Will Belarus Be Putin’s Next Target?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 146

President of Belarus Alyaksandr Lukashenka

Both certain Belarusians and some Russian analysts are convinced that Vladimir Putin’s next target will be Belarus. They have their reasons, and these reasons are compelling: Taking Belarus would give Putin a victory he has not been able to achieve in Ukraine; a move of this sort would not generate a Western response of the kind that aggression against the Baltic countries would; and it would put the Kremlin in a position to exert additional pressure on Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States.

The above scenario raises three questions: How likely is it that Putin would make such a decision? How successful would he be if he ordered such an attack? And what should be the position of the West, which has been hostile to Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka and has all too often failed to recognize that the road from Moscow to Berlin goes through Belarus rather than Ukraine?

Some Belarusians believe that Putin will attack their country next unless he can be stopped cold in Ukraine. Eduard Lobov, a former political prisoner in Belarus, said on his Facebook page that “if we cannot help Ukraine fight in this war, then Russia’s next target could be Belarus.” A number of Belarusians share his view and have gone to fight for Ukraine against Russia, a country they view as their “common enemy” (Charter97.org, July 26).

Russian-American historian Yury Felshtynsky says he is surprised Putin did not, in fact, attack Belarus first. “Having decided on the seizure of Crimea instead of Belarus and the intervention in eastern Ukraine, Putin deprived himself of strategically important moves toward the borders of Lithuania, Poland and western Ukraine,” he said on July 29. “If one avoids emotion and looks at everything that has taken place geopolitically or strategically, then a [Russian] attack on Europe should have begun with an attack on Belarus” (Politeka.net, July 29; Obozrevatel.com, August 2).

But Moscow’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, is “not a great Russian military leader,” Felshtynsky alleges. “His basic task is to stay quiet while looking important. He is coping with that, but he is not coping with his other responsibilities. It is understandable that the decision to take Crimea was provoked by the flight of [former Ukrainian president Viktor] Yanukovych. But the price paid for Crimea turned out to be too high, although from Putin’s point of view it was minimal” (Politeka.net, July 29).

However, Felshtynsky says, because the Russian leader’s initial moves in Ukraine did not bring the results he hoped for, it is possible “ ‘at any moment’ for [Putin] to pivot”; and the historian adds that “in Putin’s plans, Belarus is in the queue. Before or after the Baltics? I think before,” he concludes. “The concentration of [Russian military] forces in Kaliningrad makes sense only if an attack is planned from Russia proper. To attack the Baltic countries from Kaliningrad, from a military point of view, is senseless because Kaliningrad would be taken by NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization]” and quickly eliminated as a factor in any conflict (Politeka.net, July 29).

Are Lobov and Felshtynsky correct? The answer lies in Putin’s intentions, in the commitment and ability of Belarusians to resist such an attack, via “little green men” or more openly, and in the likely reaction of the West.

For both domestic and foreign policy reasons, Putin is more than likely to be considering an attack on Belarus seriously. If successful, it would give him the kind of victory in building his “Russian world” that Ukraine has, thus far, been denying him there; and it would have all the strategic advantages both in the near term (against Ukraine and the Baltic State) and longer term (against Poland and the West in general) that Felshtynsky points to. Consequently, it is entirely plausible that Putin and his entourage are thinking about it.

Whether Moscow actually acts on this, however, almost certainly depends on two other factors, both of which are perhaps even less clear than Putin’s intentions. Can and will the Belarusians defend their country in the event of a “hybrid” war or a conventional one launched by Russia against them? And will the West send clear messages that whatever its problems with the government in Minsk—and these problems are real—any Russian move into Belarus would have extremely negative consequences for the East-West relationship?

Many Western analysts are as dismissive of Belarusian national identity and patriotism as are their Russian counterparts. Both are far more willing to accept Moscow’s claims that Belarusians and Russians are one nation, than they are to agree that Ukrainians and Russians are such. Moreover, both Western and Russian analysts look at the extent to which the Belarusian security services and military are honeycombed with Russian agents. Thus, they conclude that if Moscow moved into Belarus, the Belarusians would not be able or even ready to resist. This would be especially true if the Russian government used the cover of disputes over the upcoming presidential vote in Belarus to sponsor its own anti-Maidan there, thus confusing the situation and distracting the West.

That Russia might have some success in fomenting political instability inside Belarus is, of course, possible. But Belarusian national identity is far stronger than many in either the East or the West think. And it is not just former political prisoners like Lobov who are ready to fight. If Russia’s “little green men” come over the border, Lukashenka will almost certainly organize resistance because he knows he would be ousted if Moscow succeeded (see EDM, May 22). And many Belarusians would probably fight a guerilla war against Moscow (see EDM, January 30).

Putin might be willing to pay such a price to fully bring Belarus to heel, but the key issue is what he assumes the West will do. Minsk and the Europeans have gone through a kind of rapprochement in recent weeks and months, at least in part out of concern that Moscow might attack (see EDM, March 3, July 17). It remains unclear, however, whether the West will take a hard line against such a possibility and make it clear that such an act of Russian aggression, notwithstanding the West’s unhappiness with Lukashenka, would further poison East-West relations and push for deeper Ukrainian integration into NATO.

In the absence of this type of tough language from the West, Putin may very well try to invade Belarus. Only a clear indication that the Belarusians will fight and that the West will make Moscow pay a heavy price may ultimately prevent this kind of aggression.