By Jacob Myers
Estimated Reading Time: 15 minutes
Abstract: Belarus has long been perceived by the United States as a client state of Russia. Signs that President Lukashenko sought to normalize relationships with the U.S. and NATO through more neutral defense posturing seems to be quickly reversing. The fallout from the Belarusian election and mass government crackdown has caused an unstable domestic situation that now threatens Eastern European security. Russia is now intervening on behalf of its own national security interests to administer control of the region and ensure its strongest military ally does not cede to the West. The United States must now explore options to either normalize the Belarusian-U.S. defense relationship, or risk the territory being in complete Russian control, further changing the security implications and defense posture in Eastern Europe. The following article explores how the United States can still seek options to normalize the Belarusian-U.S. defense relationship amid domestic tensions as a way to work in solidarity with European partners, deliberately extend the competitive posture in Eastern Europe, and reaffirm the U.S. security guarantees for its European allies.
Belarus continues to be one of the least understood countries in Europe and has long been perceived as Russia’s loyal ally. Years of close ties with Russia and deeply interwoven economic, foreign, and military policies have also shaped U.S. and European perceptions that Belarus is a client state of Russia. As a result, U.S. defense planning of Europe has long incorporated Belarusian territory as providing necessary combat support to assist Russia’s military projection into Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, attempts to restore this relationship between the U.S. and Belarus no longer seem assured. Shifts in Belarusian defense policies which indicated a possible rapprochement with the West and a reversal of Union State cohesion were the olive branches the U.S. and the West needed to strengthen the security environment in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the August 9th 2020 election results and subsequent police activity issued by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime to end opposition protests has stymied efforts to reestablish the U.S.-Belarusian relationship. Additionally, the unabashed human rights violations and disregard for democratic principles within Lukashenko’s regime resurfaced a moral dilemma for the U.S., bringing to question if a future defense relationship is even feasible. Should the U.S. consider the current situation as reason to disregard earlier attempts of improving relations and toss in the proverbial towel on Belarus?
Before the August election, Lukashenko’s shift in Eastern European politics offered the United States a new avenue to deter Russian aggression as outlined in the U.S. National Defense Strategy. The strategic approach to strengthening relationships and attracting new partners, previously unavailable to U.S. defense planners with Belarus, was made a possibility. Since 2016, Belarus’s focus on peacekeeping initiatives, the restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States, economic reforms, and calls to reestablish relations with Western institutions such as NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was Lukashenko’s inauguration of more Western cooperation. Furthermore, the Kremlin’s attempt in 2015 to strongarm Belarus with overtures of deploying a Russian air base was seen as provocative and unacceptable by the Belarusian government. Despite Belarus’s continued energy and military dependence on Russia, the Belarusian National Assembly outlined new security objectives rebranding it a neutral state. Desires to become the regional security provider signaled its willingness to pursue a more inclusive partnership reaching beyond Russia and other military allies. This rare reversal of policy that sought to foster a neutral position in regional security and encourage military cooperation among all organizations – including NATO – was likely the signal the U.S. needed to advance National Defense Strategy goals in Eastern Europe.
Unfortunately, the evolving domestic crisis in Minsk may have disrupted these opportunities for the United States and its hopes to normalize military relations with Belarus. At the time of writing, the protests in Minsk and 16 other cities in Belarus continue for the seventh weekend in a row, with reports of over 100,000 people in the streets and intense police crackdowns to break up the demonstrations. Since the results of the election, over 7,000 people have been arrested by Belarusian Security Forces, and more than 400 people detained in one weekend. Recognized as the legitimate winner of the elections after claiming to have received 60-70% of the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was forced to flee the country to neighboring Lithuania, where she calls for Western leaders to reaffirm the integrity of the elections. Another opposition leader, Maria Kolesnikova, is still detained by Belarusian state security after trying to flee to Ukraine. Despite heavy crackdowns, demonstrations continue leaving Lukashenko to look east for Russian assistance. As the fallout from the election continues to unfold, Putin is now faced with a reality in which Russia’s access to Europe is under threat and thus its force projection into Europe is compromised. This leaves Western leaders wary that Russia will seek either conventional methods to control the geopolitical situation through military or law enforcement assistance, or redeployment of Putin’s “little green men” and information operations to shape the environment and secure the space. Regardless, the chess pieces are in place for Russia to act and secure its Eastern European interests. This will require a U.S. response. The nature of that response, however, may have a profound impact on European security – and American influence abroad – for decades to come.
