Academic journal article Parameters

The Belarus Factor in European Security

Academic journal article Parameters

The Belarus Factor in European Security

Article excerpt

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in early 2014, security experts have been busy exploring the nature of the current threat environment facing East Central Europe as well as identifying appropriate policy responses that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its local members could adopt. Much of the existing analysis has focused on so-called hybrid warfare, the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities Russia brings to bear in the region, and gaps in NATO's deterrent capabilities. Yet experts have paid insufficient attention to Russia's only formal ally in the region, Belarus. At best, they assume Belarus will participate in--if not just diplomatically support--any military aggression that its senior ally would undertake in the region. At worst, they neglect to mention it altogether, with the implicit understanding that the Belarusian military would be too weak and the political leadership in Minsk too deferential to the Kremlin to be of any consequence.

Such expectations regarding Belarus might be wrong, however. Military-to-military contacts between Belarus and Russia are not as strong as some analysts assume. More importantly, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Hrygorevich Lukashenka has diverged from Russia on key issues relating to territorial disputes in the former Soviet space. He provided halting diplomatic support to Russia on Georgia and even bucked the Kremlin's approach toward Ukraine. Indeed, because of his country's positioning between NATO and Russia, he is likely to be risk-averse with regards to military conflict. He may even fear entrapment, believing that Russia might drag Belarus into a war he would prefer to avoid. Not only would a war risk Belarusian resources and lives but it could also create the conditions under which Lukashenka loses power.

Analysts are thus mistaken to believe the alliance between Belarus and Russia represents a dynamic whereby the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Should Belarusian leaders not want conflict with NATO, they can create costs for Russia. Even if Russia tries to impose its will on Belarus, either by withholding economic subsidies or by dislodging Lukashenka from power, then it would do so at potentially great expense. Any effort to undermine the Belarusian regime could spark a backlash among members of society. Since such an effort would suggest Russia is destabilizing Belarus for military purposes, it would also escalate tensions with NATO.

Whatever the plausibility of a Russian-led regime change in Belarus, the prospect of having to deal with a reluctant and militarily deficient ally could affect Russia's cost-benefit calculations in challenging the territorial and political order in East Central Europe. For its part, NATO should prepare for varying levels of Belarusian involvement. Holding Belarusian assets at risk may not be necessary if Minsk is able to hamper Russian war plans. But if Russia succeeds in eliciting Belarusian cooperation, NATO might feel compelled to target those Belarusian bases that Russian troops could use as staging areas, thereby further escalating a crisis. Belarus presents a complicating factor for both sides with respect to crisis diplomacy and warfighting in the region.

Belarusian Foreign Policy since Independence

Called the last "outpost of tyranny" in Europe, Belarus became an independent state in 1991 amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Lukashenka has ruled the country since 1994 thanks to electoral fraud as well as the violent suppression of political opposition and media. (1) With a domestic policy subject to international condemnation for its authoritarianism, Lukashenka has historically pursued a close relationship with Russia, even describing himself as a "most loyal ally" to the Kremlin. (2) The two countries forged their alliance through agreements--the Treaty on Friendship, Good Neighborhood, and Cooperation of 1995 and the 1997 Union Treaty--that Lukashenka signed with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. …

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