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The Next Russia Crisis: What Happens to Belarus?

Belarus
Coalition forces fire an M3 multi-role anti-armor anti-tank weapon system on a range during training in Washir district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 23, 2013. Coalition forces reviewed their weapons handling and firing techniques to increase safety, accuracy and familiarity with the weapon system. (DoD photo by Sgt. Benjamin Tuck, U.S. Army/Released)

After war comes peace. In the case of Ukraine, peace will come when Vladimir Putin is convinced that bloodshed no longer serves his political ends. One scenario is that Russia achieves a decisive military victory that puts Putin in the position of dictating terms to Ukraine’s defeated leaders. Another is that Putin is forced to stop the war because of a political crisis or economic collapse at home, in which case Ukraine’s negotiators might be able to secure a more lenient settlement.

Either way, the terms of the peace in Ukraine will reflect the relative power of the warring parties at the moment the guns fall silent. However, even if Putin wins the most lopsided of military victories against Ukraine, there is no chance that he will emerge from this war stronger vis-à-vis the rest of Europe. This matters when it comes to imagining what the postwar settlement might look like beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Western leaders are right to predict that Putin’s war of choice will prove to be a major strategic setback for Russia. In just the past few weeks, NATO countries have announced major hikes to defense spending, bolstered their military deployments in Eastern Europe, and demonstrated exceptional levels of unity and resolve. If Putin thought that NATO would splinter at the sight of war, he was wrong.

Meanwhile, the Russian military has shown itself to be weaker and far less competent than Europeans might previously have feared. Ukraine has inflicted heavy losses upon Russia’s armed forces and punctured the invaders’ morale. At the same time, the Russian economy has been shredded by economic sanctions. The bottom line is that Russia’s hard power assets have been depleted by this war while NATO members have added to theirs.

This shift in relative power means that the rest of Europe need not watch from the sidelines as Moscow tries to impose a Carthaginian Peace upon Ukraine. Some Ukrainian concessions to Russia are inevitable, of course, for the simple reason that NATO is unwilling to fight to preserve things like Ukrainian territorial integrity. But when it comes to any larger renegotiations of the European security order, NATO leaders might just be able to drive a hard bargain with Moscow.

They should begin by targeting Belarus. Under the leadership of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has become little more than a Russian vassal state. This is evident from Minsk’s decision to assist the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the changes made to Belarus’s constitution that will allow the basing of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil.

To be sure, Belarus has long maintained close political, economic, and security ties with Russia. In the past, however, there were some important limits to how far Lukashenko was willing to subordinate his country to Moscow. Today, the Belarusian leader’s subservience to Putin is boundless. This has dramatic security implications for Poland and the Baltic states, who now have ample reason to fear that Belarus will someday become a staging ground for Russian armies along their borders.

The de facto union between Belarus and Russia is something that must be challenged as part of any negotiations over the larger security architecture in Europe. This is for three interrelated reasons: to assure Eastern Europeans that Russia will not undertake another expansionist war, to limit the possibility of a dangerous confrontation between forward-deployed Russian forces and those of a NATO member, and to give some semblance of hope to the beleaguered people of Belarus.

The first of these points is critical. When the guns finally fall silent in Ukraine, the leaders of Eastern Europe will be left wondering about Russia’s future intentions. Will Putin be satisfied after battering Ukraine into submission, or will he be emboldened? Even if Putin were to promise never to initiate a war against Poland or the Baltics, his blatant deceit prior to the invasion of Ukraine means that his words will ring hollow.

It will take concrete and verifiable actions to convince Eastern Europe that regional peace is possible. Pulling back from Belarus will go a long way toward reassuring Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn that they are not next on the chopping block. By contrast, a refusal to retrench from Belarus would appear to confirm that Putin is bent on recreating the Soviet empire – a climate of distrust that all parties have an interest in avoiding.

So too must the risk of a shooting war along the Belarusian border with Poland, Lithuania, or Latvia be taken seriously. Imagine what could happen the next time Russia and Belarus undertake large-scale joint exercises on Belarusian territory. Will NATO members exercise restraint, confident that the invasion of Ukraine could never be repeated? Or will they instead move to amass troops in an effort to deter a Russian-Belarusian invasion?