In order to ensure stability and security in the region, the U.S. needs to strengthen its position in Europe’s Rimland and continue to find opportunities to normalize the Belarusian-U.S. defense relationship. Since 2019, the Department of Defense (DoD) and European Command (EUCOM) conducted a series of military-to-military events comprised of English language classes and medical training. Amid the election fallout though, the decision to pursue more training events and gradually improve the relationship does pose some risks and may challenge the DoD to formulate an effective strategy with Belarus. However, at a time of uncertainty regarding Eastern European security, this is an opportunity for the U.S. to work in solidarity with its European partners, deliberately extend the competitive posture in Eastern Europe, and hold up the U.S. security guarantees for its European allies.
Is Belarus a Security Concern?
Belarus is the only European state that holds key geographical terrain in which Russia maintains dominant access. A deep and long historical influence within key institutions, including the Ministry of Defense (MoD), also provides Russia an operational advantage thereby giving it a vital security role in Eastern Europe. Simply stated, Russian force projection into mainland Europe requires access to and through Belarus. While there are no permanent Russian forces deployed within the state (unlike in Armenia and Moldova), forward-stationed radars for air defense and maritime communication — in addition to vital railways and pipelines that connect Russia to its exclave Kaliningrad — make Belarus a strategic territory in Russian defense planning. Furthermore, mechanisms within the 1992 Collective Security Treaty Organization allow Russian defense forces to increase troop numbers in the territory, providing they adhere to peacetime agreements and invitations by Minsk. Historically, Belarus has been incorporated into scheduled defense exercises such as Zapad (West) and Shchit Soyuza (Union Shield) furthering Moscow’s access to Eastern Europe during these exercises. What makes a possible troop surge difficult for U.S. defense planners is that Belarus temporarily serves as an extension of Russia’s western military district during joint exercises. U.S. defense planners must contend with losing key Belarusian terrain during these exercises and plan for additional combat multipliers to support Russian operations in order to strengthen its geopolitical position in the near abroad.
From an operational perspective, access to Belarus has historically given an advantage to Russian defense planners while limiting U.S. military visibility in the region. Aside from the aforementioned Russian advantages, this access has the potential to escalate tensions, further challenging U.S. security guarantees and National Defense Strategy goals of securing a competitive posture in Eastern Europe. For example, Vilnius, which is the only NATO capital within range of conventional Russian artillery, creates a security dilemma that can give rise to increased NATO and Russian militarization, as well as dangerous overreactions to any shifts in force projection. For the last few years, this Russian and NATO security trap has bred distrust, resulting in larger military exercises and overtures to an increased U.S. troop presence in Poland and Lithuania. Unfortunately, the shifts in Belarusian policies and open messages of distrust towards Russia prior to the election, which changed the geopolitical calculus in the region, seem to be rapidly reversing. The tensions along the border between Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus are intensifying as reports of President Lukashenko deploying troops along the border on full combat alert. Rumors of Russia deploying troops to Belarus to fill the security void and provide more defense support as a response of NATO exercises also heightens tensions in the region. As the political situation deteriorates and Lukashenko is pressed for options to stay in power, a growing uncertainty in Eastern European security will continue, leading to troop buildup and force projection by both sides as Minsk becomes more unstable.
