Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
The unannounced visit by a senior US defence official to Minsk is a further step towards normalization of relations between the US and Belarus. But this process will need to be handled with caution if it is not to provoke a dangerous reaction from Russia.
Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko attend the Supreme State Council of Russia and Belarus on 25 February 2016 in Minsk. Photo by Getty Images.Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko attend the Supreme State Council of Russia and Belarus on 25 February 2016 in Minsk. Photo by Getty Images.

During a surprise three-day visit, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter is meeting senior Belarusian defence officials and President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Offering an exchange of defence attachés, Carpenter has reportedly said the main focus of US policy towards Belarus is now ‘steadfast support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity’.

As a former director for Russia at the US National Security Council, Carpenter will be fully aware of the risks involved in incautious moves in Minsk. With Moscow portraying itself as under threat from an encroaching West, Russia will have been watching tentative steps towards rapprochement between Belarus and the EU and US with concern. The key factor is not just Belarus's ambition for better relations with the West, but Russian perception that the West is reciprocating and engaging - and re-establishing defence contacts with the US is a major step forward in this respect.

Further steps will require finesse, in order not to reach a tipping point; there is no doubt that the prospect of ‘losing’ Belarus to the West would be perceived as just as immediately threatening to Russia as was the case with Ukraine. There are significant differences between the two countries, but they fill the same role in Russian perceptions as part of the Slavic heartland and well inside Moscow's desired defensive perimeter.

The view from Minsk

Emerging from international isolation is crucial for Belarus's long-term development, and for mitigating reliance on the sinking Russian economy. Outreach from Minsk and shows of liberalization, such as the release of political prisoners, have been recognized with sanctions relief by the EU - which has been criticized for doing so while concerns persist over Belarus's human rights record. While waiting for responses from the EU, Belarus has also been encouraging Chinese investment and defence procurement cooperation.

While the sincerity of outreach to the West is as yet unproven, President Lukashenko’s status as a reliable ally for Russia has been shaken. He refused to support Moscow in the aftermath of the armed conflict in Georgia in 2008, during hostilities in Ukraine from 2014 onwards or after the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkey in November 2015. And standing firm against demands for a Russian airbase in Belarus has challenged Russia's perception of the country as an extension of its own territory.

A key argument against the airbase was Belarus’s wish not to involve itself in confrontation - in which case the base would undermine Belarus’s aspirations for neutrality by being both a source of hostile activity against Western neighbours and a target for countermeasures. In contrast with Russia's claims of encirclement, for Minsk the problem is very real. Belarus is, in fact, entirely surrounded by rapid militarization – by massive Russian rearmament on one side, and by much smaller but still noticeable defensive buildups by NATO allies on the other. Caught in the middle, Belarusians are acutely aware of how their region’s history is dominated by conflict between larger powers from East and West.

Russian reactions

Russia will seek means of deterring what it sees as US encroachment, but judging the point at which it will act will be challenging. In Ukraine, it took the departure from power of President Viktor Yanukovych. But it is possible that, emboldened by success in Ukraine and Syria, Russia might feel capable of intervening at an earlier and less dramatic stage in the case of Belarus.

The range of options to do so is broad. Russia may react calmly in public to this US visit, and restrict any strong words to private back channel warnings. But it could equally be that Moscow is already preparing an assertive response. In Ukraine and Syria, President Vladimir Putin may not necessarily have developed a taste for conflict, but it is entirely likely that he has developed a taste for success in asserting what he sees as Russia's security interests.

One possible next step could be pressure on President Lukashenko to fall in with Russian interests. The suspension of discussions on a Russian airbase in Belarus would not prevent Russia suggesting that the current security situation demands a base for Russian land forces there instead - especially if NATO’s Warsaw summit decides on additional defensive measures in the region. The strength of Moscow’s insistence on such a proposal, and of Belarus's resistance to it, could be decisive.

Hosting a reported 160,000 people displaced by the conflict in Ukraine, Belarus is already suffering the consequences of Russian intervention there. President Lukashenko's primary focus must be avoiding similar action against Belarus. Because of simple geography, falling out of favour with Russia will always have far more serious consequences for Belarus than disappointing the United States.

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