Belarus’s tilt to Russia complicates Europe’s security calculations


Vladimir Putin has mounted the biggest military offensive in Europe for more than half a century in an effort to bend Ukraine to his will. But the Russian president’s quieter tightening of his grip over neighboring Belarus will also have far-reaching consequences for the continent’s security.

Although formally Russia’s ally, Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko has long tried to maintain a measure of independence. But in recent months, his resistance has waned. Despite Belarus’s constitutional status as a neutral nation, the president has allowed Russian troops to use it as a launch pad to lead the assault on Kyiv, while on Sunday he held a referendum that might allow Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus.

“This is a huge shift,” said a senior security official from Central Europe. “It’s a new reality, militarily and strategically.”

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia and Belarus signed a treaty in 1999 pledging deeper political, defense and economic integration. But for most of his nearly three decades in power, Lukashenko has sought to avoid slipping completely into Russia’s orbit.

Many of the treaty’s aims, such as the creation of a political confederation, have not been implemented. Lukashenko has also sought to counter Moscow’s economic sway as Belarus’s biggest trading partner by periodically warming relations with the EU, and the country did not recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

A Belarus voter casts her ballot in the referendum

A Belarus voter casts her ballot in a referendum that could allow Moscow to station nuclear weapons in the country © Sergei Kholodilin / BeITA / AP

But since August 2020, when Lukashenko claimed victory in a deeply flawed presidential election, he has had less room for maneuver. His savage crackdown on the huge protests that followed shocked Belarusians, turned him into an international pariah and made him more dependent than ever on Putin’s political and economic support to remain in power.

“Belarus has always tried to chart this middle course, going to the EU, going to Russia. But Lukashenko lost, ”said William Alberque, a former NATO official who is now director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Putin said ‘pay up’. And he did. ”

For central and eastern Europe, Lukashenko’s change in stance brings risks. One of the most immediate is a shift in the balance of power around the Suwalki gap, the 65km-long stretch of land that makes up the Polish-Lithuanian border and links the Baltic states to the rest of the EU.

Bordered to the west by the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and to the east by Belarus, the strip of land has long been seen as one of NATO’s weak points. If the 30,000 Russian troops that have poured into Belarus since earlier this year remain, Moscow’s ability to cut off the Baltic states from the rest of the EU will be greatly enhanced.

Map showing Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Kaliningrad, Russia and the Suwalki gap G0354_22X

“This is a material change,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst. “It essentially means that it would be rather difficult to support the Baltic states militarily if the balloon went up.”

In response to the additional Russian forces in Belarus, NATO members have boosted their presence in neighboring countries. The UK, Germany, Denmark and Norway have sent troops to the Baltics, while the US has sent troops to Poland.

Many in central Europe want the alliance to go further. “This is a fundamental shift not only in regional but also in European security,” Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, told the Financial Times at the weekend. “The response must be the deployment of heavy armored military units. This is a task for NATO. ”

To present a credible deterrent, the alliance’s eastern flank needed significantly more troops, Heisbourg said. “You have 190,000 Russians around Ukraine,” he said. “We should be ramping up not from 5,000 to 10,000, but to 50,000: more NATO forces, in a permanent posture, in the vicinity of Belarus, and further behind.”

A shift in Belarus’s nuclear stance would also change security calculations. Russia could already launch missiles from Kaliningrad. But according to Alberque, sending them from Belarus would boost the Kremlin’s ability to target some parts of Europe with short-range weapons.

“There is no evidence at all that Belarus is ready to host the permanent stationing of nuclear weapons on their territory. However, can they have temporary stationing? Yes, absolutely, ”Alberque said.

“The idea that Belarus is an independent country that we have to deal with independently in terms of security policy or defense is gone. . . Any type of Russian force can be deployed to Belarus at any time Putin chooses, ”he added.

For now, officials in Central Europe do not think the Russian troops in Belarus pose as a big threat to their countries as to Ukraine. But they worry that if the western response to Putin’s moves in Ukraine and Belarus is insufficiently robust, he could try to “test” the alliance elsewhere.

“Putin’s obsession with Ukraine, and that has been visible for years,” said the central European security official. “But if you look at [the demands Putin made of the west before invading], it’s not just Ukraine. The second was effectively about rendering central and eastern Europe a buffer again. ”



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