August 16, 2020

A knife at NATO’s throat: Why Belarus matters to the US

Originally published in The Hill

Belarus has garnered a surprising number of headlines during the pandemic and an election season. Western commentators and some leaders have rightly argued for standing with tens of thousands of Belarusians protesting President Alexander Lukashenko’s obvious rigging of the country’s recent presidential election. Kremlin threats of Russian intervention to help Lukashenko crush the protests raise the stakes for NATO dramatically. If Vladimir Putin gains de facto control of Belarus and the ability to station Russian troops in that country, he could put at serious risk NATO’s ability to defend its Baltic members and, thereby, the credibility of the entire alliance project.

Lukashenko’s situation has deteriorated rapidly over the last few days as large factories have gone on strike and members of the Belarussian security forces and state-run media have started to defect. A Kremlin-linked media outlet suggested that Russia should send in “polite people” (the same term used for the “little green men” whom Putin sent to seize Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014) to quell the uprisings. Lukashenko subsequently announced that he and Putin had agreed on the terms by which Russia would intervene if Belarus asked for help. The stage is thus set for Russian forces of some type — whether uniformed military, private military contractors, or clandestine — to enter Belarus and help crush innocent civilians demonstrating for their rights.

Lukashenko’s plea to Putin marks a dramatic turnabout. Putin has been pressing Belarus for several years to integrate militarily and politically with Russia under an umbrella entity called the Union State. Lukashenko has resisted Putin’s demands, including the demand for a Russian military base in Belarus. Until very recently, in fact, Lukashenko was suggesting that Putin himself was behind the unrest following the election, and he sought to distance himself from Moscow. But either the situation has gotten bad enough that he fears losing control or else Putin has threatened to intervene against his wishes, or both. In any case, it seems likelier than ever that Putin will get the integration and basing he has sought.

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