by Gordon M. Hahn
One of Russia’s leading foreign policy thinkers Fyodor Lukyanov recently proposed that Russia establish a significant military base in Belarus as a way to solve the crisis in that country (www.rt.com/russia/531741-belarus-regime-change-efforts/?fbclid=IwAR042lFVAuYYh6M7Jo6Ccb3-YbTIqMeFeX6BIqshQzUiAe3DekuXUjn09ZE).
According to Lukyanov, the appearance of major Russian military presence in the country would create or consolidate Belarus’s security dependence on Russia. Lukyanov is more correct in saying Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko has made his bed of problems by failing “to offer any kind of future to his people beyond simply weathering the worst of the storm” – that is, a failure to offer his people a brighter vision and future. One could add his boorish and obstinant style and his ridiculous padding of the presidential election results that sparked the protests. His 80 percent take insulted too many people.
At the same time, Lukashenko appeals to neither the pro-Russian or pro-Western factions in Belarus. He has constantly frustrated the former by stalling integration processes in the Russia-Belarus Union. He has deprived the latter of any hope of acquiring a European life or easy access to the West by authoritarianizing his regime to such an extant that he has cut off all avenues for a Westward opening. In other words, his electorate approaches nowhere 80 percent, and all Belarussians know it. The Kremlin knows all this, and appears to be seeking ways to ease Lukashenko out but to no avail, but it is not willing to seem kowtowing to Western color revolutionism or buckling before NATO expansion much as Lukashenko seeks to save face by forcing the opposition into a ‘compromise’ on his terms alone. Meanwhile, the opposition remains viable, especially with Western support. Thus, we have a geopolitical impasse that runs through Belarus now in addition to Ukraine.
Thus, Lukyanov proposes the ‘Armeina model’ for Belarus, meaning that Russia must induce Belarus ‘security dependence’ on Russia by deploying Russian troops there.
But the idea of deploying Russian troops to Belarus is a bad one for numerous reasons. First, there is no relationship between the struggle for power between President Aleksandr Lukashenka and the opposition, on the one hand, and military relations, on the other hand. At least that is the case for now and it’s a good thing (see below for the potential bad things).
Second, the presence of a significant Russian military contingent in Belarus would create a head-to-head, direct confrontation between a country with Russian troops within its borders (Belarus) and not just one but two NATO member-countries: Poland and Lithuania. This extends the line of such head-to-head, cross border confrontation between Russia and NATO from that running through the Baltic states to Belarus. This confrontation and potential threat in Belarus is even more dangerous than that in the Baltics to the north, because the territory that comprises Belarus historically has been the main invasion route or one of the major invasion routes for great power invasions of Russia, most notably those of Nazi Germany and Napoleon’s Grand Army. Thus, a Russian deployment further west would not only damage security as far as the West is concerned, but it would also reduce geopolitical stability for Russia in one of its most geostrategically sensitive adjacent territories.
Third, the presence of Russian troops in Belarus could become the target of extremist nationalists from Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine (not to mention Belarus), who might attempt to cross the border into Belarus, perhaps even to carry out terrorist attacks or other provocations against the Russian troops there. Part of today’s Belarus was part of the medieval Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, much as parts of Ukraine were once parts of Poland and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, western Belarus has a large Polish minority, part of which maintains some loyalty or at least indentification with Poland.
Fourth, in the event of a deterioration of the confrontation between pro-regime and opposition elements, which could include a violent turn, a Russian troop deployment to Belarus creates the potential for a clash between the Russians and Belarussian, especially the opposition. This could end with Russian forces participating in a violent crackdown of the opposition and perhaps lead to the deployment of more Russian troops to secure the regime, further darkening the geopolitical horizon in the new cold war’s Western theater.
Fifth, Lukyanov’s suggestion that over time after such a deployment, Russia might lose interest in who actually is running Belarus, presumably on the assumption that Moscow will feel so secure by virtue of its troops’ presence thinking that presence renders the country’s geopolitical loyalties of little consequence. This seems particularly out of touch, since a pro-Western regime could attempt to join NATO, and the West will certainly begin to broach that question through various programs, partnerships, training exercises, and agreements. This would most certainly be accompanied by demands that the Russian base be closed down and Moscow’s troops withdraw to the homeland. Any NATO bid by definition culd not abide a Russian presence on the country-applicant’s territory. This, of course, was one of the drivers of the Russians’ move in Crimea, with its Black Sea Fleet, after the untranationalist wing of Maidan overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, who had been a bulwark against any Ukrainian bid to join NATO. If the Black Sea Fleet was a ‘tripwire’, so too would be a Belarussian base. The existence of a trip wire becomes a deterrent to Western provocations, the strategic thinking might go. But sometimes trip wires become trip wires, seeting off military conflict rather than deterring it. This is more likely when there are potential ‘grey elephants’ like Ukrainan and Russian nationalism and Polish Russophobia in the regional mix.
Sixth, Lukyanov’s ‘Armenia model’ is misplaced. Armenia has centuries’ long cultural and historical ties to Russia. Its cultural elite has spoken Russian as well as Armenian, often been educated in Russia, and intricately involved in cultural trends in Russia. Orthodox faith is a strong pillar in Russo-Armenian synergy. Armenia has been dependent on Russia for its national security for nearly as long. But Belarus is a new state, with no great sense of nationalism in the sense of strong patriotism intricately tied to an orientation towards Russia in terms of culture or security in any way comparable to that in Armenia. A significant portion of the Belarussian population will not accept such a dependence.
Russia would do better if it strengthened its soft power of cultural influence and moral persuasion. It might point out in international fora that the West has many allies with far worse human rights records than Belarus, some NATO members such as Turkey are not far behind Belarus in various Western democracy- and rights-rankings. In conjuncton with this, Russia should focus on re-democratization, free market development, and republicanism with a traditionalist face on social and cultural issues. This would enhance its soft power capabilities, extending them beyond constitutencies attracted to Orthodox religiosity and limit tensions – unfortunately for now only on the margins – between Russia and the West.
Unfortunately, the chances are not bad that the Kremlin will follow Lukyanov’s advice. Such is the nature and devolving dynamic of the ‘new cold war.’
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.