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The Next Russia Crisis: What Happens to 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.