The United States should be prepared to act if Putin tries to repeat in Belarus what he did in Ukraine.
America’s great power competitors, China and Russia, are pushing back against the free world. China’s arc stretches from Hong Kong and the South China Sea through the Himalaya border with India and along the Belt and Road intrusions far into Europe. Its debt-trap strategy on the African continent is binding ever more governments to it. Meanwhile, Russia continues its expansionism from Syria, through Crimea and the Donbass all the way to Libya. Across these vast regions, they trample on democracy and the rule of the law, with the ultimate intention of pushing back against American influence. Belarus is becoming the latest theater of competition. Washington should make it unambiguously clear that Russian meddling against the democratic will of the Belorussian people will not stand.
President Donald Trump has succeeded in keeping out of new wars. His firm declaration of his intent to safeguard American national interests has held adversaries at bay, and he has maintained a strong enough defense posture so as not to have to respond to provocations, such as from Iran. Yet an aggressive move by Russia in Belarus on the scale of what took place in Ukraine would be another matter altogether. It is urgent for the United States to underscore how serious the consequences will be if Moscow takes an adventurist wrong step. Vladimir Putin should not think that he can occupy Minsk the way Brezhnev occupied Prague—but the United States should be prepared to act if he tries. This requires mobilization on multiple levels.
First, it is urgent to launch intensive diplomatic consultation with all the NATO members. The transatlantic alliance is not in the best of shape at the moment, to say the least. Some European allies bear a lot of the blame. The world just witnessed the vote of the Security Council where England, France and Germany chose to abstain from extending the arms embargo on Iran, as if more arms in the hands of the Mullahs will bring peace to the Middle East. The E3 are clearly upset at the Trump administration on a range of issues. Plus, European leaders tend to underestimate security threats. In contrast though, the prospect of Russian troops marching through Belarus to the border of the EU may prompt them to think again about the need for a robust defense cooperation. A repeat of the Yugoslav wars may be looming in the European northeast, including another wave of refugees, and Europeans will have to rediscover how much they need the transatlantic alliance. It is time for Washington’s diplomatic corps to be reminding them of the dangers in their neighborhood.
Second, diplomacy has to lay the groundwork for a suspension of the 1997 NATO Russia Founding Act. That post-Cold War document was premised on a non-adversarial relationship with Russia, and the expectation that Russia would contribute to European stability, democracy and peace. Moscow has broken that agreement time and again, in Ukraine, through assassinations in the United Kingdom and in Germany, and through the suppression of democratic forces domestically. The hour has long passed when NATO and the U.S. in particular should be reticent about stationing troops in the Central European countries that became free after 1989. NATO’s European members should hear America make that case and join in supporting defense build ups along the new eastern front that stretches from Estonia to Bulgaria. That troop repositioning will take considerable diplomatic and logistical efforts. The time to start is now. The decision to move troops from Germany to Poland is an auspicious first start.
Third, precisely those eastern flank countries need clear reassurance of American support. Fortunately, the Trump administration has succeeded in building firmer ties in this “new Europe,” but more could be done. A ministerial level gathering in Washington in the fall, including leaders from the Baltics, the Visegrad four, Rumania and Bulgaria would be an opportunity to signal Washington’s firm commitment to friends in those countries and to counteract the Kremlin disinformation campaign that is persistently active and outstrips the State Department’s own meager communication strategies. Yet of equal importance, a Washington gathering of the partners in Eastern Europe would signal to the world that the front line of freedom will not be surrendered to Putin’s addiction to military adventures abroad.
Fourth, it is time as well to pressure “old Europe,” especially the former front-line state, Germany, to live up to its commitments. At stake is not only the evergreen problem of burden-sharing, German underspending on defense. Even more glaring is Berlin’s persistence in collaboration with Russia on projects like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite objections of its European neighbors, despite Crimea, and despite killings carried out by Russian agents in Berlin, nearly in the shadow of the Chancellery. Germany should use its considerable influence in Moscow to forestall any meddling. To do so, it could make completion and operation of the pipeline contingent on Russia staying out of Belarus. Putin already has too much foreign fighting on his hands.
Belarus is part of the European theater, but it is also a piece of the encompassing global competition. Weakness in Northeast Europe will tempt adversaries in East Asia. One has to plan for worst case scenarios: a conventional Russian advance in Belarus could be followed by a Chinese move on Hong Kong or even Taiwan. Preventing such catastrophic developments requires clear expressions of commitment, fortifying our alliance and building a defense posture appropriate to today’s circumstances, not to the last war.
In Ecclesiastes 1:4-11, the author muses over the eternal cycles of human existence. Among the many examples that he brings up, the most compelling one states the following: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
To illustrate the sagacity of this insight, it should suffice to examine the history of minority rules. From times immemorial, all forms of minority rules have been based on mutual fears. Majorities have been afraid of their kings, emperors, dictators, and despots. In turn, the rulers have feared the people, because their reign has been based on oppression and not the consent of the governed. Ultimately, these cycles of mutual fears have always grown exponentially until they have led to violent and all consuming political explosions.
