This week, as Russia intensified attacks on civilians in Ukraine, Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko doubled down on his support for Putin’s war of aggression. As Ryan Goodman and I noted earlier this year, Lukashenko and his senior officials are already candidates for prosecution in any future aggression tribunal. Lukashenko’s actions over the past few days, however, move him up the priority list of perpetrators to pursue in a world of limited resources.
Belarus, bordering Ukraine to its south and Russia to its east, has aligned itself with Putin’s campaign since before the start of the war. In 2021, Lukashenko, an authoritarian leader who has held the presidency of Belarus for nearly three decades, supported joint war exercises with Russia in Belarus. In advance of Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenko allowed Russia to stage its troops on Belarusian territory.
Allowing Belarus to be used as a staging ground for Russia’s war of aggression is itself an act of aggression under international criminal law. The International Criminal Court’s definition of aggression, for example, includes: “The action of a State in allowing its territory, which it has placed at the disposal of another State, to be used by that other State for perpetrating an act of aggression against a third State” (Article 8bis (2)(f)).
On Monday, Lukashenko upped the ante following a weekend meeting in St. Petersburg with Putin, ordering Belarusian soldiers to deploy alongside Russian troops on the Ukraine border. (And, as an aside, on Wednesday, Belarus was one of only four countries to vote against a U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s latest effort to illegally annex parts of Ukraine.) Analysts note that Lukashenko is beholden to Putin, who backed him following massive protests against Lukashenko’s contested re-election in 2020. Nonetheless, the political survival of anyone, let alone an authoritarian leader, is not a defense under international criminal law.
As long as Lukashenko manages to hold onto power, he retains head of state immunity from aggression prosecutions run out of domestic courts in any country. But whether such immunity would hold in a properly constituted international tribunal is far more doubtful. And if the persistent efforts of the Belarusian people to secure a transition to democracy ever come to fruition, then Lukashenko can be tried for aggression in national courts in different parts of the globe, if not Belarus itself.