It is all too plausible that, from now on, any major movement of Russian forces on Belarusian soil will be interpreted by NATO members as a possible prelude to an attack on the alliance. They might see no choice other than to prepare for war. The risk of a future crisis spiraling into a border war and, in turn, a devastating conflagration is not something that can easily be dismissed.

For these reasons alone, NATO would be justified in demanding that any multilateral agreement on neutral status for Ukraine should be accompanied by corresponding constraints being placed upon Belarus. Loosening Moscow’s control over Minsk – and, at the very least, limiting the number and type of Russian deployments that are allowed in Belarus – would be an enormous boost to European security that would benefit all sides.

However, there is a final reason that Belarus ought to be singled out in any restructuring of the European order: because doing so will demonstrate to the ordinary people of Belarus that they have not been forgotten. The West should insist that Minsk recommit to basic principles of human rights and restoring the Belarusian people’s lost freedoms. Even if there is little chance of Lukashenko honoring such pledges today, history shows that even insincere commitments can grow into tangible rights over time.

What might the political demands made upon Belarus look like in practice? Abolishing the supranational Union State between Belarus and Russia is an obvious place to begin. NATO should request that Belarus readopt non-nuclear status, too. More ambitious demands might include a ban on conventional Russian forces being based in Belarus, a declaration of neutrality from Minsk, and a formal prohibition on political union between Europe’s two remaining dictatorships.

Will Putin and Lukashenko agree to these demands? Probably not. But if Europe’s two remaining dictatorships refuse to negotiate on the status of Belarus, NATO can threaten to withhold recognition of any punitive peace that Putin might try to impose upon Ukraine. The West should also refuse to negotiate other aspects of the European security order that Putin wishes to see overturned.

Might does not make right, but it certainly helps during bargaining. As the price of ending his brutal war in Ukraine, Putin will use his power advantages to extract painful concessions from Kyiv. But if he was planning on using the war in Ukraine to force wider changes upon Europe, he might just find himself having to give up some things in return. Belarus should be one of them.

Dr. Peter Harris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities and a 1945 Contributing Editor.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 11, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Putin cares for the damages his countryfolk suffer, in terms of what he’s set about doing. As mentioned, every harm his people suffer is not a negative, but a positive, in his mind, validating and justifying his vision, beliefs and actions with every escalation in harm. Each incremental extension of harm incrementally validates his opinion of the West.

    The only effect the suffering of his countryfolk will have is if they successfully cause a toppling. That’s a long way off as sentiment hasn’t settled yet, it appears, far less coalesced and become a ‘force’ of action. It may affect the perimenters of the regime, though. It may be twelve months before the sentiment of Russian people has any real sort of effect.

    So harm to Russian people has no bearing on this. Furthermore, harm to the Russian countryfolk by the looks of it is something that Putin has accounted for much as in the following point:

    It really is looking like Putin’s view of the West has overstepped reason, such as we’d see it, and has a central pillar to it. That is that any sanctions and harm to the Russian people will quickly be lifted. He thinks the West is so bereft ov values, so deluded by the power of capitalism and profit, that, even if the Ukraine war has no decisive ending, sooner rather than later the West will get used to what he’s doing and the attractive power of Western profit will win out. Companies will want to get back in.

    He’s actually correct on one point, if not all of them. That point being a natural resultant of life. We as people do get used to change. After an immediate impact, there comes an ever growing albeit slowly public-at-large disinterest.

    Failing an internal deposition, either prompted or not by Russian public anger, no amount of harm to Russia is a final deterrent, a means to stop.

    What ‘stopping’ means for Putin now is how much his military can withstand. Whatever that tipping point is, when his military is overall seeing signs of being weaked (by loss of the ability to replenish it) is when his pragmatism kicks in and he ceases advancing.

    So it’s all about the state of his military. So far that’s ‘unaffected’.

