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Biden's first decision

Biden's first decision
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Until January 20, President-Elect Biden cannot legally make foreign policy. But apart from staffing his administration, itself a series of crucial decisions, he can send signals abroad as to the general direction of his impending foreign policy. 

Last weekend Biden did exactly that. By inviting the leader of Belarus’s opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to his inauguration and to meet with him, Biden sent several important signals to Belarus, Russia and European governments.

For Belarus this is really the first overt sign of U.S. support for the demonstrations that have been going on for months to protest a stolen election in the summer. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has sought to confront these huge ongoing demonstrations with ever growing force and repression, to the extent that his regime now stands exposed as relying on nothing but the increasing application of that force. 

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Likewise, because Lukashenko has long and with considerable skill evaded Russian pressure for closer “integration” between the two states, leading to the end of Belarus’s independence and sovereignty, the Russian government, in the guise of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, last week read him the riot act.

Tired of Lukashenko’s evasions and of subsidizing his increasingly dysfunctional regime, Moscow is now advocating a constitutional change to weaken the power of any subsequent president to resist its pressures and forced Lukashenko to say that he would leave office once those changes are implemented. However, and typically, he is now trying to delay those constitutional changes, thus confounding both Moscow and the Belarusian public, not to mention the opposition. 

Biden’s decision to invite Tikhanovskaya to his inauguration thus makes clear that, unlike the Trump administration, his presidency will take civil and human rights violations abroad seriously and will not be reluctant to confront Russia. 

Tikhanovskaya’s invitation also strongly suggests that the Biden administration will neither ignore nor support Moscow’s planned “integration” and will mobilize support for a more independent Belarus just as it is more likely to offer more straightforward support to the embattled Ukraine than did its predecessor.

Moscow clearly is getting the message that it will face even stiffer resistance to its neo-imperial designs on its neighbors and is therefore trying to force the pace of removing Lukashenko, imposing some sort of phony constitutional changes in Belarus and finding a successor who can simultaneously kowtow to its demands and appease the opposition. Biden’s invitation, which will undoubtedly receive wide publicity in Belarus, represents a spoke in Moscow’s wheel and a challenge to its program of action.

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Moreover, Biden’s offer to Tikhanovskaya will also resonate successfully in Ukraine, Poland and among the European Union and NATO allies. It shows U.S. readiness, once again, to support the EU’s demands for reform in Belarus and to act as a leader of a transatlantic alliance of democracies in support of those rights that the Trump administration so callously neglected.

This invitation also counters Lukashenko's narrative that Poland and other NATO allies are somehow planning to undermine him, the usual canard of Soviet and post-Soviet rulers who cannot bear the thought of democracy and the public’s right to autonomous politics. This gesture adds to Polish, Baltic and Ukrainian security while warning Poland and Hungary as well as Moscow that the U.S.’s championing of democratic and human rights is now coming back into force.

These signals also show to our allies that we are now prepared to challenge Russia’s claims to hegemony over the entire-post Soviet expanse and to schemes like the alleged integration of Belarus and Russia into a union state that Putin and Moscow will dominate. Such plans clearly threaten the security of all of our allies and partners, including Ukraine and all the members of NATO in Central and Eastern Europe. It will also encourage the EU to intensify its sanctions on Belarus and Lukashenko to force his hand and make the cost to Moscow of its “integration” policy even higher in advance of its implementation.

While formally the U.S. cannot and will not act as Biden has signaled until the inauguration on January 20, this signal telegraphs his intent to carry out a stronger human rights policy, challenge Russian pretensions in Europe and reinvigorate the institutional relationships that make up the transatlantic Alliance. Thus, this invitation constitutes a powerful signal to many audiences and offers us a clear indication of the road – one that should enjoy considerable congressional support – that the Biden administration is about to embark upon. 

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is also 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.