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NATO Has a Problem: Belarus Is Slowly Being Reabsorbed Into Russia

Russia Taking Over Belarus
Image: Creative Commons.

On October 7, Polish border troops reported being fired upon by their counterparts from Belarus. Though no one was hurt and the Belarusian soldiers were most likely firing blank ammunition, the incident is illustrative of the tension that has been building in that area since Moscow effectively assumed control over the government in Minsk to prop up Belarus’ authoritarian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Anna Michalska, a spokesperson for the Polish Border Guards, said that there had also been an uptick in the number of objects thrown at Polish troops from the Belarusian side.

Tensions have also been rising on the border between the two countries as a surge of migrants has created a building humanitarian crisis simultaneously with the sensitive security situation. Migrants are largely heading toward Poland, as well as Latvia and Lithuania. Poland has accused Belarus of weaponizing migration against it, and accused Lukashenko himself of offering payments for migrants to move into the area. The Polish Council of Ministers has just passed a bill to construct a barrier along its border with Belarus.

Even the EU government in Brussels has claimed Lukashenko is encouraging migration to overwhelm Poland, framing it as “hybrid war” in response to sanctions placed on the Minsk government.

But these may be just the foreshocks of a much larger earthquake, a symptom of the extent to which Belarus has been more or less reabsorbed into the orbit of Russia. Without backing from Moscow, it is likely that Lukashenko would not attempt to antagonize Poland (which has four times the population).

Ultimately, Belarus has more or less ceased to function as an independent entity. Prior to the protests that nearly ousted Lukashenko in 2020, there had at least been an effort to maintain a sense of separation from Moscow. Lukashenko was even perceived to be resistant to pressure from the Kremlin to establish an actual economic union.

Now, not even that seems to be true. After several months of denials that Russia and Belarus would merge in any sense, the two countries announced in early September that they were in the process of formally integrating their economies. In the immediate term, they will join their energy markets, and Moscow will provide a loan of $630 million to alleviate damage done by sanctions regimes imposed on Belarus, as well as the general financial precarity of the country prior to them.

Indeed, the two leaders ceased to project the illusion of anything different. “We are moving forward like civilized countries, only together, only as a union … nearly a single people,” said Lukashenko, after the announcement.

Putin also confirmed that a political union was on the agenda, but denied that it had been discussed in recent talks. “First the economic foundation must be laid before moving further on the political track,” he said.

The announcement was also preceded by massive joint military exercises between the two countries. The Zapad-21 exercises, practiced once every four years, are intended to simulate a conflict with NATO (“Zapad” in Russian means “West.). The exercises always put NATO countries on edge, but the fact that this year Belarus has been included indicates that Moscow controls both armies.

Alarms were raised by the revelation that Belarus has purchased S-400 missiles from Russia, a deal that was confirmed in January. Several units of these missiles have been stationed approximately two and a half miles from the Polish border. Poland’s prime minister declared a state of emergency during the Zapad exercises due to the proximity of the S-400s.

Fortunately for Warsaw, Washington’s recent agreement to sell the country 32 F-35A fighters will provide its air force with a tactical aircraft that the S-400 radar cannot track. But those aircraft are not yet delivered and the other planes in the Polish force are all too vulnerable to S-400s in both Belarus and the heavily-armed Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

The Russian presence in every level of the Belarusian political system, economy, and military drastically push NATO’s eastern front further west. NATO countries are further hemmed in by the troops and weapons present in Kaliningrad, next door to the three Baltics states—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

In short, what once seemed like an unlikely possible scenario is now an unsettling reality. If Russia and Belarus are integrated into one political entity, the risk posed to NATO’s frontline states cannot be overstated and should not, under any circumstances, be underestimated.

Sarah White, M.A., is Senior Research Analyst and Editor at the Lexington Institute.

Written By

Sarah White is a Senior Research Analyst at the Lexington Institute. Prior to joining Lexington, Sarah held internships at the Albright Stonebridge Group and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She earned an M.A. in Latin American Studies in 2019 from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, and a B.A. in political science and Spanish from Wake Forest University in 2017. Sarah is fluent in Spanish, proficient in Portuguese, and conversational in French. She is a native of McLean, Virginia.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Cerebus001

    October 15, 2021 at 5:35 pm

    Germany is lost and Belarus is lost. Time to move missile defense and medium range nuclear weapons into Poland. The Russians have their sights set on Poland just like they have their sights set on completing the seizure of Ukraine. Arm Poland to the teeth and tell Russia if they pull out of Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Venezuela and Nicaragua we will remove the nuke’s . Otherwise , go pound sand.

  2. Slack

    October 15, 2021 at 7:19 pm

    Washington mustn’t lose any sleep over the Polish-Belarus border. Poland, like Ukraine, is fast changing or metamorphosing into a hitlerian-like neo-fascist entity. Now yearning for a good scrap or an outright war.

    Washington should worry more about the states in its immediate neighborhood, like mexico, colombia, haiti.

    Last month, homeland border guards on horseback were seen lashing haitian migrants at US-Mexico border with horse reins or whips stirring memories of harsh slave era days of america’s past.

    Check the inside of your own cup before trying to clean the outside of cups of other people.

  3. Commentar

    October 15, 2021 at 9:38 pm

    NATO is an aggressive and warlike organisation that has unfettered global aims or dreams as shown by its disastrous genocidal campaigns in Iraq, Libya, syria, afghanistan, mali and other places.

    NATO is also supplying weapons, ordnance, battlefield information and intelligence to the almost equally genocidal gulf alliance that’s pursuing a criminal war in Yemen, which has become the present decade’s worst humanitarian disaster.

    NATO is as genocidally criminal as wartime Germany’s notorious SS Divisions.

