How far is President Vladimir Putin willing to go to keep Belarus within Russia’s orbit? How does the Kremlin define success in Belarus, and what are the tripwire events that could prompt Russia to get involved in Belarus’ internal affairs even more than it already is? Given the security implications alone, these are the kinds of questions that ought to be keeping strategists in the West up at night.
Disquieted by how quickly President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s legitimacy was damaged by widespread protests across Belarus this summer, the Kremlin has sprung into action. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited Lukashenka at the start of September in what was an apparent show of Russian support for the Belarusian leader. Lukashenka and Putin then met in mid-September, with Russia pledging a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus at the summit.
For its part, the European Union (EU) recently imposed economic sanctions on Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka himself. While a welcome move, in the immediate term it has forced those targeted to rely even more heavily on Russia. Meanwhile, in an effort to help get propaganda messaging up to Kremlin standards, journalists on Belarusian state television have been replaced by Russian reporters from RT.
The situation remains far from settled, and it is easy to imagine how Russia could end up wading in deeper. If the Belarusian protests were to turn violent, for example, Putin has already committed to supplying a peacekeeping force to help quell the disturbance. As events evolve, Putin could lose patience with Lukashenka and seek to have him replaced. With the ability to pivot to the West foreclosed, Lukashenka would have to play along and appoint a Kremlin-approved successor. Such a move, however, is not likely to bring stability and could demand even more involvement from Russia. Over time, this might result in a kind of soft annexation, resulting in the two countries merging into a “union state”—something many analysts suspect is Russia’s ultimate goal anyway.
A full-scale invasion of Belarus, however, remains a low-probability event for the time being. For one, it would be costly for the Kremlin. Neither Crimea nor the Donbas has given the Russians much beyond headaches. Hundreds of millions of rubles have been squandered in the Donbas, and thousands of soldiers and civilians have perished in the conflict. The integration of Crimea has also not gone according to plan, proving to be far costlier to state coffers than most anticipated. Further afield, Russia’s interventions in Syria and Libya have also been expensive disappointments.
Furthermore, Russia’s behavior in Ukraine has led to sanctions being imposed by the U.S. and the EU. These sanctions have already damaged the Russian economy, and with the negative financial impacts caused by the coronavirus pandemic piling up, the Kremlin can ill afford another costly reprisal from the West.
All that said, it would be irresponsible to write off the merely unlikely as completely impossible. After all, few predicted the Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014.
Taking such an eventuality seriously is necessary given its security implications. Russian occupation of Belarus could result in Russian troops being stationed near the Belarus-Ukraine border, introducing a potential new theater in the still-simmering Russo-Ukrainian war. And a military incursion into Belarus would put Russian troops literally on NATO’s doorstep, escalating tensions with the Alliance to hair-trigger levels. Taken together, these developments would represent a level of instability not seen in Europe since the middle of the 20th century.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron stated that Europeans do not want a repeat situation of Georgia or Ukraine in Belarus. The unsettling feeling one gets watching events unfold is that there has been very little contingency planning among Western leaders. Merely not wanting something to happen is not a strategy.
Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist who covers Eastern Europe and its impact on U.S. and European foreign policy and national security. His articles have been published by the Atlantic Council, the Wilson Center, Forbes, and the Diplomatic Courier.
October 20, 2020