The U.S. needs to send a message to its rivals that no power hostile to Europe’s interests can assert exclusive control over Eurasia. Today, Russian presence in Minsk now seeks to manipulate the political environment to secure the space for its military projection into Europe. The Department of Defense can instead endeavor to use points of leverage in its military relationship with Belarus to contest Russian attempts at dominating this space. These opportunities to normalize the Belarusian-U.S. defense relationship serves to uphold security guarantees in the region by working to extend the competitive posture in Eastern Europe and actively shape the security environment on NATO’s eastern flank. Inaction from the U.S. allows Russia the military advantage in Eastern Europe and continues to foster similar behavior along Russia’s near abroad.
The U.S. Defense Approach to Belarus
The 2018 National Defense Strategy states the U.S. will expand the competitive space to challenge its competitors by seizing the initiative to strengthen alliances and attract new partners. To achieve this strategic end state, the Department of Defense should heed the advice of LTG (retired) Ben Hodges and “take a long term view of the situation, continue to look for ways to encourage Western integration, and look to expand the competitive space in Eastern Europe.” The U.S. must find ways to gain insight into Belarusian security mechanisms, challenge Russia’s dominant military access in the territory, and disrupt Moscow’s efforts to utilize Belarus as a force projection platform — but with some caveats. An overzealous Western relationship with Belarus at this time would likely be interpreted by Lukashenko as a threat to his own survival. Worse, an increased U.S. defense presence would likely antagonize Russian fears that the United States is carving out Belarus from Russia’s zone of privileged interest, further increasing tensions. A way for the United States to reestablish military-to-military relations without increasing geopolitical tensions with Russia, is to resist the urge to hastily increase military relations. The Department of Defense can instead seek out points of leverage within the bilateral defense partnerships such as those that support Belarus’s 2016 military doctrine, encourage and reaffirm security cooperation participation with State Partnership Program (SPP), and use recent improved diplomatic connections to establish senior defense representation within Minsk.
In order to properly seek out effective cooperation efforts as suggested, credible U.S. defense representation will need to be accessible and closely tied with Belarusian defense officials inside the country. Leadership in the Office of the Secretary of Defense should authorize a permanent defense attaché in Minsk as a formalized way to strengthen a bilateral military relationship in Belarus, regardless of the current political situation. As of the writing of this article, the U.S. military representative assigned to Belarus sits 172 km north in Vilnius, limiting key Department of Defense interaction with defense officials in Minsk. Since the United States and Belarus announced ambassadorial relations would be reestablished, establishing a permanent defense attaché is a natural progression in restoring military connections.
Second, the United States should seek ways to gain military access and influence with Belarusian defense leadership through increased security cooperation efforts and aligned training events. There may be a time when the political climate in Belarus has the potential to reaffirm the SPP and could offer chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRN-E) training, humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and border protection as a sign of good faith to ease tensions. For example, the timing of the new nuclear power plant in Ostrovets (a mere 23 km from the Lithuanian border) could provide future bilateral opportunities in CBRN-E training and disaster response. A potential model for this type of partnership took place in 2014 when the Pennsylvania National Guard invited its state partner, Lithuania, the opportunity to support the domestic preparedness exercise Vigilant Guard. U.S. and Lithuanian soldiers worked together to improve emergency preparedness procedures and other methods to incorporate state and local emergency responders in a crisis. This type of training also aligns with current defensive initiatives in Belarus, which would offer the Utah National Guard (the previous state partner to Belarus) a practical way to restart the SPP relationship and define a mission statement to help normalize defense relations.
Finally, more involvement will likely enhance regional transparency and improve U.S. preparedness. For example, an increased U.S. presence and closer military rapport with Belarus might grant some insight into Belarusian troop movements akin to an “early warning and indicators” function that offers transparency to U.S. allies. In an attempt to mature the U.S.-Belarusian relationship, a long-term presence could see increased U.S. representation at defense conferences in Minsk, help shape Partnership for Peace efforts as a way to advance EUCOM’s regional security interests, and develop military-to-military relationships for regular invitations to military training — eventually enhancing EUCOM’s troop strength assessments.
