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Why the U.S. Should Keep its Distance from Belarus

Some will be pushing us into a standoff with Putin over this, but the last thing our leaders need is another Ukraine.

Numerous, increasingly angry street demonstrations have erupted in Belarus against the continued rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held power since 1994.

Belarus, like most of the countries that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, is a nominal democracy, but one in which opposition political forces are severely restricted and unmercifully harassed. Lukashenko has an outsized ego that makes him resist being a puppet of Vladimir Putin, but he is a close ally and de facto client of Russia’s president. In return, Moscow provides crucial financial aid to keep the government in Minsk afloat.

Popular anger has been building for years against the corrupt and economically inept Lukashenko regime, but it exploded this month when Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in the country’s latest rigged election. Street protests have grown steadily in both size and assertiveness, with one on August 16 becoming the largest in the country’s history. Lukashenko now has asked to Moscow to intervene to help him stay in office, blaming a plot by foreign powers for the growing disorder. In a statement, the Kremlin confirmed that it stood ready to provide help in accordance with a mutual security pact. Putin also explicitly warned Western governments not to interfere in Belarus.

Putin may have an added incentive to support his client in Belarus. Lukashenko is not the only leader confronting worrisome mass demonstrations. For several weeks, thousands of people in Russia’s Far East have taken to the streets for protests against Putin’s government. He has ample reason to worry that the events in Belarus and in his own country could become mutually reinforcing and pose a menace to both regimes. In the most recent demonstrations, protesters were chanting “long live Belarus” to express solidarity with the opposition in that country—a development likely to make the Kremlin very nervous. From Putin’s standpoint, helping Lukashenko suppress the growing threat to his rule would send an unsubtle message to anti-Putin factions in Russia that their campaign will not be tolerated either.

It’s crucial that the United States and its European allies act with great caution and restraint in addressing the volatile situation in Belarus. Although NATO denies Belarus’s claim of a military buildup on its western border, a NATO spokesperson did emphasize that the alliance was monitoring the situation closely.

Current developments in Belarus bear a troubling resemblance to the turbulence in Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014 that led to the overthrow of the country’s pro-Russian president, Victor Yanukovych. During that episode, the United States and key European Union members meddled shamelessly to support anti-government demonstrators, even though (unlike Lukashenko) Yanukovych had been chosen in an election that EU and other international observers conceded was reasonably free and fair. Despite that stamp of legitimacy, Barack Obama’s administration praised the demonstrators for ousting Yanukovych nearly two years before the expiration of his term. Worse, Washington aided that effort and even helped choose key personnel for Kiev’s pro-NATO successor government.

The West’s interference infuriated the Kremlin, and Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, home to Moscow’s strategically vital Black Sea fleet. That move, in turn, led to U.S. and European economic sanctions against Moscow and intensified an already emerging cold war.

Washington’s conduct in Ukraine was recklessly provocative, and the Trump administration needs to adopt a far better policy regarding Belarus. Even from a political and diplomatic standpoint, it would be unwise for Washington to identify too closely with the demonstrators there. It is possible that most of them are Western-style democrats dedicated to ousting a corrupt autocrat and establishing a genuine democracy. Many of the demonstrators in Ukraine were legitimate democrats, but there also were highly unsavory ultranationalist and outright neo-Nazi elements. And some of them continued to play important roles in the post-revolutionary government. We know little about the political orientation of and possible factionalism in the anti-Lukashenko forces.

Even more important, caution is warranted because of important geostrategic considerations. U.S. officials have repeatedly claimed that the concept of spheres of influence has no legitimate place in international affairs, with both Condoleezza Rice and John Kerry explicitly making that assertion. It’s a shockingly naïve view that ignores both history and logic. Great powers understandably view developments in their neighborhood as more important than events in distant locales, and they seek to protect their interests.

Russian leaders have reason to regard Ukraine and Belarus as being within Moscow’s rightful sphere of influence. Indeed, those two nations are within Russia’s core security zone, and the Kremlin will likely go to great lengths to prevent an even bigger NATO military presence on its borders than the one that exists now. A prudent U.S. foreign policy would tread very carefully regarding either Ukraine or Belarus.

NATO has confirmed that it is monitoring the evolving situation in Belarus, but it is imperative that the Alliance’s posture not go beyond that task. The last thing U.S. leaders should do is provoke yet another crisis with Russia as they did in Ukraine. When it comes to the internal turmoil in Belarus, America does not have a dog in that fight.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.