Belarus Is Not Our Business
As the Russian satellite teeters on the edge of a leadership transition, American strategists should resist the temptation to fight the Bear on every front.
According to rumors confirmed by a member of the Russian government, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, is ill. Reports of the illness's severity vary. While he was recently in Moscow for the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, he was noticeably less mobile than the other leaders gathered and was seen carrying some sort of electronic device. Since then, his only public appearance has been in a still photo and a brief video message on Telegram in which he appeared bandaged with a hoarse voice.
While it is possible that he will recover, it is also possible that the nearly 70-year-old dictator will not. Nevertheless, the West should start to prepare for the eventuality of his death, because once it happens, it is unlikely that Belarus will exist much longer as a truly independent state. While Lukashenko has been grooming his third son, Nikolai, for leadership, he is not yet ready to take over, having not even reached the age of 20.
If young Lukashenko does succeed his father, it is likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be overly thrilled; although many see Putin and Lukashenko as two peas in a pod, they have never truly gotten along, and relations are frosty between the two. While Putin simply could pick a more willing puppet (or put pressure on the young Lukashenko), he may also simply decide to take Belarus altogether de facto or even de jure, by incorporating the country into the Russian Federation.
What is clear is that he will not allow for free elections or the selection of a leader who may move toward the West. Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution, which shifted the country dramatically toward the West, alarmed Moscow, to say the least. A revolution in Belarus would terrify the Kremlin.
Should Putin occupy Belarus, the West should pause before acting and consider the facts. First, Belarus is not Ukraine. Ukraine, while lacking security guarantees, had received promises that its territorial integrity would be respected. Ukraine is also broadly democratic and has been slowly but surely separating from Russia for some time, having elected presidents, before and after Maidan, who were more inclined toward the West than toward Russia. The country's civil society was developing, as were its Western ties. From a geographic standpoint, Ukraine—at the north of the Black Sea and, next to Turkey, a bridge to Asia—occupies a strategically important area in Eurasian geopolitics.
Belarus has none of these qualities. It has absolutely no security guarantees from the West, nor does it have promises of territorial integrity. It has no free civil society, and the civil society it does have has few Western ties; America did not have an ambassador in the country for almost the entirety of the 2010s.
Second, after these facts have been absorbed, one must also consider what a Western reaction would be attempting to accomplish. Russia is currently under heavy sanctions due to their invasion of Ukraine. But those sanctions have been placed with a clear goal: to force Russia back to pre-February 2022 positions. Even some realists, such as Henry Kissinger, have argued that such a move was prudent.
But sanctions would not solve anything respecting Belarus. Why? The U.S. would gain little from a de-Russified Belarus, but Russia would lose much. If keeping Ukraine out of the West’s orbit is important to Russia’s security, keeping control of Belarus is doubly so. Control of Belarus means keeping pressure on NATO’s Suwałki Gap, a small 100-kilometer area between Belarus and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad. Losing Belarus puts the latter at grave risk and would be a nightmare for Russia’s strategic planners.
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It also puts Russia itself at risk. If Ukraine continues on its glide path toward Western integration, Belarus will be quite literally the last piece of Russia’s close neighbors that it controls. During a security council meeting Putin held last February to discuss the possibility of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it was clear that not all present supported such a move. That would not be the case here. If Putin were to start a meeting by announcing that Lukashenko had died and that there was a significant likelihood of a pro-Western government taking power in Minsk, every single member of Russian leadership would support intervention. Sanctions will never change that fact.
International relations are, among other things, about weighing importance: Does my opponent care more about X than I do? Kissinger has repeatedly called for a similarly realistic approach toward Russia, making the case for compromise. Even former President Barack Obama in 2016 defended his refusal to send lethal weapons to Ukraine by arguing that Russia cared about Ukraine more than the U.S. did, and that we had to be clear about what America’s “core interests” were. With Belarus, the situation is even clearer: Control of Belarus is a core interest of the Russian Federation. It is in no way a core interest of the United States of America.
This is not to pass a moral judgment. Should Russia absorb Belarus, it should give no one in the West cause for celebration. But that does not mean it gives us cause for conflict.