  4. FRAZIER STALL

    October 15, 2021 at 9:47 pm

    America is the UNDISPUTED death merchant of the globe, supplying massive arms to nations highly eager for war.

    What happened to the statue depicting swords being turned into ploughshares in front of UN building. What a farce.

    F-35s attacking a foreign nation will surely result in that nation swiftly taking action to turn the planes’ bases into fields or rubble.

    Before eagerly hankering for war, nations buying f-35s should ask themselves if they’re prepared to get hurled back to the Stone Age.

  5. ZivBnd

    October 16, 2021 at 8:39 pm

    Belarus has been the Russian lap dog for decades. Nothing has changed. Russia is a weak kleptocracy that is only looking strong because Germany and France are abysmally weak. Poland is tougher than Germany, and if Russia attacks Poland they will get their a$$es handed to them. Unless Russia goes nuclear. Which probably means that Poland needs to have a nuclear deterrent. Sad.
    I think Poland remembers the Katyn Forest Massacre better than most would believe. Russians were world class barbarians before the world realized what 20th century barbarians were willing to do.

  6. Jerome Kelly Barry

    October 17, 2021 at 7:14 am

    Belarus, landlocked, is not a prize.

  7. Jimmy John Doe

    October 18, 2021 at 2:53 am

    Polish border troops, eh? Back in October 1938 same troops boldly took over Zaolzie (now in Czech Republic) which was then an integral part of Czechoslovakia.

    Less than a year later, those bold border troops got lightningly or swiftly blindsided by their western neighbor. Shows why one mustn’t be too bold.

  8. Alex

    October 18, 2021 at 10:19 am

    The S-400 can’t track the F-35? You, apparently, mock the readers or do not understand what you are writing about.

  9. Henri

    October 18, 2021 at 1:18 pm

    The Russian threat has been pushed onto Europe and North America for decades. Yet, during those decades, it is Americans — not Russians — who have invaded, attacked and bombed other countries thousands of miles from their shores… and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians…!
    Belarus is a fictional state; so is Ukraine. Now should we talk about the 3 Baltic suburban areas that masquerade as countries? Let Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia stand on their own. If they cannot, it’s because they are not.

  10. Joe Comment

    October 18, 2021 at 2:01 pm

    If Belarus is absorbed into Russia unwillingly, that’s a problem for everyone. But if they accept the absorption, it’s their own business. As for the military balance, I don’t think it changes much. Russia plus Belarus is not a hugely more fearsome power than Russia itself.

  11. dave

    October 18, 2021 at 7:16 pm

    Russia is pushing west. All we can do is try to offer enough deterrence so that they dont attack the EU proper and start a wider conflict.

    However, the EU needs to take over this role and I think they want to. We must let them exercise their own right to self defense.

    We cannot be the arsenal of democracy forever. nor should we.

  12. Stefan Stackhouse

    October 18, 2021 at 8:09 pm

    It took centuries for the Russian Empire to be assembled, yet assembled it was: year-by-year, piece-by-piece. It is clear that Putin and his regime see the collapse of the USSR as being a setback, but not a permanent one. They are already at work on the long project of reassembling the Russian Empire – once again year-by-year and piece-by-piece. They understand that this project, too, will take centuries, but they are at it, taking advantage of each opportunity as it presents itself.

  13. Anton

    October 19, 2021 at 8:06 am

    Hello from Russia! We really like it when a country that has unleashed dozens of military conflicts around the world, makes us monsters. You just need to open the Wikipedia entry “Timeline of United States military operations” to see this. The United States has the largest military budget on the planet, exceeding the budgets of Russia and China combined. Think about it, when we are tried for Stalin’s crimes, which are no longer related to modern Russia, while in Iraq hundreds of thousands of people died because of your actions.
    It’s funny when I see comments that we are barbarians, im sitting in a warm office and sipping vodka and rejoicing with my bear, throwing a hat with earflaps. We are so powerful that we even elect your presidents, because we are barbarians. We sell gas to Europe cheaper because we are barbarians. Only the United States can build the world’s most expensive aircraft in history (Northrop B-2 Spirit), making it an invisible technology that is completely useless against our phased array radars, and that’s because Russians are barbarians. We are barbarians and therefore the external national debt of the United States is 28 trillion dollars, someday the Russians will be to blame for this too…

  14. MrRussian

    October 20, 2021 at 12:30 am

    The problem is that Belarus is not playing coy anymore. All these years Lukashenko was smart enough not to get very close to neither Russia nor the EU. But Poland along with Czech Republic and Baltics decided that they can topple Lukashenko, so they organized and supported opposition in hopes to oust Lukashenko and they failed, miserably. Russia obviously had a hand in this failure just as it did with attempt to topple Erdogan in Turkey. The EU along with the US decided to worsen the situation and imposed sanctions on Belarus, so Lukashenko has no choice but to go to Russia and beg for help. No doubt Russia would help him but Lukashenko also wanted revenge, so he brought refugees to Baltics and Poland borders just because he can. Belarus coming to Russia is not NATO’s problem but Polish and Baltics stupidity is.

  15. Andy Poulton

    October 21, 2021 at 1:36 pm

    To Commentar, NATO is not an “aggressive and warlike organisation that has unfettered global aims or dreams as shown by its disastrous genocidal campaigns in Iraq, Libya, syria, afghanistan, mali and other places”.

    It has been responsible for many peace keeping operations. Unfortunately, whilst attempting to keep the peace, it has been fired on and so has responded (in kind) in self defence.

    Anton, the US Defence budget is as large as it is, when compared to China and Russia because it has to pay market price in a wealthy country where everything is more expensive. IN Chain and Russia, the state control the military construction and so the costs are consequently much lower. If they had to buy military equipment at commercial prices neither would be in the position they are now, able to manufacture and expend millions on R&D

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