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Amid Ukraine, keep watching Belarus. That might be Putin’s real sleight of hand

Article by Professor Rick Fawn

February 23, 2022

Amid Ukraine, keep watching Belarus. That might be Putin’s real sleight of hand

We are all rightly focused on massive Russian military build-ups around Ukraine. The most recent, and potentially most menacing, is in Belarus. Grabbing control of Belarus in the process makes sense as a Putin objective. Five reasons point that way, especially when our gaze is locked on events south of this post-Soviet dictatorship.


First, Putin craves regional order and stability. That means having leaders who reliably maintain domestic autocratic order, and comply with building ever-closer working relations with Russia, including Putin’s pet regional project of the Eurasian Economic Union. We know Putin’s fear and revulsion at the (peaceful) removal of previous friendly regimes in other post-Soviet regimes.


The biggest example of that came in 2014 when Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych failed to keep order and fled to Russia, where the Putin regime gives refuge to other flunked post-Soviet leaders.


Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko, clinging to power for almost 30 years, failed that essential Putin test following falsified elections in 2020. Despite violent repression, mass protests continue. Worse, an effective government-in-exile under Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya functions with Western support. Belarus is an embarrassment and a political risk for Putin. That is intolerable already. The fears of Western political contagion that contributed to Russia’s current mobilisation against Ukraine applies to Belarus.


From the Kremlin’s perspective Lukashenko cannot be trusted to run his country. Worse, he could be ousted, with a credible, Western-focused elite ready to take over. Western institutions would embrace Belarus, the only country in Europe still not even a member of the Council of Europe. The Foreign Office’s disclosure in January of a Russian-planned coup in Ukraine, and a similar claim by the Ukrainian Government in November 2021, is a scenario that makes greater sense in Belarus.


Second, despite Lukashenko’s failures, Russian military and security penetration of Belarus is immense. Russian control, even annexation, was easy before, and is simpler with the new Russian presences. It is inconceivable that those Russian deployments and exercises come with no additional control over Belarusian military-security systems. Lukashenko’s inflammatory offer to host nuclear missile tests is belated and nightmarish pandering to his Russian handler. And the Russian forces in Belarus, initially scheduled to depart on 20 February after the live-fire exercises, remain.


Applicable to Belarus is US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s quip, in that case regarding Kazakhstan, that once present Russian troops tend not to leave. Moldova and Georgia had Russian ‘peacekeepers’ on parts of their territory that grew from Soviet-era basing, despite international efforts to curtail them. In Georgia’s case, after 2008, even more Russian personnel and hardware were moved in – with those new Russian deployments in South Ossetia being but a 45-minute drive to Georgia’s capital. While Russia sought to interject its ‘peacekeepers’ into Karabakh as part of its brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994, Moscow had to wait until 2020 – and then moved so swiftly that its forces deployed as the proverbial ceasefire ink was drying. Now Russian forces are set to stay for five years, and with provisions for extension.


Third, Putin may not win over Ukraine. No Western government has given him a shred of his demands, despite his moments of prestige gained from securing exclusive bilateral talks with the US. If current pressure on Ukraine delivers Putin no meaningful outcome, or even some face-saving measure, then Belarus could also perform as a consolation prize.


Fourth, direct control and even annexation of Belarus affords Russia important strategic advantage. Ukraine would be permanently pressured from its north, and within closest reach of Ukraine’s capital. A Russian-operated Belarus also closes the painful land gap between Russia’s Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia. Additionally, it gives Russian control over the tiny land bridge of the Suwalski Gap, between NATO’s eastern members of Poland and Lithuania; Russia would render those countries even more vulnerable to future threats.


The annexation of Belarus would also bring further political and economic destabilisation to these NATO and EU member states – ones whose political and economic reforms made them role models of transformation in the post-communist world. Better still, this would also be comeuppance for Latvia and Estonia, roughly 40 per cent of whose populations are Russian-speaking and whom Moscow claims were mistreated and that that flagrant abuse of rights was ignored by the double standards of NATO and the EU. Righting seeming historical injustice is important to Putin.


Fifth, as with Ukraine so with Belarus, the Kremlin can claim that it is regaining lost lands and peoples. Belarussians are “small Slavic brothers” in the same, dismissive way that Putin personally has designated Ukrainians. The phrase “two states one people” is used, even on banners in the current Belarusian-Russian joint exercises – but if so, why would one people need two states? The strategic gains of reintegrating Belarus would go hand-in-hand with saviour-like claims that Moscow is heroically reassembling historic brethren and providing ever-lasting protection from the frightful West.


At least the current, brazen Russian military build-up against Ukraine generated relatively consistent Western unity and armed responses. But Putin has masterfully wrongfooted the West, when also not dividing it. The Belarus opportunity would fit among the strategic magic tricks that the Kremlin has engineered in the post-Soviet space. Events in Crimea in 2014 at first seemed a distraction from the revolutionary events in Ukraine’s capital. Kyiv is now settled. Eight years on, Crimea, and Donbas too, remain core theatre.


The Russian leadership certainly feels aggrieved by the post-Cold War order. It wants vengeance and to gain compensatory strategic advantages. It may still be that diplomacy can work. On the Russian side, on 14 February Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that publicly to his President. A week later prospects increased for another US-Russian presidential meeting, subject by the US to no war having started. Within hours the Kremlin seemed to retreat from the idea, and Putin thereafter recognised the breakaway entities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Putin’s longer-term ambitions are unlikely to be satiated by small pieces of Ukraine.


But while we are all necessarily focused on Ukraine, other sinister and destabilising measures may be underway. Let’s hope none occurs with Belarus. European security has been upended enough.


At time of writing, Russian forces supposedly deployed in Belarus for temporary joint training remain in place, formally extended beyond their initial departure. The Kremlin’s logic, past behaviour, and its skills of distraction and of surprise are warnings enough to make the Belarusian scenario worryingly credible.


(A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Post on 20 February 2022.)


Rick Fawn is Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Among his books are Managing Security Threats along the EU’s Eastern Flanks.


Image by Homoatrox under (CC).

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