The limited coverage of the crisis in Belarus after the fraudulent election last month of President Alexander Lukashenko misses the plot. European leaders, rightly angered by his violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, are moving to pressure him to step down or negotiate with the opposition. Western reporting writes Lukashenko “appeals” to President Vladimir Putin “to help him restore order,” marking what is a sharp turn from his previous opposition to Russian involvement in his country.
But that is not actually what happened. Putin has taken advantage of the problems of Lukashenko to compel the Belarusian dictator to concede to his demands for integration with Russia. So 1,000 Russian airborne forces are already in Belarus conducting these exercises with Belarusian forces. Putin and Lukashenko have promised monthly exercises moving forward. The Russian military presence in Belarus has started.
There is no doubt that Lukashenko is a dictator. He stole the most recent election, he suppressed peaceful protesters, and expelled or imprisoned opposition leaders. Lukashenko deserves to be sanctioned and punished by the international community. Western leaders should now support the Belarusian people and should demand more transparent and monitored elections as a condition for recognizing a legitimate government in Minsk. American and European statements about Belarus are not wrong, but they are focused on one of several national security issues.
Lukashenko has striven throughout the crisis he created to avoid allowing Russia to “help” him, as the analysts whom I advise at the Institute for the Study of War have documented. He has pushed back at times on Russian media characterizations of the situation in Belarus as out of control and driven by NATO conspiracies. He has carefully avoided accepting those repeated offers from Putin to send security forces, which Russia already declared it had mobilized and stands ready to “help.”
But “help” from Russia is hard to turn away. The government plane of the director of the Federal Security Service, akin to the Central Intelligence Agency, has flown to Minsk. After each visit, Lukashenko had shifted his rhetoric to match Moscow, and Russian “assistance” arrived, including in the form of Russian media members who then took the places of striking workers at Belarusian state media outlets. But Lukashenko continued to delay completing the process of integrating Belarus with Russia into an entity called the Union State that would effectively transfer Belarusian sovereignty to Russian control. Putin evidently grew tired of the delays and called Lukashenko to a meeting in Sochi last week.
Readouts from that meeting noted progress in advancing an integration that Lukashenko has always resisted, including changes to a scheduled military exercise that had been delayed. Putin and Lukashenko instead announced that the exercises would be conducted until today, and that the two countries would hold additional military exercises every month. That conversation in Sochi was certainly no meeting of the minds, but rather Putin explaining the facts of life to Lukashenko.
Elements of a Russian airborne battalion arrived in Belarus the day after the meeting. The Russian Ministry of Defense then announced a “second phase” of exercises would start this week. Elements of a second Russian airborne battalion arrived promptly, carrying the military commander of the Russian airborne forces, and then a third Russian airborne battalion. Some 1,000 Russian forces are thus exercising with Belarusian forces in Brest, on the Polish border, and in Grodno, near the Lithuanian border, until nearly the end of the month with a pledge that Russian forces will return in October, assuming the ones now there leave.
The framing of these exercises is not normal. They occur during a crisis in Belarus that has included the deployments of Belarusian forces to defend against the supposed NATO “intervention” in internal affairs and intimidate those who partake in protests. Lukashenko referred to the need to expand the exercises because of the “acute situation” in the country, suggesting they are somehow related to the supposed movement against him. Their only real relationship to those protests is the political leverage that the crisis gave Putin to force his fraternal assistance on Minsk.
Such exercises can easily turn into a nearly continuous Russian military presence in Belarus and the establishment of permanent Russian bases there. Such a development would pose a serious threat to the ability of NATO countries to defend the Baltic states against Russian subversion. Indeed, Putin aims to create an impression to NATO countries that their defense of the Baltic states is risky and costly, creating conditions for Russia to gain suzerainty over them without fighting a war.
The deployment of Russian military units to Belarus at scale bolsters that impression. Even limited stationing of advanced Russian defense systems and other military capabilities in Belarus, which Putin has demanded and Lukashenko has hitherto refused, could reduce effectively confidence in the ability of NATO to defend its most vulnerable members.
The United States and NATO cannot keep Russian forces out of Belarus. Sanctions will not deter Putin from claiming this award. Western leaders must instead take visible action to assure the Baltic states that they can meet alliance commitments to defend them. The United States should suspend moves to withdraw any more American forces from Europe. It should move a brigade to northeast Poland, in agreement with Warsaw. This would secure the line of communication that Russian forces would weaken. It should preposition more supplies and equipment in the Baltic states to allow NATO forces there to resist Russian military operations for months, even if supply lines from the rest of Europe are cut.
Russia will portray all such actions as provocations. They are not. Russian forces in Belarus would pose a dramatically increased threat to the ability of NATO to defend its members. Repositioning forces to meet that threat is defensive. It will not start a war unless Putin has decided to attack NATO members, and it might well deter one. It is not without risks and costs. But it would be a measured response to the challenge from Moscow. We must take action on this now. If not, we could find in the months or years ahead that we have lost the will even before we lose the ability to defend those whose freedom we have solemnly committed to preserve.
Frederick Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project and is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. He advises the Russia team at the Institute for the Study of War, on whose research this column relies.