Many observers agree that President Putin does not appear to have a clearly defined foreign policy strategy or even tactics, although his aims to change profoundly the current world order and weaken to the maximum possible extent Western powers and institutions (in order to make enough room for Russian interests and influence in Europe and beyond), as well as his readiness to use force are quite obvious. Putin and the Russian elite seem to be guided by a sense of fulfilling Russia’s destiny, a messianic vision that has to be implemented by exploiting indiscriminately any suitable and promising opportunities, as soon as these arise. The element of surprise – i.e. choosing the particular time and place, and especially the flexible way of conducting military, disinformation etc. operations that very few are able to predict – is always the Kremlin’s trump card.
Following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the grab of Crimea and incitement of “separatism” in the Donbas in 2014, the Baltic states and Poland were widely considered to be Russia’s most probable next target of opportunity. All the “good” reasons are there: the Kremlin’s explicitly declared will to have NATO consigned to history’s trash bin, Russia’s speedy militarisation and deployment of large forces in the Western direction (including the Kaliningrad oblast and areas on the eastern borders of Estonia and Latvia), frequent, distinctly provocative and massive military exercises, and the absence of any signs of willingness by Russia to de-escalate its confrontation with the Western world. For all these reasons, NATO Allies decided at their Summit in Warsaw – with an unprecedented sense of urgency – to beef up, albeit only to a “tripwire” level, the defence of the easternmost allies. These considerations – that Russia should not be given a good opportunity to hurt the Allies in the Baltic region and eventually seriously discredit NATO – remain valid. Without question, if the Alliance really wants to avoid military confrontation, it has to be actually ready to fight a (defensive) war.
However, besides the coastal countries of the Baltic Sea, there is one particular nation that has – due to its geographic location and borders – a tremendous importance in both Russia’s and NATO’s, and even Ukraine’s strategic calculations. That country is Belarus, a formal ally of Russia, whose leader, the autocratic president Alyaksandr Ryhoravich Lukashenko, plays a cat and mouse game with Vladimir Putin, and tries desperately to preserve his country’s “independence” vis-à-vis Russia. I was inspired to write this blog while reading a recent report by the Belarusian Centre for Strategic and International Policy Studies that I found extremely interesting, even intriguing. The report points out very clearly the difficult choices available to Minsk in the deteriorated security climate, and it leaves no doubt about the tremendous pressure exerted by Russia on Belarus. It also illustrates eloquently a rather schizophrenic picture according to which Belarus – differently from the Baltic states and Poland – has to undertake extreme precautionary steps to defend its independence not against potential adversaries or enemies, but against its own ally, Russia (Eastern European “popular democracies” of the Cold War era, who were the subjects of Brezhnev’s doctrine and the Warsaw Pact, had quite the same worries!)
The Kremlin has insisted over the past years that Belarus should accept the use of more airfields in their country by the Russian Air Force. In 2013, the Russians reportedly deployed a squadron of heavily upgraded SU-27M3 (“Flanker”) multirole fighter aircraft to the Lida 116th Guards Assault Air Base1, very close to Belarus’ border with Lithuania. Later, Russia also demanded the deployment of (at least) another squadron to Baranovichi 61st Assault Air Base2, south of Lida, in the direction of Poland. President Lukashenko has repeatedly opposed the opening of Belarus’ gates to further Russian military presence, in spite of the two countries having a very intense and intimate military cooperation that includes regular “collective defence” exercises (bilateral and in the framework of the CSTO3), a common “air defence space” (i.e. air defence system) and many other features.
What is at stake for Belarus? President Lukashenko and the Belarusian leadership must decide whether it is wiser to deny or to allow Russia to increase its military presence in their country, while bearing in mind that Russia would most likely not agree to strict limitations on or the imposition of Minsk’s jurisdiction over the Russian forces deployed to Belarus, and that Russian Air Force squadrons may be soon followed by special forces, missile and mechanised infantry units etc. Essentially, Lukashenko has two main options: to keep the Russians out and face increasing economic pressure (a new and serious row over natural gas prices4 is ongoing, during which Russia has – “as a consequence” – already cut its export of crude oil to Belarus by 40% since the 1st of July 2016) and possibly even attempts at political destabilisation (a kind of Donbas scenario); or to submit to Russia’s demands and become a total vassal of the Kremlin that could hardly be considered an independent international actor.
