Amid outrage and revulsion at Belarus’s fraudulent election and the subsequent savage repression of protests, Western responses must be planned with half an eye on Russia. Not just for what is often described as the risk of ‘driving Belarus into Russia’s arms’ but also for the danger of unilateral Russian action, with or without Belarusian acquiescence.
In the past six years, there have been endless discussions of what might prompt another Russian military intervention in Europe after Ukraine. In many of these scenarios, it is precisely the situation currently unfolding in Belarus that has been top of the list, with all the wide-ranging implications for security of the continent as a whole that would follow.
Just as with Ukraine, Russia is considered likely to intervene if it seemed to Moscow there was a danger of ‘losing’ Belarus to the West. If the situation in Belarus becomes more unstable and unpredictable, assertive Russian action could aim to assert control by different possible means - either propping up Lukashenka as a paper-thin proxy for Russian power, or installing a different, more compliant leadership as a pretence at legitimacy.
New facts on the ground
Leadership and support for a Western response to events in Belarus might previously have been expected from the United States which, like the UK, had been actively pushing forward relations with Belarus. But besides its preoccupation with internal affairs, US criticism of the election and ‘detentions of peaceful protesters and journalists’ looks tenuous in the light of the current administration’s behaviour over its own recent domestic issues.
Nevertheless, for NATO and for the United States as its primary guarantor, what happens in Belarus remains critically important precisely because of the possible response by Russia. Unpredictability increases the risk of Russia declaring it has received a ‘request for assistance from the legitimate government of Belarus’ and moving military forces into the country.
Once the immediate challenge of suppressing dissent had been dealt with, the presence of Russian forces in Belarus – along with the air and missile forces they could be expected to bring with them - would substantially alter the security situation for a wide area of central Europe. Popular scenarios for Russian military adventures such as a move on the Suwałki gap - the strip of Polish-Lithuanian border separating the exclave of Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia - would no longer be several geopolitical steps away.
Ukraine would be forced to rapidly re-orient its defence posture to face a new threat from the north, while Belarus’s other neighbours would need to adjust to having effectively a direct border with Russia. In particular, NATO’s enhanced forward presence (eFP) contingents in Poland and Lithuania would become the focus of intense political attention, facing calls both for their rapid expansion, and their complete removal as destabilizing factors.
Examining Russia's options
NATO and the US’s European Command must now be watching Russia just as intently as Russia is watching Belarus. For now, Russia may be reassured by what it has seen. While the protests in Belarus are far more widespread than those in Ukraine which led to its former president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country, Aliaksandr Lukashenka is showing no signs of similarly losing his nerve.
The viciousness of the repression combined with more or less effective suppression of communications over the internet may mean unrest will soon be subdued. Even if there were a transfer of power, the current Belarusian opposition has not declared a policy of greater integration with the West - and Russia might feel it could constrain the options available to any replacement as effectively as it has done Lukashenka’s.
Perversely, continued international apathy could even work to Belarus’s benefit by providing reassurance to Russia. If a palpable lack of interest helps the Kremlin believe the discontent in Belarus is purely organic and spontaneous, and is not other countries ‘mobilizing the protest potential of the population’ in order to bring about a ‘colour revolution’, this would be a strong argument against a need to act in order to head off Western encroachment.
But the options facing ordinary Belarusians do remain bleak. Passivity means acceptance of continuing stagnation under Lukashenka, with his rule extended indefinitely. Active opposition means a very real risk of arrest with the possibility of serious injury. Unsuccessful protest means the cause may once again soon be forgotten by the outside world. Successful protest carries the ever-present risk of Russia stepping in with an offer of ‘fraternal assistance’ and Belarus becoming effectively a province of Russia rather than an independent country with – in the long term - the opportunity to choose its own future.