Why The Future of Belarus Matters to the United States
The protests and violent crackdown in Minsk will reshape Russian and Western decision-making for years.
On Monday night, heavily armed security forces poured into the streets of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to quash massive and growing protests against five-term president and Putin-ally Alyaksander Lukashenko. Police crackdowns, replete with rubber bullets, tear-gas, and arrests, have followed an election on Sunday that the U.S. State Department said “isn't free and fair.”
The main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has fled to Lithuania — but not before recording a video in which she nervously and solemnly reads a statement urging Belarusians to accept the official yet widely disputed election results in favor of Lukashenko.
Shortly after her statement, the Lithuanian foreign minister suggested that she made it under duress; her husband, an opposition journalist, has been jailed in recent weeks. Meanwhile, the Belarusian government has blocked the Internet throughout the country and several prominent journalists have been arrested or are simply missing. But opposition forces continue to reach audiences via apps such as Telegram. The episode has echoes of Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity in which Ukrainians rejected the pro-Putin rule of Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych. Similarly, what happens next in Belarus could have profound consequences for democratic movements in Eastern Europe and even the U.S. military presence there.
Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova, citing figures given by the Belarus interior ministry, said during an Atlantic Council event on Tuesday that some 3,000 people had been arrested, 2,000 in Minsk alone. They were being held “34 to a cell,” she said, noting that was well beyond capacity.
Attempts by the Lukashenko government to block the Internet have hurt businesses but the opposition, using virtual private networks and Telegram channels, continues to get messaging out, Franak Viačorka, vice president of the Digital Communications Network, said during the Atlantic Council broadcast. Despite Tikhanovskaya’s statement, her organization continues to call for protest, he said.
Belarus seems to be at a tipping point, Deutsche Welle columnist Konstantin Eggert said at the event.
“Belarus was very stable and now that stability is falling apart,” said Eggert, who offered what he described as a probable forecast. “Lukashenko will fall. There is no way for him to sustain such hatred on the part of his people. [But] He may not fall tomorrow.” The only way for Lukashenko to stay in power is for him to “massively shed blood,” which he may be more than willing to do.
Liubakova, who has been out talking to protestors and opposition groups, agreed that Lukashenko’s tactics had taken a violent turn, likely to affect the way he governs from here on out. “Everybody is politicized. Everybody is mobilized…This level of oppression is unprecedented...People will remember it, even people who were not interested in politics before...this will not be a comfortable term for [Lukashenko].”
Ben Hodges, a retired three-star who once commanded U.S. Army Europe, said, "I am very concerned about the way this election was conducted and how harsh the crackdown is on the demonstrators. The fact that the leading opposition candidate (not in jail), Ms Svitlana Tikhanovskaya, had to escape to Lithuania indicates that this was not a free and fair election."
What Belarus Means for Russia and the US
Belarus matters a great deal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The country sits to the west of most of Russia but just 65 kilometers, or 40 miles, to the east of the isolated Russian oblast of Kaliningrad. The narrow stretch of land — half Polish, half Lithuanian — border separating the two Russian territories is referred to as the Suwalki Gap. Close it off and you can cut off Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia from the rest of NATO without ever invading a city.
“Belarus is fully integrated into Russia’s armed forces, even if its military is not officially part of Russia’s Western Military District—an area that encompasses Kaliningrad and a vast stretch of territory from Karelia along the Finnish border to eastern Ukraine,” notes a 2018 report from the Center for European Policy Analysis, co-authored by Hodges.
“The Belarusian government lacks operational decision-making powers over its armed forces; and since the early 2000s, Belarus has in effect been incorporated within Russia’s Joint Operational Command,” the report said. “Although Russia and Belarus have established a joint Union State, Belarus remains the weakest point in Russia’s regional defenses. Belarusian and Russian forces do not train in the same integrated fashion as NATO states and officials in Moscow realize that they cannot take for granted the loyalty of all elements of the Belarusian army.”
There is no Russian military base in Belarus but Putin has taken measures to make sure that he can surge forces into the country to shore up regional defenses and challenge NATO. Russia’s massive 2017 Zapad exercise, which took place largely in Belarus, served as a justification for Moscow to build rail lines into the country to make possible the rapid deployment of Russian forces up to the Polish and Lithuanian border. And Russian mercenaries have been popping up in the country, in something of a repeat to the “little green men” who showed up in Crimea just before Russia’s official invasion.
Not coincidentally, this year’s U.S.-led Defender 2020 exercise had a component heavily focused on defending the Suwalki Gap.
But Minsk has become an increasingly wobbly Putin ally. U.S. diplomats, at least until Sunday, had been making entreaties. The United States maintains a variety of sanctions against Belarus but fewer than it did a few years ago. In 2018, the State Department started what George Kent, deputy assistant secretary in the European and Eurasian Bureau, described on Tuesday as “a deliberate effort to regain a…diplomatic relationship,” with the country. Some sanctions were lifted. The United States “felt it was important to get to that point where we could re-engage with the entire country.”
Washington had been working toward a rapprochement with Lukashenko. In February, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to Minsk, which Lukashenko played up the visit to look tough to Putin.
All of those efforts have been severely undermined by Lukashenko’s recent crackdown. Kent said State officials are “Deeply concerned about what’s happened over the last 48 hours.” An official Department statement said: “We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations.”
Likely Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden issued his own statement on Belarus on Monday: “I stand with those who are calling for a transparent and accurate vote count and the release of all political prisoners. I also call on President Lukashenko to respect the rights of peaceful protestors and to refrain from further violence.”
Putin’s interest in keeping Lukashenko in power isn’t just in maintaining a launchpad for another European invasion, Eggers said. If Lukashenko goes the way of Yanukovich, it again shows that Moscow’s strongmen aren’t so unstoppable. “He cannot afford to have the authority in Belarus to be overthrown,” said Eggers. “The only thing that would suit Moscow is for Lukashenko to go of his own volition, which is now impossible, only because if Lukashenko goes today, or tomorrow, or in a week’s time, it will look as a flight.”
This leaves the possibility of Putin using military force to back up an increasingly embattled ally against the Belarusian population. But polling in Russia suggests that “this is not particularly popular with the Russian population,” who have become increasingly wary of Putin’s foreign adventures and, while a majority of Belarusians may consider themselves Russian, Russian citizens simply “don’t believe Belarus needs saving,” said Eggers.
Either way, experts say Belarus won’t be able to continue on as it has after the events of this week. "The West, including [the United States] should put real pressure on Minsk to cease the crackdown on protesters and perhaps call for a new election. We should also send a very clear warning to Moscow not to do anything which further incites violence or threatens the sovereignty of Belarus," said Hodges. "The growing disenchantment and demonstrated courage of the citizens of Belarus indicates that Lukashenka’s time is growing short. So the West should take a long term view of the situation, continue to look for ways to encourage Western integration, support the very intelligent and tech-savvy youth of Belarus, and continue to work for no Russian intervention or ground troops in Belarus."
Eventually, Minsk will either fall toward the West, depriving Putin of an essential supporting government against NATO expansion, or it will fall toward Russia and NATO’s presence in Poland and Lithuania will become even more essential.