    What concerns me, and I think Putin is well onto this, is that the USA backroom is taking this opportunity to use this war as a smokescreen shield to crush the Russian economy into oblivion.

    In other words, the hiddien USA agenda, as a concern imagined, is to continue far beyond a ‘response’ action and move into complete economic annihilation or at least an extreme weakening of the Russian economy to then push home its, USA’s backroom, final agenda in mind: the collapse of the Russian regime and installation of democracy.

    Sound far fetched? Maybe. Yet in increments it’s a valid concern. There is much zealotry within the American backroom

    Many of us outside of the US, and to whatever extent within, too, see this zealotry visible in using the downing of the towers as an excuse, a smokescreen shield, to go into Iraq.

    So the reason to mention this is to keep an eye on those US zealots who are, or may, be looking to use the actions of Putin to push an economic warfare agenda beyond what we outside of the backroom know.

    It’s not such a difficult step to sell. Given the above scenario, that Putin will stop only as determined pragmatically by the state of his military, every horror that Putin commits is a reason to sell the crushing of the Russian regime.

    If all of that’s correct, then this war contends far more than what Putin has in mind and can do.

    I don’t mean, too, to make this entirely about the US backroom, because there are any number of Western countrys’ backrooms with sufficient zealotry to back it up, and may be talking about it already.

    That is to say, there is zealotry within the West, as well. And this war provides no better environment in that mind to push an heretofore unstated Western agenda.

    Hopefully nothing as extreme as this is active or becomes active, but it’s good nevertheless to bear it in mind.

    Russia, in the mind of the install-democracy-to-the-world zealot, could fall.

    Nothing against democracy, in this comment, but a fear for zealotry and hidden agendas. The situation is bad enough for commonfolk outside of the safe and secure walls of power.

  2. Commentar

    March 11, 2022 at 4:21 pm

    Putin has stopped the genghis horde or perhaps hitler’s battalion for now.

    Of course, the brave action doesn’t come free of charge. Victims of genghis and hitler paid a high price for survival.

    It is an indisputable that washington has supported the nazist-banderitist azov battalion known for war crimes and bestiality in eastern ukraine. Uncle sam did same thing in syria for jihadist groups. Did the same for death squads in latin america and the infamous atlacatyl battalion of el salvador.

    These genghis forces / hitler battalions and brigades are the worst manifestation of human evil and stopping them is a must whatever the price.

    Putin and russia have shown courage fighting the genghis expansion and should be praised. Military conquest and expansion are totally unacceptable forms of human enterprise today.

  3. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 11, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    Just a further thought, and more knowledgeable minds would have a view, is that China’s position regarding this war is to perhaps in part guard against the Western zealotry (re my comment above).

    At a guess, what we need to look for is a change in the thrust or direction of Western statements. The original thrust and direction was that the “sanctions are in reponse to Putin’s invasion with the goal of stopping it.”

    Any changes to that expressed reason should be closely examined.

    So what’s the point here? Nothing is more important at this point than for cooler heads to prevail.

    It’s no time for hot-head intention — far less, action — by especially the US and the West at large.

    And, as must needs be, all reference in my comments referring to the “West” carries the distinction between “leadership” and “citizenry” and is directed only to Western leadership.

    Here’s the thing. Western leadership purports to be upstanding and a force for “democracy”. Yet Western leadership over and again deems itself – autocratically – to make or break war.

    Sure, we elect our leaders to act on our behalf, and this includes the protection of our ways of life. However, things are changing.

    Gone are the days when that – the autocratic Western leadership self-determined mandate regarding war – was set in stone.

    People, citizens, are far more knowledgeable as a general state of mind than when in those days. Access to knowledge, and the sharing of knowledge, is incomparably different.

    Part of the lessons-to-be-learned from this war is that the Western citizenry is not mentally or emotionally situated to just take what Western leaders decide on their own to do.

    Should the scenario in my above comment hold any truth, anyone could see that Western zealotry – the desire to crush Russia and instal democracy – could lead to World War III. That zealotry, in that posed and and imagined scenario, as acted through economic warfare is just as much a trigger for World War III as any military action.