Belarus (in Russian: Belorussia), ruled with an iron fist since July 20,1994, by President Alyaksandr Ryhoravich Lukashenka (in Russian: Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko), is no exception. Prior to being engaged in politics, President Lukashenka was the director of a Soviet-style collective farm, called kolkhoz. Before this job, he became a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and a uniformed guard of the Soviet Border Troops. Having been appointed as a deputy to the Supreme Council of Belarus, he earned the dubious distinction of having cast the only vote against the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Having been labeled “Europe’s last dictatorship,” President Lukashenka has steadfastly prevented Belarus to even begin its transformation as a sovereign state from a Soviet-style dictatorship to a more Westernized pluralistic country. However, like Stalin’s constitution of 1936, the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus of 1994, are modelled in its language after the Western constitutions and at least formally entails all the institutional as well as the personal guarantees, rights and freedoms of a normal, pluralistic state. Accordingly, Section One solemnly declares that the government of the Republic of Belorus belongs to the people. The government is defined as a multi-party representative democracy. While the government guarantees the protection of rights and freedoms of all citizens, Section One also states that the individual citizen “bears a responsibility towards the State to discharge unwaveringly the duties imposed upon him by the Constitution.”
During Lukashenka’s reign, there were three crucial Amendments to the constitution. All Amendments were designed to significantly enhance the powers of the presidency. Approved by a fraudulent national referendum in May 1995 by a majority of 77%, the First Amendment authorized the President to unilaterally disband the Parliament.
The Second Amendment, unilaterally initiated by President Lukashenka, further strengthened his powers. The unicameral parliament, fittingly named the Supreme Soviet, was simply abolished. It was replaced by the National Assembly, a bicameral parliament. Demonstrating President Lukashenka’s increasing arrogance and megalomania, this Amendment was allegedly approved by 84% of the electorate. As a result, all opposition parties were excluded from the new parliament. To wit, due to the lack of transparency as well as ballot stuffing, the United States of America, the European Union, and many other states refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of either Amendment.
Finally, the Third Amendment abolished the presidential term limits in its entirety in 2004. Again, approved by a national referendum, 77.3% of the people consented to President Lukashenka’s demand to serve in the highest office for life. As with the 1996 referendum, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called the legitimacy of this referendum into question. The organization bluntly declared that the referendum did not meet the requirements of “free and fair elections.” To add a final political insult to the death of legality, the Minister of Justice of Belorus and almost all the legal scholars in the country came up with a completely novel interpretation of the rule of law. In their opinion, laws are constitutional if they follow the will of President Lukashenka and the people. Those laws that do not fall into this category are non-existent and shall be ignored. As a result, the Constitution and most of the legal provisions are in contradiction.
Similarly, the economy of Belarus, which is the world’s 72nd largest, is almost totally controlled by the state. Dubbing his economic policies “Market Socialism,” he reintroduced in 1994 a purely Socialist economy in Belorus. Politically motivated Russian oil and gas deliveries have rendered Belorus completely energy dependent on the Kremlin. President Lukashenka’s feeble attempts to flirt with the West only made him another East European political prostitute of the region.
The most recent Soviet-style presidential election, held on August 9, 2020, delivered the expected result. Proving that in an orderly dictatorship there are no miracles, President Lukashenka beat the stand-in candidate of the opposition for her jailed husband Sergey Tsikhnousky, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya by 80.10% to 10.12%. The opposition cried foul, while President Lukashenka declared that “You speak about unfair elections and want fair ones? I have an answer for you. We had the elections. Unless you kill me, there will be no other elections.” The ensuing protests have been answered with brutal and ruthless crackdown. Calling the protesters “bands of criminals” and “rats,” President Lukashenka has pleaded with Russian President Putin to come to his rescue immediately. Meanwhile, thousands have been detained and at least two persons have died. More importantly, however, President for life Lukashenka has proved again that the mentality of the Soviet Union is well alive and kicking strongly in the eastern part of the continent.
His soulmate in governance, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been strangely silent throughout President Lukashenka’s ordeal. Clearly, he must have learned something from the events that surrounded former Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s dismal performance at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 in Kyiv and across Ukraine. President Putin’s restraint might have also been motivated by the potential threat of additional sanctions against his country. Be that as it may, Russia would only save President Lukashenka’s hide if Belorus would move decisively into the orbit of the European Union and NATO. Otherwise, a relaxation or even the demise of President Lukashenka’s severe dictatorship would not rattle the Kremlin.
Yet, the people of Belarus deserve the sympathy and support of the rest of the world. Russia’s eventual intervention should not discourage the United States of America and the European Union to provide political and any other support for the people who have unequivocally expressed their desire to finally live free in a democracy. Clearly, President Lukashenka’s days are numbers. Politically, he is done and not even Russia could save his dictatorship. In the Kremlin, President Putin and his colleagues must finally comprehend that the days of dictators in Europe are coming to an end. In case they would resist, their countries would become not only the graveyards of failed ideas, but also the economic catastrophes of the rest of the world.