Washington needs to take a tougher stance on Belarus

Washington needs to take a tougher stance on Belarus
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The crisis in Belarus shows no sign of abating. Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s longtime dictator, has claimed victory in the latest of a series of rigged presidential elections. He could be sworn in any time in the next several weeks. Although protests against the official election results continue, Lukashenko in effect has ignored them, and clearly intends to outlast his opponents. Instead, he has alleged that both neighboring Lithuania and Poland have moved their troops to the borders of his country, essentially accusing NATO of planning an invasion.

NATO officially denies that the alliance’s forces are near the Belarus border. Nevertheless, an American battalion-sized force, consisting of about 500 American soldiers with tanks and armored personnel carriers, has arrived in Lithuania for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border. The American unit, which deployed earlier than planned and will remain longer than it has for previous such exercises, transited to Lithuania from neighboring Poland and could remain in Lithuania longer, if need be.

Meanwhile, Russian forces, having completed a major exercise in August along the border with Belarus, also have begun to exercise with Belarusian units at the Brestsky training ground near the Belarus-Polish border. The exercises, called “Slavic Brotherhood,” were meant to include Serbia but Belgrade dropped out at the last minute, citing pressure from the European Union, which it hopes to join.

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Not surprisingly, Poland and Lithuania are alarmed both by the political unrest taking place in their neighbor — and especially by the presence of Russian forces there. The Russian exercises do not necessarily mean Moscow’s imminent takeover of the country. Nevertheless, and far more likely, they could result in a permanent Russian military presence that would provide a shorter secure corridor from Russia to its enclave in Kaliningrad, which Poland and Lithuania surround.  

In the event of a crisis, it then would be far easier for Russia quickly to seize the strip of land that forms the Polish-Lithuanian border in order to obtain direct access to Kaliningrad than if its units first had to traverse Belarus to do so. Such an act would intensify the threat that Russia already poses to both of those countries. 

Despite the unease of its NATO allies, apart from proceeding with the exercises in Lithuania, the American response to the crisis in Belarus has been rather flaccid. It has consisted merely of a few sanctions and some condemnatory language from Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion Pence to deliver keynote at fundraising banquet for South Carolina-based pregnancy center Russia suggests military deployments to Cuba, Venezuela an option MORE. And its posture has done little to reassure either Poland or the small Baltic states.

Washington could do considerably more. The Trump administration has announced that it plans to withdraw 3,000 troops from Iraq. It could specify that it is reassigning them to Poland. Moreover, since Poland has offered to construct a base to house American forces, the administration could make it clear that, should Russia proceed to establish a permanent presence in Belarus, Washington will agree to Poland’s clear desire to establish the new base near its eastern border. The presence of an additional brigade-sized force in Poland, located virtually cheek-by-jowl with Russian forces, should serve as a reinforced deterrent to any plans by Moscow either to absorb Belarus into Russia proper, or to provoke unrest in any of the Baltic states.

It is well known that Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUkraine must take control of its destiny Coons opposes sending US troops to Ukraine: 'We would simply be sacrificing them' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Russia meet during 'critical' point MORE responds only to strength and capitalizes upon what he perceives as weakness on the part of his Western adversaries. A credible and tough American stance, backed by NATO, would cause the Russian leader to think twice about any additional aggressive moves in the Baltic Sea region. Of course, President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' On student loans, Biden doesn't have an answer yet Grill company apologizes after sending meatloaf recipe on same day of rock star's death MORE typically refuses to criticize Putin personally, despite the circumstances. Nevertheless, he consistently has enabled the Department of Defense to beef up its military presence in support of NATO’s eastern European allies, especially Poland. This time should be no exception.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.