- Russian President Vladimir Putin has long thought of Belarus as a critical part of the broader “Russian World” and privileged sphere of influence.
- While the Zapad military drills could provide an opportunity to leave troops in Belarus, broader geostrategic tensions guarantee Moscow will retain the motivation and opportunity to possibly intervene in the future.
- Belarus’ political and economic dance between East and West could prove unsustainable in the long term, threatening the stability of the Lukashenko regime and opening the door to Russian intervention under the guise of a “peacekeeping” operation.
Possible Russian aggression against Belarus stems from three factors:
- Putin’s “imperial syndrome,” that is, his long-standing desire to incorporate Belarus into Russia;
- The political imperatives of boosting the regime’s popularity, especially ahead of the 2018 presidential election; and
- Putin’s desire to use Belarus as a bridgehead for potential future strikes against Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States.
The “rejoining” of Belarus and Russia fits into Putin’s broader goal1 of preventing the euro-integration of Belarus.2
Additionally, the seizure of (or “reunification with”) Belarus would greatly boost Putin’s popularity ahead of the 2018 Russian presidential election. Without another patriotic boost, Putin will face a predetermined, although ugly campaign with a Russian electorate fed up with poor economic conditions and widespread corruption. The “reunification with Belarus” could be among the catalysts of another round of patriotic mobilization.
Militarily, guaranteeing passage through Belarus would be critical to any potential Russian attack on NATO’s eastern flank.3 Basing Russian troops in Belarus would place them next to the 100-kilometer stretch of the Lithuanian-Polish border. The seizure of this border (the Suwalki Gap) would separate the three Baltic countries from the rest of Europe. NATO is well aware of this, and in June 2017, 1,500 NATO soldiers from the US and UK held exercises to defend this area.4
Russia has done little to assuage the concerns about possible aggression. In addition to the 2017 Zapad drills in Belarus, the joint 2009 Zapad drills featured Russian Tu-160 and Tu-190M strategic atomic bombers5 attacking dummy buildings with the same layout as Polish and Lithuanian strategic buildings. In response, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski wrote a letter to the NATO General-Secretary and President Barack Obama requesting NATO deploy troops in Poland.6
More recently, Russian troop deployments could indicate planned deployments, in addition to diplomatic saber rattling. In May 2016, the 28th Mechanized Brigade was transferred from Ekaterinburg to the city of Klintsy in the Bryansk oblast, within 40 miles of both the Belarussian and Ukrainian borders.7 A few months later, the 144th Guards Mechanized Division was stationed in the town of Yelnya in the Smolensk oblast, just 200 kilometers from the Belarussian border.8
Furthermore, there are many former fighters in Belarus who fought for the pro-Russian separatists and could assist Russian forces in Belarus. In a meeting in Minsk with the US Deputy Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter, Lukashenka reported on a new threat that “Belarus is flooded with weapons,” which can enter Belarus unimpeded through the uncontrolled Russian border.9
- The proposal to “include the Republic of Belarus into the Russian Federation on federative principles taking the Russian Constitution as its basis” was first raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenka on August 14, 2002, and was further articulated a month later in Putin’s official address to the Belarussian leader. But from the very beginning, Lukashenko rejected Putin’s proposal as a “uniquely unacceptable variant for Belarus—we will never go along with it.” The Belarusian autocrat continued to oppose the plan, most recently at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) summit in St. Petersburg on December 26, 2016, when he boycotted the signing of a revised customs agreement.
- Андрей Шарый, “Путин фактически предложил Белоруссии войти в состав России,” Радио Свобода. May 23, 2011, http://www.svoboda.org/a/24190894.html; and Kamil Kłysiński, “The Risk of Escalating Tensions in Minsk-Moscow Relations,” Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich, January 4, 2017, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2017-01-04/risk-escalating-tensions-minsk-moscow-relations.
- Александр Ванкович, “Юрий Царик: Россия единственная заинтересована в дестабилизации Беларуси,” Naviny.by, March 31, 2017, http://naviny.by/article/20170329/1490784362-yuriy-carik-rossiya-edinstvennaya-zainteresovana-v-destabilizacii.
- Belsat TV, “НАТО правяло рэпетыцыю абароны ад расейскай атакі на лініі Горадня—Калінінград,” June 18, 2017, http://belsat.eu/news/nato-pravyalo-repetytsyyu-abarony-ad-rasejskaj-ataki-na-linii-goradnya-kaliningrad/.
- Naviny.by, “ВВС России завершают третий этап учений ‘Запад-2009,’” September 29, 2009, http://naviny.by/rubrics/ society/2009/09/29/ic_news_116_318474.
- VoxUkraine, “Ядерные угрозы России и безопасность стран Прибалтики,” February 18, 2017, https://voxukraine.org/ 2017/02/10/yadernye-ugrozy-rossii-i-bezopasnost-stran-pribaltiki/.
- Екатерина Згировская, “Шойгу укрепляет брянский рубеж,” Газета.Ru, June 1, 2016, https://www.gazeta.ru/army/ 2016/06/01/8276903.shtml.
- Юлиуш Сабак, “Лукашенко готовится к нападению ‘зеленых человечков,’” October 3, 2016, ИноСМИ.ru, http://inosmi.ru/military/20161003/237952903.html.
- Телеканал БТ-1, April 31, 2016.