What is at stake for Russia? Russia needs to complete its military “preparations” in the Western and South-Western directions in order to put maximum pressure on Ukraine and position its troops as close to Kyiv as possible, and to demonstrate the “futility” of NATO’s decision to bolster the forward presence of Allied troops in Poland and the Baltic states (and be ready to act swiftly if an ideal opportunity arises). The deployment of whole army brigades from the Ural Mountains to the Ukrainian and Belarusian borders, the formation of new tank divisions and armies etc. still does not make – without assistance from Belarus – the Russian Drang nach West fully efficient. Belarus is crucial for cutting a land corridor through the so-called Suwalki Gap in order to defend Kaliningrad or – most likely – cut off the Baltic states from the rest of NATO’s territory. Meanwhile, Putin and the Russian elite will soon need another “victory” in order to consolidate the regime’s grip on power (even after the State Duma elections on the 18th of September 2016) and distract public attention from mounting economic problems. Belarus would be the perfect choice for the Kremlin: the Belarusians would “come closer” to Russia and continue to benefit from cheap natural gas, and Russia would “consolidate” its defence in the Western direction.
Some difficult questions. President Lukashenko and the Belarusian leadership surely comprehend the seriousness of the situation. This is most likely not just another row over gas prices. The Russians are moving troops to their eastern borders, while Putin, Shoigu and co. are more confident and aggressive than ever before (also due to domestic economic decline and mounting financial shortages). By once again refusing Russian military presence, Lukashenko risks Putin’s retaliation, probably in the form of destabilising “protests” etc. Putin knows that Lukashenko is not going to run away, as Yanukovych did in 2014, but Lukashenko also knows that Putin likely has sufficient leverage, including in the Belarusian armed forces and special services, to oust him if needed (in spite of Lukashenko’s repeated attempts to “clean the house”). In addition, the Kremlin must reckon that by virtually invading Belarus and installing its troops on the Polish and Lithuanian (and North-Western Ukrainian) borders, it would be taking the very last step before provoking a major armed conflict in Europe. Not even the blind could then pretend not to see Russia’s preparations for war and the imminent threat of aggression not only against Kyiv, but also Poland and the Baltic states.
A state of limbo. The Kremlin would surely wish to totally subdue Belarus and install the Russian armed forces there. The sooner that happens, the better it is for Russia. On the other hand, a serious pretext has to be somehow created in order to take action. President Lukashenko does not seem to show any kind of disloyalty to Russia or affiliation to the West, in spite of his remarkable “independent mood”. His forceful removal – without a “believable story” – would destabilise Belarus and provoke dismay even among most Russians who tend to support Putin’s regime, for better or worse. The West would not intervene (militarily) in Belarus, just as it did not in the case of Ukraine, but Western-Russian relations would be much more severe than after Russia’s grab of Crimea.
In conclusion, Russia is now – in spite of the attention being directed at Syria and Turkey – quite focused on Belarus, but – because of the considerations described above, which are of course not exhaustive – the Kremlin might hesitate to take hasty steps against Belarus and would rather prefer to wait a bit for a promising opportunity to appear. Perhaps something that would – at least – minimise the Western reaction to Russia’s manoeuvres in Belarus. Some knowledgeable Russian observers, e.g. Pavel Felgengauer, have recently predicted that Russia will probably (re)take military action against Ukraine within a couple of months from now. It might be Belarus, instead of Ukraine.
1 Until 1993, Lida was home to the 1st Guards Bomber Aviation Division of the Soviet Air Force.
2 From 1951 Baranovichi hosted the 45th Heavy Bomber Aviation Division and 203rd Long Range Aviation Division, and became one of the prime strategic bomber bases of the Soviet Union.
3 The Collective Security Treaty Organisation of some CIS countries, notably not Ukraine and Georgia, that is effectively under Russian tutelage.
4 The fourth such confrontation since early 2000s.