While Ukraine is in the spotlight because of the impeachment inquiry against President Trump, a recent report suggests Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus should be receiving more attention from the U.S. and its allies.
Like Ukraine, Belarus is a former Soviet republic and a strategically important buffer state between Russia and the West. Unlike Ukraine, however, Belarus is not a functioning or even developing democracy, and its longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is known for his authoritarian rule and for playing Russia and the West off one another. Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have designs on this country of nearly 10 million people, just as he did with Ukraine in 2014, when Russia annexed that nation’s Crimea peninsula.
“Russia has intensified its pressure on Belarus … politically, economically and through propaganda,” according to Uladzimir Kobets, executive director of the International Strategic Action Network for Security, or iSANS, which produced the report on Russian interference in Belarus last spring. Kobets told us via email that “the Kremlin wants deeper integration, first economically, then politically” with Belarus in exchange for economic favors to its oil-hungry neighbor. “Essentially this would mean giving up Belarusian independence,” Kobets warned.
The iSANS report, titled “Coercion to ‘Integration’: Russia’s Creeping Assault on the Sovereignty of Belarus,” suggests that Moscow is actively attempting to destabilize Belarus and to divide the Belarusian public to promote the idea of a union with Russia.
The report alleges that Russia is using “multiple instruments of influence” to do this, including economic pressure; divisive propaganda and online disinformation campaigns; vigilante networks; and the co-opting of Belarusian far-right groups. Last year, Moscow raised the price of the vital oil supplies it sells to Belarus, and recently, Russian media have reported that Lukashenko and Putin have agreed on parts of a “road map” to economic integration between the countries that could be presented as early as this month.
Belarus is, in fact, already aligned with its neighbor by means of a “union state” memorandum signed in the late 1990s. That agreement, never fully implemented, provided for economic and military links between the two countries and the possibility of shared legal and political systems, including a single head of state. There has been widespread speculation, both in Belarus and the West, that Putin might seek a Russo-Belarusian political union as a way of circumventing his constitutionally imposed term limit in 2024 and stay in office.
“It’s a live, serious issue,” said David Kramer, senior fellow in human rights and diplomacy at Florida International University and a former deputy assistant secretary in the State Department, where his portfolio included both Belarus and Russia. “This could be Putin’s way of staying in power past 2024, because unlike Ukraine and Georgia, which are trying to join Western institutions [such as the European Union], Belarus doesn’t have those aspirations.”
But that doesn’t mean Lukashenko doesn’t have other aspirations — namely keeping his country from being absorbed by Russia. In the past, he has rebuffed Russian entreaties for a monetary union and a common foreign and security policy. Cognizant of how dependent Belarus’s decrepit economy is on Russian subsidized energy — and how Russia meddled in neighboring Ukraine — Lukashenko has in recent years tentatively reached out to the West in an effort to hedge his bets.
But Western relations with Belarus are and always have been complicated. Since independence in 1991, Belarus has regularly turned to Moscow for economic, military and other kinds of aid and its president has been careful not to upset his benefactors.
Moreover, Lukashenko — often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” — has held Belarus in an authoritarian grip since coming to power in 1994. In fact, just last month, not a single opposition candidate managed to win a seat in parliamentary elections (although Miss Belarus 2018, who’s been romantically linked to the president, did become the country’s youngest member of parliament at age 22).
Lukashenko, who said he would stand again in 2020 presidential election, has long resisted U.S. and European calls to respect human rights, restore civil liberties and allow freedom of the press and of expression. Beginning in the early 2000s, the U.S. and its EU partners slapped a series of sanctions on Belarus in response to ongoing human rights violations and election fraud, including the jailing of political opponents. Lukashenko retaliated in 2008 by kicking out the U.S. ambassador to Belarus and many of her colleagues. There has not been a U.S. ambassador to Belarus since. However, following an important visit to Belarus in August by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, in which Bolton was warmly received by Lukashenko, the U.S. announced it was ready to exchange ambassadors with Belarus again as part of an ongoing “normalization” between the two countries.
“On the one hand, it’s a big deal,” Kramer said of the planned ambassadorial exchange after a gap of nearly 12 years. “But on the other hand, [the ambassadorial agreement] is an easy thing for Lukashenko to give the U.S.”
Kramer said he hopes the U.S. “isn’t taken in too much” by the seeming thaw with Lukashenko, and that the authoritarian leader really means what he says. “We and the EU need to remind Lukashenko that he doesn’t get a free pass on human rights just because of pressure coming from Moscow,” Kramer said. “He’s been skillful at solidifying his grip on power while ‘crying wolf’ about the Russians, and we’ve been guilty of falling into that trap.”
