The Implications of Russia’s Creeping Takeover of Belarus
Photo by rambler.ru
Belarus has had a busy year. A stolen presidential election in August 2020, sustained nationwide protests met with mass arrests and illegal in-detention abuse and torture, Western sanctions, and joint military exercises with Russia. And now Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gave the green light for state piracy against a Ryanair flight to kidnap the dissident Roman Protasevich. In an unusual display of ire and alacrity, the European Union (EU) took swift action, imposing further sanctions against Belarus, advising against EU flights utilizing Belarusian airspace and banning the Belarusian national airline Belavia from either using EU airports or airspace. Ukraine and the United Kingdom have also denied Belarus access to their airspace.
For most of his 26-year tenure as president, Mr. Lukashenko maintained his rule through an autocratic grip on Belarussian society and by balancing Belarus’ relationship with Moscow and Brussels. Minsk joined Moscow in creating the Union State of Russia and Belarus but has resisted total integration of key sectors of Belarus’ military, security, military, and economy with Russia. Belarus had also maintained a neutral position in the Ukrainian conflict so that the Belarusian capital, Minsk, could serve as the host city for talks aimed at resolving the conflict in the Ukrainian Donbas.
But as the Belarusian strongman’s rule faces growing pressure, his resilience against Kremlin pressure has correspondingly cratered. To preserve his regime, Lukashenko has allowed the Russian FSB to widely infiltrate the Belarusian KGB. President Lukashenko also agreed to joint Belarusian-Russian military training centers with one in Belarus’ EU border region of Grodno, and proceeded to integrate the Russian and Belarusian air defense systems. Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs are pushing ahead to buy Belarusian potash company Belaruskali and fertilizer company Hrodno Azot.
Meanwhile, President Lukashenko also invited ‘Donbas’ investigators to interrogate Roman Protasevich. This followed a two-day summit in Sochi swimming with Russian President Putin where he left with a $500 million loan Ukraine has already lobbied to have the negotiation process moved from Minsk, since such de facto recognition of the rebel territories as independent states negates supposed Belarusian neutrality in the matter.
What we are seeing is the transformation of Belarus from a sovereign state into a Russian protectorate. Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the CNA Corporation, noted that Russia has increased its joint exercises with Belarus to essentially keep Russian troops stationed in Belarus at all times, in a parallel to NATO’s rotation of forces in Poland and the Baltic States through its Enhanced Forward Presence. Such deployments allow Russia to threaten the security of Ukraine and Europe.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the Union State a threat Ukraine, allowing Russia to directly threaten Ukraine’s northern border. This comes two months following the border crisis where Russia massed 110,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border and in the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that most of the troops would be withdrawn from the border by May 1. However, Ukrainian sources have revealed that Russia has maintained a force of 100,000 servicemen with 1,300 tanks, 37,00 armored vehicles, and over 1,600 artillery and rocket systems on the Ukrainian border.
At this point, it is unclear whether Belarus can be extracted from the Kremlin’s embrace. In the West, Lukashenko may be the most hated man after Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad. Should he remain in power, then Belarus will be entangled in Moscow’s web. But challenges will remain even should the exiled Belarusian opposition manage to oust Lukashenko so that Belarussian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya can become Belarusian president. Under Russian pressure, Lukashenko has been strengthening the Belarusian parliament so that pro-Kremlin Belarusian parties can maintain Belarus’ eastward orientation regardless of who sits in the presidential palace.
Whether or not Lukashenko remains in power, the West faces no good options. For now, U.S. President Joseph Biden should make clear that the United States and its allies will not passively allow Russia to threaten states important to Western security. The United States and its European and NATO allies should take meaningful and visible steps to fortify NATO’s eastern flank in the Baltic states and Black Sea region, with particular emphasis on the defense of Ukraine and Georgia.
The European Union already has a large, if controversial, arms industry whose clients are mostly authoritarians in the Sahel. The EU should expand the regional scope of its European Peace Facility, the $6 billion fund dedicated to arming those governments, and arm democratizing states important to European security such as Ukraine and Georgia. Similarly, the United States needs to continue arming Ukraine and Georgia and foster connections between Ukraine’s established and Turkey’s burgeoning defense industries. NATO should also rotate its forces not just in the Baltics, but in Ukraine and Georgia on a regular basis so there is a constant NATO presence in these countries. As Putin threatens “uncomfortable signals” ahead of his summit with President Biden in Geneva this June, he must learn that his policy of developing and sustaining protracted conflicts will not deter his adversaries.