Seeking New Partners Is Not Without Risk
Perhaps indicated by his response to the election, it comes as no surprise that while President Lukashenko called for increased cooperation with the West, his true intensions were not altruistic or based on international collaboration and teamwork. An overzealous approach from the United States now could potentially fulfill the security dilemma NATO wants to fervently avoid. This would also support claims made by Lukashenko that NATO forces are positioned to attack Belarus during this time of political instability. United States leadership need to be aware that future involvement with Belarus will work to balance Western participation with equal Russian cooperation.
DoD leadership needs to be mindful that the provided resources and training used to restore the U.S.-Belarusian defense relationship could likely end up in Russian hands or support Russian military activities. Such is the case in Syria when last year the Armenian Minister of Defense announced medics were deploying in support of Russia’s humanitarian mission in Aleppo. It is likely that the Armenian soldiers graduated from the U.S medic training program which would suggest resources from the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation may have supported Russian operations in Syria.
Incorporating a change that competes against Russian dominance in Moscow’s sphere of influence would not be without political risk as well. American creditability and its image of protecting civil liberties would be at stake if relations ultimately warm with the Belarusian military. Opposition members, like Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and U.S. allies Poland and Lithuania, look to the United States to support removal of the regime and uphold civil liberties but may interrupt improving defense ties now as hypocritical and inappropriate. The current political situation would further perpetuate longstanding ethical challenges for U.S. senior leaders because its morally unappealing to work with a dictatorial government which disregards the personal freedoms of its citizens.
Maintaining the status-quo with Belarus or deciding to cut ties with the MoD, gives Russia an advantage in the military domain and permits other actors, such as China, to increase their influence and gain entry into Europe. China has already laid the groundwork for long-term investment, with some economic projects contributing up to 63 percent of Belarusian foreign direct investment in some regions. That investment has slowly influenced a Sino-Belarusian military-technological relationship that aims to strengthen national defense and develop a new defense industry with such projects as the Buk-MB3K air-defense project and CS/VN3 armored vehicles. As China continues to increase their influence with economic investment and political ties in Minsk, it is likely the Sino-Belarusian relationship will introduce future military competition along Eastern Europe and in time permit the People’s Liberation Army access into the region. The motions that Belarus seeks new defense partners outside of Russia introduces new security concerns for the United States in Europe, with the implications being that the situation could gradually shift the power dynamics in Eastern Europe in favor of Chinese objectives or the burgeoning Sino-Russian relationship.
Strengthen the U.S. and NATO Positions in Eastern Europe
The Prussian officer Frederick the Great famously said, “He who defends everything, defends nothing.” While not offensive in the conventional sense, seeking new partners outside of traditional relationships will be needed to strengthen the U.S. position in the age of great-power competition. Dr. Andrew Michta, Dean of the George C. Marshall Center, pointedly warns that the U.S. needs to take a hard look at what parts of the world are critical to the security of the West and rethink how to make its alliances work again. Finding ways to open communication channels between the Department of Defense and Belarusian Ministry of Defense strengthens the alliance’s posture in the region, offers greater predictability regarding Russian military movement, and frustrates Moscow’s efforts to use military might to disrupt regional security. A stronger U.S. presence expands the competitive space with Russia and offers scalable employment of the U.S. footprint in Eastern Europe to challenge other competitors contesting the security interests of Europe and the United States. As a way to reduce military and political risks, the United States should focus its military initiatives with Belarus on regional security assistance in order to limit the potential for blowback from Moscow. Furthermore, such steps reduce the impact of Russian claims of overt U.S. military presence in Belarus, limiting the potential of an aggressive counter-response, while strengthening the U.S. position in Europe to better influence military points of leverage in great-power competition. Time is running out to reinstate Department of Defense connections within Belarus. Putin is slowly controlling the security apparatus of Belarus to ensure his near-abroad does not backslide to the West. The United States must seek ways to develop partnerships and solidify America’s position today to be a relevant force to shape the changing security environment in the future.
MAJ Jacob Myers is a Eurasian U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer. He is currently a graduate candidate at The Elliott School, George Washington University. His research areas of interest and experience include the ongoing political and military environment in Europe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.