Russo-American interplay of interests in Belarus

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Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

BELARUS has repeatedly been in the headlines since it held disputed presidential elections on August 9, 2020, resulting in incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko being awarded 80 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, now living in exile in Lithuania, officially received only 10 percent of the vote, with many analysts suggesting it more likely she gained anywhere between 40 and 70 percent of the ballots cast. Recent years have seen no better chance for U.S. leadership to facilitate lasting positive change in Europe than the crisis in Belarus. But how to secure democratic change in Belarus is not simple given internal resistance and Moscow’s determination to prevent another “colour revolution.” But under Joe Biden, Washington seems proactive toward Belarus which cautions the authorities in Moscow.

The recent presidential election in Belarus was clearly fraudulent, which led to protests and, subsequently, a violent crackdown by Lukashenko’s security forces. The violence did not succeed in ending the protests, however; it just brought more and more people into the streets to demand Lukashenko’s departure from office. So far, Lukashenko has refused to resign or accede to demands for new elections, and the country is now in the midst of a tense standoff between protestors and the security services of the Lukashenko regime.
Biden’s recent words of support for the Belarusian pro-democracy uprising were interpreted by many in Moscow as a direct challenge to Russia. In Belarus itself, his statement was seen as a welcome and timely boost for a democratic protest movement that has proved remarkably robust but is nevertheless in danger of losing momentum as it enters its fourth month with little sign of progress towards Lukashenka’s removal from power.

Many in Belarus have been critical about a perceived lack of international support for the country’s pro-democracy protests. Many people envisage that some centrifugal forces seem to have been leveraging the domestic political dynamics. Despite ample evidence of large-scale human rights abuses by Lukashenka’s security forces, it took months of negotiations before the European Union finally reached a consensus on sanctions against the regime.

It goes without saying that For Russia’s Putin, Belarus holds a significant place because of Minsk’s growing geostrategic-cum-geopolitical clout. Putin doubled down, refusing to engage with Tsikhanouskaya or the Coordination Council, and shot down early mediation efforts by Belarusian religious leaders as well. Moscow sees Belarus as strategically vital to Russian security, as the country acts as a buffer state to NATO. If a union between Russia and Belarus was ever formalized—and Putin has been pressing Lukashenko to agree to such a union—NATO planners fear that Russia would be able to build up its military presence in Belarus, which would pose a direct threat to Poland and give Russia the capability to potentially cut off the Baltics by land from the rest of Europe.

The tension between Putin and Lukashenko, heightened in the past year over Russia’s energy subsidies and Lukashenko’s growing nationalistic rhetoric, have nonetheless been a concern for Russia and their expensive foothold in Europe. And the Kremlin, obsessed with geopolitics, would likely interpret a Belarus that seeks to align more closely with NATO and the EU, as Ukraine did, as a direct threat to Russian security. By torpedoing dialogue, Russia effectively condoned Lukashenka’s use of force and mass arrests to suppress the protests, enabling him to dig in. Russia subsequently tried to distance itself from Lukashenka by creating an alternative path for his departure based on an ill-defined constitutional reform leading to new elections without Lukashenka’s participation.

It is also worth mentioning that all the three north Atlantic stakeholders, the Americans, the Europeans and the Canadians, Belarus’ affairs count much. Although the US, along with Canada, Britain and the EU, backs sanctions against Lukashenko and his associates, there has been no strong support for peaceful revolution in Belarus by the US State Department and no formal statement from the White House under the Trump Administration. Under Joe Biden, America’s peaceful engagement with Belarus should have two objectives: first, to provide diplomatic and political support for the human rights movement led by Tikhanovskaya, including free elections and Lukashenko’s retirement; and second, to try to prevent a permanent Russian military deployment in Belarus— above all keeping Russia away from direct dominance of the Suwalki Gap on the Belorussian side and in the proximity of the northern Ukrainian border.

NATO-EU-US have been trying to cautiously watch the ongoing developments in Belarus. For years, the relationship between Minsk and Washington was defined mostly by Belarusian politics, with the United States—alongside the EU—having imposed sanctions on the autocratic regime of President Aliaksandr Lukashenko for human-rights violations. With Belarus deeply integrated in Russia-led regional structures and the regime not interested in eventual EU or NATO membership, Minsk also kept relations rather distant. The United States paid occasional interest to Belarus, particularly in response to Russia’s assertiveness in the region. The country was important to the extent it remained a sovereign state between NATO and Russia. Thus, following the Kremlin’s attempts to force the Russo-Belarusian integration project that could allow Vladimir Putin to become the head of the Union State.

As strategist George Barros noted, the Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS), which is composed of a few former Soviet Republics, approved a plan in 2020 for a new joint Russo-Belorussian “regional grouping of forces” to provide deeper cooperation between the countries’ military and security services as well as a unified advanced air defence system. Russian influence is likely to grow inside the Belarusian military.

The Kremlin has also continued to integrate Belarus into the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), including its oil and gas markets, which will maintain Belarus’s dependency on Russia. EU officials are already in talks with the Biden transition team on how they might align their respective sanctions policies on Belarus. Anders Aslund, a Senior Fellow from the Atlantic Council think-tank has even gone so far as to suggest sanctions on Russia as a punishment for supporting Lukashenko. But this suggestion seems unworkable.

—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.