A knife at NATO’s throat: Why Belarus matters to the US
Belarus has garnered a surprising number of headlines during the pandemic and an election season. Western commentators and some leaders have rightly argued for standing with tens of thousands of Belarusians protesting President Alexander Lukashenko’s obvious rigging of the country’s recent presidential election. Kremlin threats of Russian intervention to help Lukashenko crush the protests raise the stakes for NATO dramatically. If Vladimir Putin gains de facto control of Belarus and the ability to station Russian troops in that country, he could put at serious risk NATO’s ability to defend its Baltic members and, thereby, the credibility of the entire alliance project.
Lukashenko’s situation has deteriorated rapidly over the last few days as large factories have gone on strike and members of the Belarussian security forces and state-run media have started to defect. A Kremlin-linked media outlet suggested that Russia should send in “polite people” (the same term used for the “little green men” whom Putin sent to seize Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014) to quell the uprisings. Lukashenko subsequently announced that he and Putin had agreed on the terms by which Russia would intervene if Belarus asked for help. The stage is thus set for Russian forces of some type — whether uniformed military, private military contractors, or clandestine — to enter Belarus and help crush innocent civilians demonstrating for their rights.
Lukashenko’s plea to Putin marks a dramatic turnabout. Putin has been pressing Belarus for several years to integrate militarily and politically with Russia under an umbrella entity called the Union State. Lukashenko has resisted Putin’s demands, including the demand for a Russian military base in Belarus. Until very recently, in fact, Lukashenko was suggesting that Putin himself was behind the unrest following the election, and he sought to distance himself from Moscow. But either the situation has gotten bad enough that he fears losing control or else Putin has threatened to intervene against his wishes, or both. In any case, it seems likelier than ever that Putin will get the integration and basing he has sought.
Belarus occupies a strategically critical location. It separates the main body of Russia from Poland and Lithuania and covers the northern approaches to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Russia retains the exclave of Kaliningrad on the shores of the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania; Kaliningrad is separated from Belarus by the so-called Suwalki Gap, a roughly 40-mile-wide corridor through which NATO ground forces and supplies would need to travel to get to the Baltic States. NATO passage through the gap is challenging enough in the face of the weapons Putin has stationed in Kaliningrad. If Putin gains the ability to station Russian ground and air defense forces on the Belarussian side of the gap as well, he can make NATO’s ability to support forces in the Baltics, let alone reinforce them in a crisis, extraordinarily difficult. With ground reinforcements an hour’s drive away, moreover, he can turn Kaliningrad from being a vulnerable exclave into a real knife at NATO’s throat.
Putin has not yet sent conventional forces into Belarus as of this writing, and he may not do so. Regardless of the outcome of the current crisis, he might not attempt to base Russian forces in Belarus. Nor is there any reasonable way for NATO to prevent him from doing either, if he so chooses.
The West can, however, seek to shape Putin’s decision-calculus by making clear that turning Belarus into a Russian military base will incur costs Putin cannot afford to pay. The U.S. and its NATO partners should at once prepare and announce a package of economic sanctions that will be imposed if Russian conventional forces enter Belarus, and an additional package if Russia establishes military bases there. Those sanctions packages should be in addition to penalties that should be levied if Russian irregular forces help Lukashenko violate the human rights of his people.
Putin is especially vulnerable to additional sanctions pressure at this moment. The Russian economy is suffering from protracted low energy prices, long-term sanctions imposed after his seizure of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. His popularity has plummeted, and protests in Russia itself have become more numerous and determined. He has caused a number of constitutional amendments to be enacted, promising more cash to ordinary Russians, in a transparent effort to buy off his people. The prospect of further economic pressure could be enough to deter him from pushing too far, too fast, in Belarus.
It is worth trying. No one in the U.S. or in Europe wants to go to war with Russia. NATO’s primary reason for being is, in fact, to deter attacks on its member states. The relative independence from Moscow that Belarus has maintained hitherto has been an important obstacle to Russian adventurism. The West should use its powers of economic suasion to try to protect as much of that independence as it can, even as it also stands with the Belarusian people in the face of increasing oppression.
Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He also advises the Russia team at the Institute for the Study of War, on whose research this article relies.