Belarus: When Despots Fall Out

by Andrew Stuttaford

For years Belarus, a former Soviet republic that saw its attempt at democracy snuffed out by Alexander Lukashenka, the thug who has run the place since the 1990s, has been seen as little more than an annex of Russia, but Lukashenka may be trying to change that.

Writing in the New York Observer, John Schindler notes:

Over the last couple years, however, Lukashenka has been quietly distancing himself from his longtime patron, seeking discreet ties with the West. Here the Kremlin’s reducing some of its financial aid to Belarus — for instance, cutting back supplies of cheap oil — has been a key factor. In reply, Minsk’s position on controversial topics like Ukraine has grown less supinely pro-Russian than Putin expects from longtime clients. Lukashenka’s increasingly pro-Ukrainian position is now out in the open, as revealed by his recent statement that “brotherly Ukraine” is fighting for its independence. Although the Minsk strongman was politic enough to omit whom his neighbor is struggling for independence from, the message was received clearly in Moscow.

Relations between Moscow and Minsk are now on the verge of full-blown crisis. Last week, Lukashenka said that the new airbase which Putin plans to put in his country to serve the Russian air force wasn’t going to happen, lashing out at Moscow in an epic press conference that lasted more than seven hours and brimmed with anti-Kremlin sentiments. In response to deteriorating relations, Moscow has reinstated border controls on its western frontier. The previously unguarded frontier with Belarus will now be patrolled by the Federal Security Service, Putin’s powerful FSB.

That last move may have been partly prompted by Lukashenka’s decision to lift visa requirements for visitors from 80 countries, an overture of sorts to the West.

Meanwhile Belarus seems to be calling up army reservists, and its army is out on maneuvers, maneuvers that seem to involve preparing for an attack from the east rather than the usual suspect, wicked NATO.

Writing from Finland, Petri Mäkelä sketches out three scenarios (my emphasis added):

1) Belarus breaks ties with Russia to close with the EU. This would cause strong economic and political reactions from Moscow. Military intervention by Russia is possible, but not probable.

2) The crisis is fabricated for domestic Belorussian consumption. Lukashenko will use the heightened tensions to strong-arm economic help from Russia.

3) The whole political crisis is just “maskirovka”, deception, the real goal is to mask the mobilization of the Belorussian army. Belarus is essential in all Russian battle plans that involve either Ukraine or the Baltic. There is a straight highway from the Belorussian defensive positions to Kiev.

Schindler:

Arseniy Sivitskiy, director of Minsk’s Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, which is Belarus’ only think-tank devoted to such matters, in a new interview suggests that Putin may be using the current chaos in Washington, with the still-forming Trump administration seemingly at sea about which direction its foreign policy will take, to move against Lukashenka. What’s coming may range from subversion and intimidation by Russian intelligence to all-out invasion, according to Sivitskiy.

Understandably suspicious of Donald Trump’s attitude to Putin, Schindler wonders what the new administration would do in the event that Russia moved against Belarus. A military response would be out of the question (to start with, Belarus is not in NATO), but would there be any pushback at all? Schindler’s skeptical and throws in this nugget about the “weird question which the White House recently asked the Intelligence Community about Belarus.”

According to a new AP report, “national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus.” It should be noted that Poland, a stalwart NATO member, has conducted zero incursions into Belarus, and the notion is frankly bizarre outside the paranoid halls of the Kremlin and pro-Russian websites that seek to stir up anti-NATO sentiments with fake news.

Curious.

You might think that there is nothing too much to be concerned about here: One dictator overthrows another, so what? Well, leaving aside the little matter of overthrowing a neighboring country’s leader, there is also the question of where Belarus is. Not only could Belarus offer a launch-pad to the Ukrainian heartland, but it also borders Poland and, arguably more ominously, two other NATO members: Lithuania (the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, is just a few miles from the Belarusian frontier) and Latvia, where the majority-ethnic-Russian city of Daugavpils is, again, just across the border.

Worth watching, I reckon.

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