German Marshall Fund senior fellow Jonathan Katz, a former USAID official whose portfolio included Belarus, agrees that Lukashenko is a wily character who cannot be trusted in every situation. But he does think the Russian threat to Belarus may be at a new high and that Lukashenko knows it.
“Right now the dial is going up from a five or six to a 10,” Katz said. “It looks like the Kremlin is pushing much harder to make this [political union] happen and to increase pressure on Lukashenko to come to the table.”
Katz said that the Belarusian president “is no dummy. He can see [from examples in Georgia and Ukraine] that Russia and Putin are willing and ready to act when their interest is at stake.” Noting Lukashenko’s recent visit to the EU, where the Belarusian autocrat met with Austrian government officials, Katz believes Lukashenko is both “trying to play ball with the Kremlin, but also trying to find outside levers to decrease the pressure from it.” Significantly, Lukashenko’s visit to the EU was his first since 2016, when the bloc lifted a travel ban against him related to human rights violations.
However, Katz thinks Lukashenko’s delicate balancing act between Russia and the West “is getting harder and harder to maintain” as Moscow implements its own game plan in Belarus. “That timetable is determined by Vladimir Putin and what he wants to do, not by Mr. Lukashenko,” Katz said. “It’s possible that Lukashenko could soon be a casualty of Mr. Putin’s ambition and of Russian external strategy. Every couple of years, there’s a new target on the periphery. Now it may be Belarus.”
While Katz believes the Russian threat to Belarus could be imminent — although hard to pin down with any certainty — the Wilson Center’s Yauheni Preiherman disagrees. “I don’t think there is an imminent threat that Belarus might be consumed into Russia,” Preiherman wrote via email from the South Caucasus. “The real problem is longer term. If Belarus fails to make the diversification of its economic and foreign relations sustainable, and if there is no economic progress in the country, risks to Belarusian sovereignty will grow exponentially.”
Lukashenko seems to be somewhat cognizant of this threat and has been courting investment from Europe and even China to wean itself away from Moscow (half of Belarus’s trade is currently with Russia). Notably, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Lukashenko did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and even offered his country’s capital of Minsk to host peace talks between the warring factions. And in March, Lukashenko openly called for closer ties with NATO, further irritating Moscow.
Preiherman, who directs the Minsk Dialogue Track II Initiative in Eastern Europe, says it is natural that Russia should be concerned with Belarus: It is in Russia’s own backyard, it has been a Russian ally for many years now and the two countries already share strategic economic and military interests. Additionally, Preiherman said that the 1999 “Union State” agreement ensures parity between the two constituents. Russia cannot implement any part of the agreement unless Belarus concurs. “And for now, the sides [have] agreed to work strictly within that agreement,” Preiherman noted.
Another concern raised by critics of Lukashenko is whether or how much to trust his apparent overtures to the West, and whether he can be relied upon to maintain Belarusian independence beyond what bears upon his own interests and political survival. “The space for maneuvering is almost zero now,” iSANS’ Kobets argued. “We hope Lukashenko and the people around him will have come to [an] understanding that the Union State and Russia’s policies — especially after 2014 — are a threat to Belarus, while the West is not a threat and is not going to make any regime change.”
Former State Department official Kramer views Lukashenko’s overtures as many “olive branches” thrown to the West that are carefully designed not to provoke reciprocal moves by Moscow. “We should be supporting the people of Belarus in all this,” he said, “not Lukashenko.”
For his part, Preiherman takes Lukashenko’s recent engagement with the West at face value. “He seems to be as serious as never before about making foreign policy and economic diversification work,” Preiherman told us. “[H]e is trying to hedge against various risks, and this is the essence of Belarus’s foreign policy, which is not too much different from what other small states do in similar geopolitical contexts.”
Preiherman added that Belarus’s “central problem” is that it has isolated itself from the West for so long. “[I]t is now extremely difficult to bring relations with the West back to normal and achieve sustainable progress.”
One thing many Belarus experts agree on is that to establish real relationships with the West and build up Belarus’s internal resiliency, Lukashenko must relinquish his authoritarian grip on the country. “He has to do what he hasn’t been willing to do so far,” Katz said. “He has to empower the people of Belarus, create a civil society and allow press freedoms. He needs the people to help strengthen Belarus’ self-identity, to create a sense in that society of a desire and an interest to have and defend their own state. It’s much easier to withstand Russian aggression if you have an independent media and the rule of law [in order] to directly counter what’s taking place.”
