Predictably and as a last resort, Belarusian President Lukashenka appealed to Russia on August 15, 2020. This appeal to Moscow urged Moscow to share or even take responsibility with him for ensuring security in Belarus. From his standpoint, that means upholding Lukashenka’s continuing despotism amidst the democratic revolution that is occurring there in protest of his dictatorship and attempted theft of the August 9 election. Lukashenka attempted to force Russian President Putin’s hand by warning that if he did not intervene, the revolutionary tide engulfing Belarus would spread into Russia. Typically he also claimed that the demonstrations are a “color revolution ” instigated by Poland, Ukraine, and the West, i.e., the usual suspects. Of course, this siren song has had a significant audience in Moscow. But it is no truer today than in all the other previous cases used by Putin to justify aggression. Thus, when the chips were down, Lukashenka chose his own power over his country's independence, a common response of dictators in trouble. Meanwhile, there are proliferating reports of Russia readying forces for a potential intervention even if, as of August 16, that has not occurred. And a national general strike has been called for August 17.
Nevertheless, the risk of Russian intervention, either by force, subversion and fraud, or some combination thereof, remains an omnipresent and serious possibility. Indeed, Lukashenka is deploying an airborne brigade to the borders with Lithuania and Poland. Likewise, on August 16, Moscow confirmed its readiness to provide “all necessary assistance” to resolve the security problems in Belarus, following last week’s contested presidential election and “external pressure” on the Belarusian state.” Seen from Moscow, Russia’s kleptocracy's domino theory is vulnerable to democratic movements if their neighbors succumb to that threat lies at the heart of Russian security policy. Almost every aspect of Russian internal and foreign policy aims, in some measure, to prevent democratic resurgence in Russia, its neighbors, and to subvert Western polities so that they will accept Russia’s demand for unchecked autocratic power at home and for a neo-imperial sphere of influence in former Soviet territories. Beyond that, Russia’s “Silovye Struktury” (force structures) have, for years, assiduously built up reservoirs of leverage and influence in the U.S. and Europe as well as the former Soviet republics to subvert democratic processed in these countries, enfeeble them, and secure a lasting lodgment for pro-Russian forces that also argue on behalf of turning a blind eye to Russian imperialism in the former USSR if not elsewhere. Therefore, it must be made clear to Lukashenka and Putin that any use of force will rebound against them and involve Russia in a protracted and ever more costly standoff against the Belarussian people if not disaffected military forces and to greatly enhanced tensions with and military deployments on Belarus’ borders by NATO
Lukashenka’s domino theory instinctively resonates across the Russian elite for whom any manifestation of democracy, particularly in the former Soviet space, is perceived as the greatest possible security threat and as another manifestation of Washington and Europe’s unceasing efforts to undermine the Russian state and thwart its great power ambitions. Indeed, there have already been voices form Moscow calling for some kind of forceful intervention in Belarus, stating that “It is time for the “polite people’ (Russian forces) to impose order.” The West must resist such actions and encourage Belarus to find its own path to security without Russia's forceful intervention. In other words, we must find a way to deter a Russian intervention by bringing home to Moscow the costs and risk it will incur by so acting.
This also means that our governments must understand what the demonstrations in Belarus really mean, not only for the immediate region but also for European security.
First, the demonstrations in Belarus are part of a broader global uprising. They are part of the long-running process of what we saw in Ukraine in 2014. This revolution of dignity is also happening at home here in the Black Lives Matter movement and the massive civil rights demonstrations that have occurred this spring and summer in the U.S. It is also manifest in the continuing demonstrations at the other end of Russia in Khabarovsk against Muscovite high-handedness. We have seen numerous such revolutions in response to autocrats’ efforts to rig elections. As David Kramer and Michael McFaul have observed,
The situation in Belarus is tense and uncertain. The regime could lose its grip on power, as has already occurred in other democratic breakthroughs in Serbia 2000, Georgia 2003 and Ukraine 2004. Most recently, falsified presidential elections in Malawi in mid-2019 triggered massive popular uprisings, the results were annulled, and a rerun of election in 2020 brought to power the opposition challenger.
