to crush dissent”. In UN Aviation Agency’s report published 19 July, agency condemned Ryanair aircraft incident, when govt diverted flight and arrested opposition activist and his girlfriend, as “unlawful interference”; EU 22 July welcomed report and condemned “ongoing repression” while govt 27 July “resolutely disagreed” with findings.
Authorities continued crackdown on dissent. Repression of independent media and opposition persisted amid flurry of arrests and jail sentences. Notably, Supreme Court 1 June rejected appeal by bloggers and opposition activists, including Siarhei Tsikhanouski — imprisoned husband of exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya — who was sentenced in Dec 2021 for allegedly organising mass disorder, inciting social hatred and disrupting social order; court in capital Minsk 14 June designated news outlet Tut.by Media “extremist” and banned it; Minsk court 23 June sentenced philosopher Uladzimer Matskevich to five years in prison for disrupting “social order”, creating extremist group and insulting President Lukashenko. Outgoing U.S. special envoy for Belarus 9 June said “release of all political prisoners will ease sanctions”.
Tensions persisted on Ukraine border amid military build-up, while govt signed into law death penalty for “terrorism”, which sparked concern over potential use against critics and opposition. Amid heightened geopolitical tensions around ongoing war in Ukraine (see Ukraine), govt 4 May announced start of military exercises with “significant numbers of military vehicles” at border with Ukraine; govt 22 May reportedly extended training until at least 28 May. Army chief 10 May announced deployment of special forces and military equipment to southern border, alleging presence of “20,000” Ukrainian forces at border. Ukrainian military 23 May said Belarus forces were “intensifying reconnaissance, additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region”. Earlier, President Lukashenko 5 May defended Russia’s invasion but said he felt war was dragging on longer than planned. Meanwhile, govt continued repression of political dissent. Lukashenko 18 May signed law making attempted acts of terrorism punishable with death penalty; law follows numerous media reports about activists allegedly sabotaging rail links to disrupt Russia’s war effort in Ukraine; U.S. same day expressed concern that govt could use “politically motivated charges of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ against many of the more than 1,100 political prisoners” and “tens of thousands more” who have been detained under such charges. Authorities 18 May began trial of political activist Mikalay Autukhovich in western city of Hrodna on charges of high treason, attempted power seizure and other crimes; 11 others faced similar charges. Western states and their allies during month imposed various sanctions and visa restrictions on over 2,600 citizens of Russia and Belarus. EU Parliament 19 May demanded that EU sanctions on Russia “must be strictly mirrored for Belarus”, condemned “crackdown” and accused govt of “assisting with Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine”.
Authorities continued crackdown on dissent, while U.S. and EU imposed further sanctions to condemn govt’s role in Ukraine war. Authorities stifled dissent during April. Notably, Supreme Court 8 April declared Nexta news outlet and corresponding Telegram channels as “extremist organization”. Authorities 20 April arrested journalist Aksana Kolb without presenting charges; NGO Committee to Protect Journalists same day claimed “Kolb’s detention shows that the situation for journalists in Belarus remains extremely worrying”. Meanwhile, lower house of parliament 27 April approved bill to make attempted acts of terrorism punishable with death penalty; bills follows numerous media reports about activists allegedly sabotaging rail links to disrupt Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Internationally, U.S. 8 April expanded sanctions on Belarus and Russia over Ukraine war, including removal from most-favoured-nation trade status; 14 April imposed restrictions on seven Belarussian owned or operated aircrafts, effectively grounding them; 20 April imposed visa restrictions on 17 individuals, including Belarus nationals, “responsible for undermining democracy” through “intimidation, harassment and repression”. EU 8 April adopted fifth sanctions package due to Ukraine war, expelling non-essential Russian and Belarusian road transport and banning sale of banknotes and transferable securities to Russia and Belarus. Polish authorities 6 April announced arrest of two Belarusians on “charges of espionage”; suspects face up to ten years of prison.
Govt faced international pressure for its role in supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine, while authorities continued crackdown on dissent at home. U.S. Special Envoy for Belarus Julie Fisher 1 March alleged govt’s 27 Feb referendum – which introduced constitutional changes to permit President Lukashenko to remain in power until 2035 and abolish country’s “nuclear-free zone” status – “unmistakably” linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pointing at possibility of Moscow stationing nuclear weapons in country. EU 2 March imposed sanctions on high-level military officials and trade for Minsk’s “role in the Russian military aggression of Ukraine”. Meanwhile, UN Human Rights Office 9 March published report alleging “widespread and systemic” breach of fundamental human rights of “tens of thousands” in continued crackdown since Aug 2020; in following debate at UN Rights Council, U.S. 17 March accused Belarus of “enabling” Ukraine war. Authorities continued crackdown on independent media. Notably, court 4 March sentenced Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Belarus correspondent Aleh Hruzdzilovich to 18 months in prison; RFE/RL same day condemned sentencing of “innocent journalist”. Authorities 24 March detained Zmitser Dashkevich, former leader of Belarusian opposition movement Malady Front (Youth Front), over “activities that violate social order”.
Western powers imposed sanctions in response for Minsk’s role in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine; crackdown on dissent continued. Belarus and Russia 10 Feb launched joint military training exercises; French FM Jean-Yves Le Drian same day dubbed “extremely massive” drills as “a gesture of great violence”. Russia 15 Feb announced return of some troops; UK and U.S. 16 Feb argued contrary was true, as Western media mid-Feb circulated satellite images allegedly showing heavy weaponry in “military buildup” in Belarus. Following meeting between French President Macron and Russian President Putin, Macron 8 Feb indicated agreement with Russia on non-prolongation of exercises in Belarus. Defence Minister Viktar Khrenin 20 Feb announced indefinite prolongation of exercises, citing “increase in military activity near the external borders”. As Russia 24 Feb invaded Ukraine, partly via Belarus territory, U.S. same day sanctioned 24 Belarusians, targeting “military and financial capabilities”; EU next day announced sanctions on those Belarusians “who facilitated the Russian military aggression”; G7 27 Feb agreed on “massive and coordinated sanctions, including on Belarus”. Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya 26 Feb declared herself “national leader”, accusing President Lukashenko of “treason” by participating in Russia-Ukraine war. International media 28 Feb cited U.S. Defence Dept official accusing Belarus of preparing to join Russian forces in military operation in Ukraine. Authorities 27 Feb declared 65.2% voted in favour of constitutional referendum, strengthening powers of presidency and scrapping country’s non-nuclear status. Meanwhile, authorities continued crackdown on dissent. Notably, Minsk court 16 Feb sentenced opposition United Civic Party activist Andrey Kudzik to two years’ imprisonment for activities related to disrupting civil order; Kudzik rejected accusation and refused testimony. U.S. State Dept 1 Feb warned U.S. citizens of travel to Belarus due to “arbitrary” law enforcement; U.S. 4 Feb introduced sanctions against “Belarusian nationals for their involvement in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activity”. EU 9 Feb claimed authorities detained 1,040 people as “political prisoners” and called “for their immediate and unconditional release”.
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