Putin’s next aggression
When a new year or decade begins, pundits are often asked to make predictions. One thing we can predict with some certainty is that in 2020 Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue launching global probes against the U.S. and its allies the world over. We can even go farther and state with some authority that Putin will make a forceful (though not necessarily military) intervention to incorporate Belarus into the Russian Federation and thereby create a new so-called Union state with him as president.
Indeed, Moscow has already started applying military, media and economic pressure, mainly through manipulation of its energy subsidies and pressing for military bases in Belarus. Russian Prime Minister Medvedev expressly stated that integration, Moscow’s preferred term, entails a loss of sovereignty.
Belarus has reacted with anti-Russian demonstrations, President Lukashenko’s military-political defiance of Moscow and even by appealing to NATO to join its forthcoming exercises. Mindful of Russian pressure, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Minsk in January, following upon the return of a U.S. ambassador to Minsk and then national security advisor John Bolton’s 2019 visit. These signals are critical in showing not only U.S. awareness of the stakes and potentially readiness to help Belarus return to Europe, but also to demonstrate to Moscow that the U.S. and presumably our allies in Europe will not tolerate such aggression.
Why is Putin undertaking this aggression? First, Putin’s primary motive is extending his presidency beyond its end in 2024 without seemingly looking like the dictator for life that he really is. By annexing Belarus, he can present a change in the nature of the Russian Federation’s legal status, invalidating its constitution and allowing him to become president of a new union state. Hence his recent call for amending the constitution.
Therefore, the primary motive for this aggression is domestic. But a deeper dynamic beyond merely perpetrating his system is at work here. Putin has revealed that the fundamental nature of Russian autocracy, regardless of who runs it, is imperial and thus aggressive and a standing obstacle to European peace and security.
From Putin’s standpoint Russia is an empire, and neither Belarus nor Ukraine are real states and therefore should be reunited with Russia under the ideological-political framework of the Russian world (Russkiy Mir). Putin overtly expressed this policy line in his 2014 speeches about the annexation of Crimea. And there is no sign that he has renounced this strategy even if tactical adjustments and pauses subsequently became necessary.
Besides cementing the traditional link of empire, imperialism and autocracy as two sides of the same coin, Moscow probably wants to annex Belarus to set up military bases and deployments for its air and ground forces. Success in doing so gives Russia a second direct border with Poland, outflanks Ukraine from the North and generates pressure upon it from the East, South and North, as well as potentially from the Southwest in Moldova. Russia will also then be able to threaten the Baltic States from the East and South beyond its already formidable threats at present.
This slow-motion but continuing aggression threatens vital NATO and U.S. interests. Therefore, the Trump administration is rightly signaling its concern for Belarus. But beyond that, America’ s allies must do more too to signal their support for Belarus’ independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Critics may charge that Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship (although that sobriquet properly belongs to Russia) and therefore does not merit support. But undermining European peace and security by consigning Belarus to Russia’s tender mercies hardly advances the causes of human rights and democracy. Moreover, any possibility that Belarus will evolve in the future towards reconciliation with Europe and integrate into a democratic Europe presupposes that it remain independent, sovereign and increasingly attached to Europe. Henry Kissinger memorably wrote that diplomacy is an “accumulation of nuances.”
Accordingly, it is high time to start accumulating and adding to those nuances regarding Belarus to ensure that Putin gets the message that Belarus will not be his next aggression. We have long seen that in Russia’s case (like other predecessors) the appetite grows with the eating. But in fact, expansion of Russia’s empire coincides, and not accidentally, with the growing immiseration of large sections of Russia’s population. Autocratic imperial Russia might need Belarus to preserve the autocracy and autocrat.
But extending Putin’s power merely ensures that Europe will be an even greater cockpit for war because a Russian empire can only justify itself by creating the atmosphere of war in Eurasia. Lenin’s critics charged him with establishing a state of siege in Russian social democracy and then globalizing it. To maintain his power, Putin is emulating Lenin’s example. Belarus is his next target, and the drift towards cold war that only benefits Putin can and must be stopped now.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.