While Moscow may intervene with force and other instruments to suppress this revolution, it does so (as did its Soviet predecessors in 1968 Czechoslovakia) at the risk of closing off any way to reform its own system. In other words, Putin risks even greater and perpetual stagnation that could easily eventuate in a comparable Russian explosion against his system and regime.
Second, Belarus’ crisis shows that the process of dissolution of the Soviet Union has not yet run its course. Far too many of the post-Soviet regimes that came to power there have shown themselves unable to provide prosperity, security, or peace. Therefore, and they know this, their legitimacy and authority are always to some degree at risk because of their subpar performance and indifference to the needs of the people beyond the small elite groups that are attached to those regimes. More importantly, Moscow has never accepted the genuine sovereignty and territorial integrity of any of these states and insists that for its own criminalized regime to stay in power, it must enjoy an unchallenged sphere of influence over these states. Therefore, it can only rule at home and exercise dominion abroad by fomenting a permanent state of siege within the CIS, (Commonwealth of Independent States), e.g., the many "frozen conflicts" among them and by supporting autocratic rulers in them while it also manufactures a perpetual state of war against the West. For that reason, there is a great danger that it may believe that using force in Belarus is vital to preserving its power in Moscow and can be done at minimal risk.
As we have noted, Russian autocracy and imperialism are only possible by enforcing a state of siege or war in Europe. Because Putin's regime depends on its durability, power, and ability to keep stealing from the Russian people on the perpetuation of this "besieged fortress" mentality throughout Russia, any autonomous politics in neighboring states, disproves the notion of the so-called Western threat. Worse yet, from Putin's standpoint, it also provides a salutary example to Russians of what they themselves could accomplish. Therefore, if possible, such regimes must be squelched sooner rather than later. Beyond that, since the greatest threat to European security remains Russia's strategy of “cross-domain coercion” against the democratic integration of Europe, any democratic advance undermines Russia's ability to hold Europe hostage to its own atavistic autocratic and imperial proclivities. Conversely, should Belarus' revolution by suppressed or suborned not only would Russian troops now be on the border of the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine, the state of siege in Europe would be intensified against Western interests.
Consequently, any invasion of Belarus and stationing there of Russian forces enhance the dangers to Europe by an order of magnitude. As Frederick Kagan writes,
If Putin gains the ability to station Russian ground and air defense forces on the Belarussian side of the gap as well, he can make NATO’s ability to support forces in the Baltics, let alone reinforce them in a crisis, extraordinarily difficult. With ground reinforcements an hour’s drive away, moreover, he can turn Kaliningrad from being a vulnerable exclave into a real knife at NATO’s throat.
In turn, that means a vastly enlarged NATO deployment in Poland, the Baltic States, Germany, and support for Ukraine, who will also have to militarize to meet the new threat to its north from these Russian forces.
At the same time, this crisis has already highlighted some of Moscow's enduring weaknesses. It simply cannot afford to take on the maintenance of Belarus and preserve the Russian economy even at its current level of stagnation that is arousing much popular discontent and also limiting its military capabilities. Second, there are indicators that this crisis also highlights Russia's rising dependence on China. President XI Jinping, not Putin, was the first to congratulate Lukashenko, a week ago, on his "victory." Putin, who reportedly loathes Lukashenka, knew the true situation and anyone, then had no choice but to follow China's lead. Further Russian isolation from the West and risk-taking in Belarus can only increase Moscow’s dependence upon Beijing and in European and Belarusian affairs, hardly the outcome Moscow wants or can easily tolerate.
