Belarus seldom registers in the international press during normal times, but while years like 2020 are not so unprecedented, this certainly is not a normal year. Since President Aleksandr Lukashenko was declared the winner of the fraudulent presidential elections on August 9, the country has spiraled into civil unrest and authoritarian repression, and the headlines keep coming like a stampede. While no one was surprised by the announced outcome of the election, most analysts would not have predicted that Belarus would be launched headlong into a persistent crisis. Nonetheless, it has, and Western leaders need to be prepared for a number of scenarios unfolding along NATO’s eastern flank.
As Belarus descends into greater uncertainty and instability, a number of concurrent events are taking place for NATO in the Baltics. As part of a pre-planned, defensive exercise, U.S. troops arrived in Lithuania at the beginning of September. The exercises, which feature 500 American servicemen and 40 vehicles, including Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, will last until November. Yet another NATO exercise was planned for mid-September, featuring a battalion of 300-1,000 American troops, as well as 1,000 troops and warplanes from several of the European allies, such as France, Poland, Italy, and Germany. Meanwhile, on September 7, it was reported that Germany would allocate 500,000 Euros for the design of ammunition storage facilities in Lithuania. Interestingly, Sweden, a non-member partner state of NATO, increased its military preparedness level at the end of August to a level not seen since 1991. Stockholm has deployed fighter jets and tanks to the island of Gotland, a strategic jumping-off point in the Baltic Sea, and four Swedish corvettes are conducting exercises with a Finnish minesweeper. Yet the Swedish military and foreign ministers’ messages contradict each other on the relation of these events to events in Belarus, with the foreign minister tying Swedish activity to Russian naval exercises in the Baltic while the military’s statement pointed to regional instability.
On the other side, we have a beleaguered Lukashenko seeking the Kremlin’s aid, knowing full well that he is making a Faustian bargain, but like a contestant on “Press Your Luck,” believing that he can still hold on to sovereignty after one more spin. He has kept his grip on his sovereignty before, and if he can just hold on to power, surely he can do it again. But Russia has little patience left for Lukashenko, and this high stakes gamble has no guarantees for the Belarusian strongman. Indeed, Russia has positioned itself to be an arbiter of regime change in Minsk. After all, Lukashenko’s role as the sole interlocutor and his tight control on the political system in Belarus were extraordinarily inconvenient for Moscow. Meanwhile, Russia has sent a battalion of 300 paratroopers armed with heavy equipment to Brest, along the Polish border, to participate in the Slavic Brotherhood exercises. Not to be missed in this is the fact that the battalion in question is a paratrooper battalion – these soldiers have a reputation in Russian society for gross misconduct. As one Russian in St. Petersburg put it, they are “wholly inadequate” members of society. It is highly significant that Russia is sending some of its most brutal soldiers to Belarus. Meanwhile, it has been announced that the Slavic Brotherhood exercises have been extended in duration, and will be followed up by further exercises in Belarus. This mimicry of the rotational NATO exercises will provide a continual foothold for Russia in Belarus.
Against this backdrop, the Baltics and Belarus have been engaging in a diplomatic tit-for-tat. The Baltics have all recognized Svyatlana Tsikhanovskaya as the rightful president of Belarus and have barred Lukashenko and his allies from entering their countries. In response, Lukashenko has banned Baltic politicians from Belarus. Further, Minsk has closed the borders with Poland and Lithuania, and has increased security on its southern border with Ukraine; however, this has had little practical implementation and appears to be little more than a propaganda campaign which emphasizes an external threat of Western aggression. Meanwhile, NATO emphasizes the defensive nature of exercises in Lithuania, reiterating that the West has no designs on attacking Belarus.
Whatever the future holds for Belarus, it is clear that Russia aims to strengthen its grip on Minsk. The West should be prepared for any scenario involving a continual presence of Russian troops on Belarusian soil, whether through rotational exercises, implementation of the Union State Treaty, the institution of a new puppet regime, or the annexation of Belarus. In any case, the strategic depth that a neutral Belarus under a sovereign Lukashenko could provide has been lost. Likewise, any hope of establishing a pro-Western government with a respect for human rights and the rule of law is a pipe dream so long as Russia maintains its current posture. After all, Nicolas Maduro still de facto holds power in Venezuela, despite widespread recognition of Juan Guaido as the rightful leader. With Russian interests in Belarus so strong, there is next to zero chance that Tsikhanovskaya could become a de facto president in Minsk.
Losing Belarus as strategic depth, and having no realistic chance of turning Belarus into an ally, the narrow Suwałki Gap, which constitutes the only land border between the Baltic States and the rest of NATO, becomes an even trickier problem for the alliance. As such, NATO must be prepared for rapid deployment northward into the Baltic States, and should be focused on maintaining supply and transport routes through the gap and at sea. In order to ensure rapid deployment into the Baltic theater, it is critical that NATO establish a more forward presence in the east, including permanent basing in Poland or the Baltics themselves. Likewise, NATO should consider naval power projection in the Baltic Sea to reverse Russia’s local advantage in the maritime domain, and it should also seek to address the challenges posed by Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) components in Kaliningrad by finding weaknesses within the Russian posture there. With Russia ever closer to surrounding the Baltics, NATO needs serious leadership to soberly address the strategic gaps for the alliance in the region and ensure that a viable plan for defense, not merely rescue, is in place for the Baltic States.
Cover Photo: Protesters in Minsk wave the traditional “white-red-white” Belarusian flag. Creative Commons