    Which means that any steps towards that zealous action, should these begin to be taken, will be met not only by knowledge of that threat to the daily life for those in the West, it will be massively addressed.

    Western leaders should take note.

    Every step, in this contemporary age, Western leadership takes of a zealous intent will create massive internal rifts within the Western public. This is another front of war that only plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin, and you can be about which he’s well aware.

    As Vladimir Putin is demonstrating, zealotry creates unseen harm. This is a contemporary fact of life. There is no place for zealotry within the Western leadership. That zealotry too, as being demonstrated, will cause unseen harm.

    Cool heads, please.

  4. Eric-ji

    March 11, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    Well said: “Western leaders should take note.

    “Every step, in this contemporary age, Western leadership takes of a zealous intent will create massive internal rifts within the Western public. This is another front of war that only plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin, and you can be about which he’s well aware.

    “As Vladimir Putin is demonstrating, zealotry creates unseen harm. This is a contemporary fact of life. There is no place for zealotry within the Western leadership. That zealotry too, as being demonstrated, will cause unseen harm.”

  5. Slack

    March 11, 2022 at 5:58 pm

    It is extremely strange that the US is so highly obsessed with russia…and belarus when 990,000+ people in the US have died from covid.

    Shouldn’t the US be focusing on xi jinping for that massive death number. It’s genocide.

  6. Jacky

    March 11, 2022 at 6:31 pm

    Is, or rather, was the ukraine crisis deliberately manufactured or engineered to shield or obscure the biden family’s relationship with beijing.

    An inquiry must be held to investigate it, like what happened after pearl harbor and 9/11. Establish a truth commission to find the real story behind the kyiv debacle.

  7. Chris Kyle

    March 11, 2022 at 10:01 pm

    russian troll farm tears delicious. moar pls.

  8. Alex

    March 12, 2022 at 2:11 am

    1. Can someone challenge someone’s alliances? Author, what are you smoking? They will just send you to hell with laughter.
    2. The Russian army turned out to be not weaker, but more merciful to its Slavic brothers, with whom the Nazi Bandera people hide behind like a human shield. Do you think that such mercy will be in the event of an attack by the West on Russia? It will all be over very, very quickly.
    3. NATO made its choice when, on orders from Washington, it lied to Russia about not expanding and now stands at Russia’s very doorstep. When Russia has nothing to lose, any aggression from the West will lead to the disappearance of the West.
    4. Chris, don’t forget about taking Xanox three times a day and visiting a psychiatrist.

  9. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 12, 2022 at 2:22 am

    Cheers Eric-ji (and with apologies for the unedited spelling). I read your rebuttal of the editorial pushing for that proferred NATO action and applaud your comment there. I see military provocation such as that as not having been wholly thought through, i.e. from other perspectives.

    One thing I’d add to the above. A heap of world commentators have through news bulletins said that Vladimir Putin has been isolated for two years and is out of touch from wider influence (essentially stewing in his own juices).

    I buy the line that he’s been isolated, but don’t buy the line that he was out of touch.

    It raises a really interesting and very hopeful prospect.

    I find it hard to believe that Putin for two years wasn’t closely monitoring Western media. In every interview I’ve watched, he’s answered questioning that clearly demonstrates he’s all over it. I think Western media as a window into that different world has in many ways fueled his beliefs. He may have even had a morbid addiction to the propaganda machine he sees it as, and the wellspring to which he goes to sip for a drink of self-justification of his beliefs.

    But it raises the question of whether he’s doing it now.

    If as just about every single pundit is saying that Putin got the invasion wrong, that it’s not gone anywhere close to his plans and expectations, he may well have turned away from any Western media feed and told his coterie to do the same, or not to pass on what it’s broadcasting to the world.

    Think about it from his perspective: an autocrat who loves control of the message, lives for the imagery he creates, then what is flooding Western media about the war, about him, is unpleasant to say the least. The world is talking about one man, him, and it’s wall-to-wall full of his personal failures and hatred towards him. Not one hint of victory for him in sight.