Moscow also cannot afford a protracted war anywhere, particularly on its doorstep due to economic consequences of such a war and the ensuing political isolation it would thereby risk incurring. The Armenian revolution of 2018 proceeded unmolested by Russia despite calls form the ousted government for support because it pledged to support membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia’s two institutional vehicles for keeping post-Soviet republics in line. Some have argued, therefore, that if Belarus follows this example, Putin will refrain from intervening.
However, it is by no means clear that Belarus can emulate Armenia. The sheer bloody-mindedness of Lukashenka's thuggish police forces in this crisis, his utter neglect of confronting the Covid-19 pandemic, and Belarus' economic stagnation have brought out an enormous number of Belarussians to demonstrate against him on August 16. And those massive demonstrations will continue until he resigns for nothing else is left to him. This massive public support, plus the refusal of elements of the Belarussian Army to support him, impede any forceful Russian military intervention though it does not make it impossible.
For all these reasons, the greater the likelihood of Lukashenka’s fall and demands for democracy, the greater the pressures are on Russia to intervene forcefully. Therefore, the West must take proactive action now to allow Belarus to find its own ‘center of gravity without external intervention. The U.S. and Europe must make clear to Putin the risks and costs of any Russian intervention. Kramer and McFaul have already argued that we should coordinate with Europe to reimpose sanctions on Lukashenka’s regime and demand the release of all political prisoners, warn that if violence continues the sanctions will extend to Lukashenka, his top officials, commanders, and to critical enterprises, particularly in the military-industrial enterprises. They also argue for choosing an American or Western mediating team to bring about a peaceful transition of the government to one based on the elections’ real outcome. Beyond that, they argue for warning Putin that any Russian invasion will trigger sanctions even more potent than those imposed in 2014 because of Ukraine's invasion. And Kagan even argues for a still more draconian imposition of sanctions should Moscow establish military bases there.
However, we should go farther than what they recommend. First, it should be clear that Russian use of force must inevitably entail larger and more permanent deployments throughout Poland, the Baltic States, Germany, and Ukraine's support against Russia. Beyond that, however, we should make it clear to Putin that there will be no summits with Washington or the E.U., something he has been desperately trying to arrange, and that he is putting the current arms control negotiations at risk. Since Moscow insists that it believes little will come out of these talks and that it opposes the Trump Administration’s correct insistence on a Chinese presence there, Russia is doing all it can to reduce the viability of those negotiations. And the resort to war in Europe will undermine any credibility that Russia might have there as a negotiating partner. Intervention in Belarus should make it clear that we will not participate in a futile charade with a state that habitually violates treaties it has signed, guaranteeing its neighbors' borders. In other words, the crisis in Belarus provides an opportunity for Western unity that should be seized in order to prevent another Russian effort to maintain an empire. Putin’s efforts to preserve this atavistic Muscovite imperial formation represent the greatest threat to security in Europe today, including to the Russian people themselves. The valiant people of Belarus' have done and are doing all they can, and it is in their and our interests that we act expeditiously to help them achieve the security, freedom, peace, prosperity, and dignity they seek. For only by doing so do we really advance the cause of peace in Europe and a Europe whole and free.
We should go further.
Stephen J. Blank, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He has published over 900 articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, U.S., Asian, and European military and foreign policies, testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia, consulted for the Central Intelligence Agency, major think tanks and foundations, chaired major international conferences in the U.S. and in Florence; Prague; and London, and has been a commentator on foreign affairs in the media in the U.S. and abroad. He has also advised major corporations on investing in Russia and is a consultant for the Gerson Lehrmann Group. He has published or edited 15 books, most recently Russo-Chinese Energy Relations: Politics in Command (London: Global Markets Briefing, 2006). He has also published Natural Allies? Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2005). He is currently completing a book entitled Light From the East: Russia’s Quest for Great Power Status in Asia to be published in 2014 by Ashgate. Dr. Blank is also the author of The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin’s Commissariat of Nationalities (Greenwood, 1994); and the co-editor of The Soviet Military and the Future (Greenwood, 1992).