After protracted domestic unrest in 2020 in the form of massive protests attempting to oust Belarus’ president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the country’s government is teetering on the verge of collapse. Moscow has rushed in to fill the vacuum.
By Sarah White*
Lukashenka has suddenly fallen in line with Moscow’s agenda, despite years of resistance to encroaching Russian economic influence. Now it is probable that Russia is facilitating a soft takeover of the former Soviet republic.
This week, NATO was alarmed at an announcement by Belarus’ defense ministry that a tank battalion would be moved near the border with Poland. Just a week earlier, there was news of an alarming buildup of Russian tanks on its Crimean border with Ukraine. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned NATO that “additional measures” would be taken if troops were sent to aid Ukraine. On April 14 Russia warned the U.S. to stay out of the escalating situation “for its own good.”
Multiple high-level Russian officials (the Kremlin spokesperson, the outgoing Secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union State, and the outgoing Russian ambassador to Belarus) have issued statements denying the existence of plans to, for instance, merge the Russian and Belarussian states or armed forces. Because of these denials, NATO is in a hypervigilance mode of coordinated military activity near the Polish border. Nevertheless, the political situation in Minsk is transparent: Moscow has already deployed new diplomats to Belarus that have strong relationships with Vladimir Putin.
Moscow’s twenty-first-century ambitions to expand its sphere of influence were first tested in 2008 with the invasion of Georgia and then again with the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Since then, Russia has moved into the Donbas region of East Ukraine, where skirmishes between Russian-backed separatist militias and Ukrainian forces have been ongoing. The international community has come to expect an exercise of hard power from Russia.
This time, Russia’s strategy is much subtler than in previous iterations of expansionist acts. What is happening in Belarus amounts to soft aggression against the Belarusian people, who mobilized en masse to force Lukashenka out of office in 2020, and against NATO. The strategy, in this case, involves the movement toward cementing Belarus’ dependence on Russian transport networks, which Lukashenka previously avoided by moving exports through the Baltics. This is a significant sign of the Kremlin establishing economic control.
There are also ideological motives at play in this strategy. As was the case with Western Ukraine, civil society in Belarus has become considerably more pro-European in recent years. Belarusians are also re-examining their country’s history from the lens of periods before Belarus was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century; then, it was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This shared history draws a straight line from modern Belarus to modern Poland and Lithuania, both solid NATO members.
According to Warsaw’s Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), over sixty percent of Belarusians believe their country should draw inspiration from periods when they were not ruled by Russia. Along with those imperial predecessors, a smaller number of respondents pointed at the Belarusian People’s Republic as a relatively positive example of a state that is independent in more than name, despite a brief existence as an anti-Bolshevik entity amid the fallout of the Russian Revolution.
Simultaneously, approval rates for Vladimir Putin in Belarus have been on the decline. A Chatham House poll reported a 34.6 increase in negative viewpoints of the Russian president since the beginning of the August 2020 protests.
Despite the difference in Moscow’s method for seizing control, the consequences will likely be the same as for its other adventures. There is currently a sanctions regime in place in Belarus, imposed by the U.S. and Europe, but no overt military action will follow because of the heavy Russian military presence, as was the case for Georgia, for Crimea, and for Eastern Ukraine.
For Russia’s military, having a presence in Belarus facilitates the creation of an enormous, relatively coherent bulwark against the West, and its position between the Baltics and Poland renders those countries even more accessible. Nor is Belarus far from the already-heavily armed oblast of Kaliningrad, also in the Baltic region.
Ultimately, the U.S. and NATO will have to continue to be vigilant and step up preparations for an outbreak of direct conflict with Russia in Eastern Europe, which is quickly becoming a potential war theater.
They will also have to continue building up defenses and deterrence measures in the region, particularly in Poland, which faces the most pressure on the most fronts from the presence of Russian troops.
Fortunately, that process had been underway prior to the coalescence of Russian forces in Belarus and Ukraine. As the “frontline” state which devotes the required two percent of GDP to NATO defenses, Poland has been gradually shifting its military spending toward increasing preparedness for overt Russian aggression. Poland has acquired both the F-35 fighter and the Patriot air defense system from the U.S., which are used by other NATO countries. The F-35 is especially important in European defense because it collects more intelligence than any other tactical aircraft—and is invisible to Russian radar.
What remains under discussion is whether Poland will also acquire the M1 Abrams tank to replace its 500 or so Russian-made tanks from the Soviet era. Being able to acquire the M1 would immediately alleviate some of the stress that Poland is under to find a replacement for those tanks in the face of the current predicament; Germany has no available Leopard tanks for sale, and Poland has not been able to become part of France and Germany’s Main Battle Tank coalition.
*Sarah White is a Senior Research Analyst at Arlington’s Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author’s own.