No country better stands to transform the strategic military balance in the Baltic Sea Region than Belarus. Wedged between Russia and America’s NATO allies in northeastern Europe, Belarus until recently has not been considered in discussions about the North Atlantic Alliance’s Baltic flank. A variety of strategic issues explain why Belarus matters to NATO and more specifically to the United States. First and foremost, Belarus is an important neighbor of Ukraine due to its unique geography bordering Russia and several NATO member states in the Baltic. Furthermore, Belarus lies along a historical invasion corridor linking Central Europe with Moscow, in the heart of Russia, with a key chokepoint on this overland route—the so-called Smolensk Gates—located just east of modern-day Belarusian territory. Finally, Minsk’s relations with Moscow are currently experiencing serious tensions stemming from Belarus’s desire to secure its sovereignty and neutrality, while Russia seeks to more completely draw the country within its orbit and extract permanent military air basing rights from its neighbor. However, following nearly a decade of diplomatic neglect and disregard for hard security issues pertaining to Belarus, the country remains seriously misunderstood in the US and many Western policymaking circles.
By remaining free of Russian ground troops or a permanent Russian airbase, Belarus enhances the security of Poland and Lithuania and allows NATO to adequately defend the Suwalki gap by giving the Alliance greater defensive depth along its periphery. And by remaining free of Russian ground and air forces while staying de facto non-aligned, Belarus serves NATO purposes without ever having to join the Euro-Atlantic Alliance. However, as the geopolitical importance of Belarus looms ever larger, the pressure on this strategically placed East European state will continue to grow ever more intense.