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Why Belarus is so involved in Russia's invasion of Ukraine

TOPSHOT - Ukrainian Defence minister Oleksii Reznikov (L) shakes hands with Russian negotiators prior the talks between delegations from Ukraine and Russia in Belarus' Brest region on March 3, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. - Russia and Ukraine will discuss a ceasefire at upcoming talks on the border between Poland and Belarus, Moscow's chief negotiator said on March 2, nearly one week into Russia's invasion of its pro-Western neighbour. - Belarus OUT (Photo by Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP) / Belarus OUT (Photo by MAXIM GUCHEK/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov (left) shakes hands with Russian negotiators prior to talks between their countries' delegations amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Belarus' Brest region on March 3.

As the U.S. and its European allies move to cinch Russia off from global trade and international funds over its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, one country has landed alongside it in the Western crosshairs: Belarus.

The landlocked country of 9 million people borders northern Ukraine and served as a staging ground for Russian troops in the months preceding the invasion. It has also hosted diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the European Union announced it would ban Belarusian banks from the SWIFT global financial messaging system and freeze ties with Belarus' central bank, adding to sanctions levied last week that effectively block billions of euros' worth of annual exports to the EU.

And the White House announced its own sanctions last week to limit imports and target Belarusian military officials, as it criticized Belarus for "enabling Putin's invasion of Ukraine."

"You have stabbed your neighbor in the back. You are a co-aggressor, your territory has been used as a launch pad for a vicious, barbaric attack on a neighboring state, and you bear responsibility for that," Michael Carpenter, a U.S. diplomat, said this week at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Here's what to know about the role Belarus is playing in the conflict.

How does Belarus fit into Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

Belarus was part of the Soviet Union and became an independent country in 1991, after the USSR collapsed. Since then, it has maintained close economic and political ties with Russia.

The country borders three NATO member states that were once communist states: Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. While those countries and others that were part of the Soviet bloc have joined Western alliances NATO and the EU, Belarus has remained tightly under Moscow's influence.

Strategically, Belarus is important to the Russian military effort. It shares nearly 700 miles of border with Ukraine, and Kyiv is closer to Belarus than it is to Russia. Over the winter, more than 30,000 Russian troops gathered in Belarus under the guise of joint training exercises. Russia had claimed those forces would return home after the exercises ended in late February.

Instead, they invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Since then, Russian forces coming from Belarus have approached the capital Kyiv along the west side of the Dnieper River and attacked Chernihiv, a smaller city to Kyiv's northeast. Some injured Russian soldiers have been evacuated to hospitals in Belarus, The Wall Street Journal reported. Russian missiles have also been launched from Belarus, the Pentagon said.

U.S. defense officials have repeatedly said they have seen no evidence that Belarusian troops have joined Putin's invasion.

Why is Belarus aiding the Russian invasion?

In short, Russia has helped Belarus — and specifically its authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko — and now, Russian President Vladimir Putin has called in the favor.

For decades, Lukashenko had played Belarus as something of a neutral state, shifting his overtures from Russia to Western nations and back as his needs suited.

But a key turning point came in 2020, after Lukashenko declared victory in a controversial, disputed presidential election.

Lukashenko's claim of a landslide victory — 80% for Lukashenko versus 10% for his popular opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — was instantly disputed, both by the opposition and by the U.S. and its allies in Europe.

In Belarus, protests erupted on an unprecedented scale. They lasted for weeks, with security forces arresting thousands but still failing to suppress the huge numbers of demonstrators in the capital Minsk.

Facing the biggest popular challenge in his 26 years of power, Lukashenko turned to Putin for help. And Putin delivered, announcing that the Russian military stood ready to intervene "if necessary."

An emboldened Lukashenko embarked on a vicious crackdown, with mass arrests and torture of detainees. His government jailed political opponents and journalists, shut down human rights organizations and criminalized displays of what it called "extremism."

More than 37,000 people were detained in the year ending May 2021, according to a new report by the United Nations.

"These arrests and detentions, accompanied by the unlawful use of force that caused serious bodily injury and harm, and followed by torture and ill-treatment, including rape, were on a large scale and had the effect of exerting pressure on the population, to stifle dissent and public displays of opposition to the incumbent President," the report states.

Lukashenko's actions came at a cost, says Tatsiana Kulakevich, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who is originally from Belarus.

"The door was closed towards the West, and he had only one option: Russia," Kulakevich said. "He needs support, he needs money. And Putin provided that to him."

How has the West responded?

The U.S., the United Kingdom and the EU have all announced sanctions against Belarus over the past two weeks, nearly as severe as those placed on Russia itself.

It's important to note that Belarus was already under major sanctions enacted following Lukashenko's 2020 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Last year, more sanctions came after the diversion of a Ryanair flight to Minsk to arrest an anti-Lukashenko journalist, and for stranding Middle Eastern migrants on Belarus' border with Poland.

As a result, diplomatic ties between Belarus and the U.S. have been strained. The Belarusian government denied a visa to U.S. Ambassador Julie Fisher in 2020 and ordered the drawdown of U.S. Embassy staff in Minsk in 2021. Belarus does not currently have an ambassador in Washington.

Western officials are wary of making deals with Lukashenko, whose commitments have proved unreliable in the past — such as when the EU welcomed a seemingly liberalizing Belarus into the union's democracy-focused Eastern Partnership in 2009, only to watch in 2010 as Lukashenko ordered the arrests of political opponents and the violent dispersal of tens of thousands of protesters.

"I think it's incredibly important to recognize the patterns that Lukashenko has built over decades — the question of whether or not it is possible to make arrangements to try to resolve one discrete issue, whether he can be trusted to live up to any such agreements," said Fisher in an interview with NPR last November.

What is next for Belarus?

While Lukashenko says that Belarusian forces will not take part in the conflict, Belarus has little power to influence Russia's Ukraine war. Russian troops are still present in Belarus.

Opinion polling in Belarus is limited, but recent studies by foreign think tanks have found growing discontent with Lukashenko's regime and ambivalence among Belarusians about their country's deepening relationship with Russia. But there is nothing that everyday Belarusians can do to change Lukashenko's dependence on Putin.

More broadly, Putin's decision to invade Ukraine shows a determination to bolster Moscow's sphere of influence — and Belarus is part of that, experts say.

Putin "wants Ukraine because it's part of his version of a Russian empire. He wants Belarus to be part of that empire," Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for Europe, told NPR last month.

Putin has written and spoken extensively about his belief that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and that Ukraine is not a legitimate nation separate from Russia.

In those comments, he often includes Belarus, too, Kulakevich points out.

"When we hear that Ukraine is in his sphere of influence, that he wants it to be — Belarus is as well. He cannot let it go," Kulakevich says. "They also don't have a right to exist, essentially, according to Putin. And it's a very unfortunate situation, because the Belarusian people cannot do anything." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.