    Thus, he may not have seen a Western media report for nearly two weeks.

    What this would mean if so is that since the invasion started he’s living in a tighter bubble than the tight bubble said of him.

    And if he’s getting internal reports – from those frightened he’ll kill them if they disagree with him or give him information he doesn’t want to hear – it means this:

    Vladimir Putin has no accurate or any real idea of the state of his military.

    Imagine that, for a sec.

    To put it mildly, it’s pretty full on. Yet it’s a reasonable rationale given what is widely-accepted knowledge about where the Kremlin is at.

    So Putin may not know the extent of the destruction of his troops, equipment and any other damage done to his military.

    What is imaginable if that is accurate? He’ll hit a wall. A wall of reality.

    Not now, but sometime probably sooner than later. Someone will have to tell him. Or, rather, land solidly in that position.

    A couple who have served in the Kremlin with Putin, closely and in determinative positions, highly valid sources, have in person said that the Russian (government) way is not to pass on ultimate bad news but, gun in hand…escort him out.

    This is all conjecture. Yet as a rational extension of widely-held beliefs it is actually possible that (horrifically) when things get much worse as expected, the result could also be a much far greater loss to his own military that the timepoint of having to tell him the reality of loss could loom in then.

    As the above rationale is dependent on things getting worse to that point, and that things will get worse, then sometime after the next horrific Putin military escalation, in that inconscionable hour, when all seems at an irredeemable blackness, it may soon after that be all over. That timepoint actually isn’t far away.

    Wishful thinking? Happy to have that rationale critiqued. What it does say though is that this war is full of unexpectedness which says loud and clear that the Western leadership response must remain measured and cool-headed.

    There just may well be the functions of an unenvisaged end strongly at work, and at work since the start of it.

  10. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 12, 2022 at 3:17 am

    Read through what I wrote there and, sorry, should have added this to it.

    As mentioned, the above is conjecture drawn together from various viewpoints and positions as many have expressed. If that line of thinking proves correct, then the game-changer I neglected to mention is that the decision to end the war could come from someone in the Russian military.

    If Putin has no accurate idea of the state of his military, and no one is telling him, then whomever does know it and does decide that the losses are too great, or that the military has been made vulnerable for other needs – that person shuts down the war and from him comes the end to Putin’s reign.

    It’s pretty loose stuff, I know. But who knows? The thing most at play is that we know few in Russia are as demented in pushing Russia to the depths as Putin. It is conceivable that the end of the war precipitates from within the miltary. Be good to learn more about what Putin actually knows in relation to his forces.

  11. Jimmy John Doe

    March 12, 2022 at 4:35 am

    The strategic setback will be at the US & NATO fascismo-nexus side and (rump) ukraine will be absorbed by the nexus.

    This will become apparent when the ‘rapid response force’ enters the fight and putin employs his V-Day weapons.

    The russian military will get eastern ukraine and there ain’t anything the west can do about it. Except swallow rump ukraine and eyeball the russians on the east side.

  12. Brond

    March 12, 2022 at 7:31 am

    Ukraine has inflicted heavy losses upon Russia’s armed forces

    Has anyone seen photos of more than a dozen or so (total) destroyed Russian tanks? Where? I just can’t find that many occurrences.

  13. Snowball

    March 12, 2022 at 11:37 am

    Great mother Russia takes pity upon its slavic brothers by conquering them and reeducating them about the love of mother Russia.
    From the great fish drying houses of vladivostok, to the proud Dzerhezinsky Tractor Works, to the patriotic fully volunteer workers at state uranium mine #32, Russians welcome their brothers back into the loving folds of mother Russia, alive or dead.
    Ignore the wild braying asses of the yankee dogs who tempt you with empty promises of freedom. Freedom from what? The loving embrace of a morhter Russia which will never let you go? The security of knowing that the state will always be out watching for you. Tell the deceitful western nazis that you reject their freedoms, and only want the freedom of being under great mother Russia.

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