Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko forcing down an international commercial aircraft in order to arrest an opposition journalist seems to indicate increasing desperation. Ever since last year’s highly suspect elections reconfirmed Lukashenko in power, he has faced repeated street protests, which considerable police repression has failed to end.
The first U.S. and European response must obviously be to impose appropriate sanctions on Belarus. The question of what is “appropriate” should however be conditioned by the memory that in 2013, Washington and its European allies forced the plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales back home to land in Vienna, where Austrian police searched for the U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden. This incident caused similar protests from Latin American countries, Russia, and China that the West is now directing against Belarus. It should be another lesson for Washington to avoid creating precedents for breaking international law unless it wants other countries to follow suit.
Beyond the immediate question of how to respond to Lukashenko’s latest move looms a far larger one: should the protests in Belarus intensify and the Lukashenko regime fall — whether overthrown by the protestors, or ousted in a coup by disgruntled security officials from within the regime itself — how should Washington and the West react?
Above all, the West must avoid repeating the outcome of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine: civil war, Russian intervention, steep and prolonged economic decline, a bitterly divided society, and a country stuck in permanent suspension and semi-paralysis between Russia and the West. So if the proposed summit between Presidents Biden and Putin goes ahead next month, establishing mutual ground rules for managing the Belarusian crisis should be high on the agenda.
On the one hand, the United States should oppose violent repression by the Lukashenko regime, gain some understanding with Moscow that it, too, should discourage a harsh crackdown, and seek to open up a path to greater real democracy in Belarus. On the other hand, any U.S. strategy that fails to recognize both vital Russian state interests in Belarus and the necessity for Minsk of maintaining close economic and social links to Moscow will risk a catastrophic failure and a betrayal of the interests of the Belarusian people.
Relations between Lukashenko and Putin have frequently been strained, and they have no personal affection for each other. It does not seem likely that Moscow would want to make any great sacrifice to save the Lukashenko government as such. Nor would it be inclined to back ferocious repression in order to save that regime for its own sake. It is a quite different matter however when it comes to preventing Belarus from becoming a Western ally against Russia.
A glance at the map and the slightest knowledge of history should make the reasons for Russia’s stance obvious. The Belarusian border is only 300 miles from Moscow, and Belarus has been the principal route for Western invasions of Russia since the 16th century. It would be as if Canada were to threaten to join an anti-American military alliance.
The Russian government has made clear this is an absolute red line, with the clear implication that, in the last resort, Russia is willing to resort to armed force to prevent Belarus following Ukraine into military, economic and geopolitical dependence on the West. And if Russia does intervene militarily, it won’t be possible for Moscow to break off bits of Belarus, as in the case of Ukraine in 2014. Belarusian political geography does not permit this. The Russian army would have to occupy the whole of Belarus, and in the process march right up to the borders of NATO countries Lithuania and Poland.
The result would be a new and immense crisis between Russia and the West, probably involving the redeployment of very considerable numbers of U.S. troops to Europe and the complete economic isolation of Russia from the West. Such a crisis would also involve a greatly increased possibility of accidental clashes and collisions between Russian and NATO aircraft and ships. None of this would remotely serve Washington’s interests, let alone of the American middle class to whom the Biden administration has ostensibly dedicated its foreign policy. By the same token, a greater set of geopolitical gifts to China can scarcely be imagined.
Above all, the Biden administration must honestly recognize that NATO will not go to war with Russia over Belarus any more than it went to war for Georgia in 2008 or for Ukraine in 2014. That means that Russia will always have the military edge over the United States and NATO in Belarus, for the simple reason that, in the last resort, Russia will fight, and we will not. U.S. policy must be shaped accordingly.
Another important set of reasons for U.S. caution is the history, society, and culture of Belarus itself. Even more than Ukraine, Belarus has been divided along regional lines. Western Belarus was part of Poland between 1919 and 1939, and many of its population belong to the Uniate religious tradition affiliated to the Catholic Church. Eastern Belarusians by contrast have tended to be affiliated with Russia and Russian Orthodoxy. The difference with Ukraine is that Belarusian ethnic identity is weaker, and a larger proportion of the Belarusian population has historically looked eastward.
The Lukashenko regime has derived great advantages from this division; and in particular from the experience of the Second World War when Belarus suffered worse than any other region of Europe. Apart from the extermination of one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe and the effects of famine, more than 600 Belarusian villages were destroyed and their entire populations killed in the course of German operations against Soviet guerrillas.
Concerning the enduring local political impact of this history, it is necessary to understand that many of these atrocities were committed by local auxiliary police fighting for the Nazis, mostly recruited from western Belarus. These splits in Belarusian society have faded among educated Belarusian youth and have also been obscured by the growing exasperation with Lukashenko across different regions of Belarus. It would however be extremely unwise and reckless to believe that they could not re-emerge in a disastrous form following the fall of Lukashenko.
The final factor that should incline Washington toward caution ought to be awareness of the economic consequences of a rapid and radical economic break with Russia, of the kind that has occurred in Ukraine. Russia is the market for 42 percent of Belarusian exports and the source of 48.4 percent of its foreign investment (even more if Russian offshore companies in Cyprus are added). It should not be hard to imagine the consequences for Belarusian political instability and violence of a combination of radical economic decline with an internal struggle over the succession to Lukashenko, as well as a proxy struggle for influence between Russia and the West.
Such a conflict would be very bad for the United States, Europe and Russia, and an absolute catastrophe for the people of Belarus. Once again, the only place where it would be welcomed would be in Beijing. That alone should be sufficient reason for the Biden administration to observe great caution in its approach to Belarus.