One report says Lukashenko has taken small steps to do that, at least when it comes to cultivating a national identity. Despite Belarus being the most “Russianized” of the post-Soviet countries, with a population that is culturally and linguistically close to Russia, “the Belarusian regime has noticeably broadened the country’s self-identity by increasingly stressing its independence; pursuing a balanced, multivectored foreign policy; cultivating a Belarusian national identity; and projecting a neutral peacekeeping role in the region,” according to Artyom Shraibman, who wrote the April 2018 report “The House That Lukashenko Built” for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Shraibman says that Belarusian elites remain united around Lukashenko but that in recent years, a group of progressive economic bureaucrats has emerged to convince Lukashenko of the need for market reforms, which the author speculates could lead Belarus to “transition to a softer form of authoritarianism.”
Kobets says such reforms are critical for the country’s survival. “What is needed is an understanding by Lukashenko and his circle that without even modest changes, the country will not survive,” he argued. “A country’s resilience is always weakened by repressive measures, as only a free media and a real civil society are the cornerstone in building resilience.”
Kobets said that Belarus’s governing elites need to acknowledge one thing above all: If Belarus won’t work to maintain its own independence and establish its own freedoms, no one else will. “No one will be fighting a war with a Russian bear.”
The iSANS report offers some recommendations for how Belarus can protect itself from Russian aggression and how the West can help. First and foremost, the international community must take the threat to Belarus’ sovereignty seriously, a threat the report argues will only increase in the years ahead. Second, the U.S. and international partners must persuade Lukashenko of the urgency in cooperating with the West, of economic reforms in state-owned enterprises and of basic human rights and the rule of law, among other things. Democratic nations must actively support civil society organizations and media activists in Belarus so as to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns. And no one should count on the nation’s president for support.
“Lukashenko is not a real guarantor of the country’s independence,” the report declares. “He is a non-rational player clinging to power to guarantee his own safety, unwilling to carry out any real reforms.” The report claims that the real hope lies with those beneath Lukashenko, the (perhaps nameless and numberless) government bureaucrats who make the country run, but are now ready for reform and turning their eyes toward the West.
But other experts see Lukashenko as perfectly rational and don’t predict a major geostrategic upset one way or another. “Belarus continues to do what it does best: pragmatically navigating its way through crisis, trying to reduce dependence on Russia, and being rewarded for its loyalty by both sides,” wrote Benno Zogg in the April 3, 2019, commentary for War on the Rocks titled “From Belarus with Love: The Limits of Lukashenko’s Dalliance with the West.”
“Lukashenko is gifted at this. Russia can rest assured that Belarus will not follow Ukraine’s path toward the West and Europe can cease worrying about it becoming Russia’s fully compliant satellite as long as he is in office,” Zogg wrote.
Zogg argues that in the meantime, the West “should focus on slowly building mutual trust” but “reluctantly accept that this authoritarian regime could help mediate between the West and Russia and that its stability has certain benefits for the Belarusian people, its Ukrainian neighbor to the south, and the wider region.”
What, exactly, the West will do, however, is anyone’s guess. Certainly, Western democracies do not want to see Russia violate the sovereignty and integrity of yet another country, as it did with Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, the latter an ongoing conflict. But Preiherman says it is hard to see exactly what shape American diplomacy toward Belarus will take, and Kramer acknowledges that it is indeed “conceivable” that “we will wake up one day and find Russia and Belarus have finalized a deal.”
Kobets believes that can be avoided if Belarus implements its own sweeping reforms, and if the U.S. and its partners stand up for Belarusian independence and help counter Moscow’s disinformation through media literacy and by including Belarus in USAID programs such as the new Countering Malign Kremlin Influence Development Framework.
“People in Washington are waking up to what’s happening,” said Katz. “Nobody thought Russia was as far along as it is today in terms of its effort [toward Belarus]. Now, it’s shocking to people that Russia is spending so much energy and resources in a country which many consider an ally of Russia.”
Like many other Belarus watchers, Katz considers the small East European nation something of a bell weather for Moscow’s next moves on the world stage. “It’s like the canary in the coal mine,” Katz observed. “People are thinking, if you’re treating your ally this way, then something really is afoot.”
That may be something only Vladimir Putin knows.
This article is also available on The Washington Diplomat.