On Sunday 8th August 2020 the former Soviet Republic of Belarus went to the polls for the sixth time since the 1994 founding of the Belarussian constitution. The vote was to decide the next president of the small landlocked nation, wedged between Russia, Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine. As with the previous five elections, the result was not in question, the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko regularly won elections with around 80% of the vote, and the 2020 election would be no different.
So, why should these elections cause Russian President Vladimir Putin, anxiety? The last five elections ended in the same way, leading to protests on the streets of Belorussia’s capital Minsk. Up to 10,000 people have turned out to demonstrate against parevious fixed elections. Lukashenko has always used force to maintain power and will continue to do so, as long as his security forces allow. However, the situation in central Europe is different to 10 years ago, Russia must now consider that:
- Ukraine is no longer a reliable source of neutrality and buffer against the west
- There is a heightened sense of threat felt by The West toward Russia
- Putin’s advocate, Donald Trump, could be dethroned in the 2020 election meaning that Russia could be more susceptible to the full force of Western condemnation
- Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine has made this particular neighbourhood less secure
- Belarus could develop into an opportunity for the west to strike back at Russia by helping to support a pro Western candidate in one of the last buffer states for Russian security in central Europe
A former republic within the Soviet Union, for the last 25 years Belarus has been ruled over by Alexander Lukashenko, a man once called Europe’s last dictator, although this is a slight misnomer given the full scope of Putin’s dictatorial rule in Russia. With a population of over 9 million and an economy 29 times smaller than that of Russia, Belarus is heavily dependent on industry, especially refining and exporting oil supplied by its larger neighbour at greatly reduced rates. In essence Russia does them a massive favour by supplying oil at mates’ rates, making very little by way of profit on the deal. As one analyst notes the Belarussian economy is essentially controlled by Gazprom. There is also a developing technology industry where tech giants like Google and Microsoft contract out work, below the pay grade of your typical Silicon Valley worker, to Belarusian tech workers (Belarusian kids don’t want to be doctors or engineers, they want to be computer programmers). There has also been some Chinese investment into Belarus as witnessed by the amount of Chinese advertising in the big cities, as well a small but regular arms trade between the two nations. However, it is to Russia that Belarus is most reliant both economically and politically. As a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Russian version of NATO the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) it is very much within the Russian sphere of influence.
So, what does this small part of Europe have to do with Russian Anxiety?
Russia, and before that the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia, has long feared three things:
- Russia will lose her standing in the world
- Being surrounded and/or invaded from an existential threat
- Internal unrest (this could be linked to an external threat don’t forget it was the Germans who facilitated the smuggling of Lenin from Vienna to St Petersburg during the outbreak of the Russian Revolution)
It is these considerations which drive Russian anxiety. You could argue that they are not unique to Russia, many nations fear existential threats or internal discord. The Kremlin’s realist outlook on global politics is very much focused on survival. Putin does take part in the liberal global system to the benefit of Russia, especially if we look at Russian oil exports to Northern Europe and its use of international banking systems (laundering money from Kremlin backed organised crime). However, he reserves the right to act against international law when it comes to Russian internal and external security and prestige. Russian sense of exceptionalism, dating from her role as protector of Orthodox Christianity and subsequent custodian of Marxism, prioritises Russia’s right to be a strong state and, like the US Monroe Doctrine’s policy towards Latin America, Russia has the right to control her surrounding states, or near abroad. It is this which helps drive Russian ideas of her own prestige as a global power.
In October of 2016 people living on the coast around Dover were greeted with an almost archaic sight in the English Channel. Shadowed by Royal Navy destroyers, a large warship belching thick black smoke, escorted by a tug and other smaller warships, sailed past the white cliffs of Dover. The ship was the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on its way, with its air group, to support the Assad regime in Syria. The sight must have resembled a similar sight which occurred over 100 years earlier when the Russian Baltic fleet also transited the Channel on their way to a humiliating defeat against the Japanese fleet at Tsushima in 1905. Both events illustrating Russia’s quest for geopolitical relevance and prestige.
Russia, however, is a land empire which has always aspired to be in the first rank of nations. Tsarist Russia often thought that it was on a par with the great powers of the day. She played a leading role in the concert of Europe where, along with the great European powers of Britain, Austro-Hungary and Prussia, she managed to keep a lid on social revolution and any resurgence of French power throughout the early part of the 19th century.
Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans, Russia has seen herself as the last bastion and defender of the Orthodox Christian church extending her influence and political backing to nations and people who share this religion. This was part of the causal factors which helped to start the Crimean War of 1853, as part of Russian intentions to take land from the crumbling Ottoman Empire using the plight of Orthodox Christians in the holy land as justification for her move. This also explains why Russian backing of Serbia in 1914 helped the, already ignited, powder trail along the way to the explosion that was The Great War. In 1999 Russia fully backed the Serbs in their fight to prevent Kosovo from breaking away from union with Serbia. She even sent troops to Pristina to intercept NATO forces on their way to take the airport, earmarked as the headquarters of the KFOR peacekeeping mission. The stand-off caused an international stir at the time with Russia insisting on not being left out and keeping her troops in Kosovo as part of the peace keeping forces.
With an economy smaller than that of New York and a reliance on gas and oil for her exports, Russia is a shadow of the once powerful superpower that dominated the post war period up until its collapse in 1991. It must be difficult for Russian politicians and patriots to look at contemporary Russia compared with the bipolar Soviet times when she competed with the US for global hegemony. She has watched her neighbour, and once partner in ideology, China rise from a backward economy with a history of failed Maosit development programs become a burgeoning superpower. She has also had to deal with the indignities of being outplayed in the 2014 deal which would supply gas to an energy hungry Chinese economy for the next 30-years. The deal meant that Russia would make more of a loss than expected for several years. China has also started to move away from its reliance on Russian defence equipment, companies like Shenyang and Chengdu moved from manufacturing licensed built Soviet aircraft to developing their own fifth generation stealth aircraft, directly competing with Western military technology.
In brief, Russia is terrified of becoming irrelevant on the word stage, and no longer a power to be reckoned with. She still yearns for geopolitical influence. Russia is not alone in this desire, Britain and France still find it difficult to fully come to terms with their decline as global powers. Russia’s dabbling in the Middle East and her non-kinetic attacks such as the cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007 or election interfering in the 2016 US election is a sure sign that Russia still has aspirations to be relevant as a great power, or at least be someone to fear globally.
It is this desire to be feared which has made the humiliations, such as her subordinate relationship with China or the gradual loss of influence over the former soviet Republics, more difficult to accept. They not only feed into fears of losing relevance as a global power but more importantly they feed into her greatest fear, being encircled or invaded. These fears and security degradations are currently manifest in the situation with Belarus. Russia likes to see herself as the saviour of, not just Orthodox Christendom but also of Europe. Russia defeated Napoleon; drove Hitler back to Berlin itself; even the dreaded Mongol hordes never saw the central European plane thanks to Prince Ivan II of Muscovy. Or so Russia believes.
It is this central European plane which is at the centre of Russian anxieties. If we look at maps of Russia through history, she has only ever felt truly secure when there is a buffer state between herself and a more powerful player in the neighbourhood. Poland has always played this role rather well, in the periods that it has existed, buffering Russia from a holy Roman Empire or an ascendent Germany.
Afghanistan also played the buffer role against British India despite British claims that the great game was more about Russia’s desire for a warm water port. A weak China throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century also played well to allay Russian fears of encirclement eventually forcing Russia to confront Japan in the region. The Tsars saw conquest as a useful tool to insulate the Slavic Russian heartland from any malign attempts by external enemies. The accumulation of territory over the centuries from Ukraine in the west to Caucasus nations such as Georgia and Armenia to buffer against the Ottoman Empire in the south, to The Stans (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan) in the east, adding a plethora of nations and ethnicities to modern Russia from Muslim Chechens to Buddhist Kalmyks.
If you ever fly to China or Japan from Europe one thing becomes clear. Russia is huge, most of the 11-hour flight is spent over the steppes, forests and permafrost of Russia. This is Russia’s greatest defence from the east. It is space for an invading army to starve and exhaust its over extended supply lines. Russia is all about the European side of the Ural Mountains, that is where the industry is (apart from a brief period during World War II); that is where the seat of power resides. This is not to discount Vladivostok or say that the Kremlin doesn’t concern itselve with the security of the area. It does, Russia fought a war against Japan for security on their eastern flank. Security in the east is a blog we can do another time, however. Geographically European Russia is the most exposed part of the nation. There are no mountain ranges or north to south rivers that could hold up an invading army. Yes, Hitler and Napoleon where defeated but both reached Moscow, with Napoleon entering a city that had been set fire to. By then untold damage to Russia and her people had been wrought something that should never be repeated.
We should momentarily explore the importance of geography to security and warfare in Europe at this juncture. The Central European Plain runs from the Ural Mountains, 868 miles east of Moscow to the Rhineland in Germany where it meets the Vogelsberg mountains not far from Frankfurt. This entire plain is perfect tank country, its actually perfect war country as the destruction wrought upon it during The Thirty Years War demonstrates. During the Cold War the United States Army based the bulk of its forces in this area, an area of lowland known as the Fulda Gap. It was believed that should the Soviet Union invade the West then this would be best route to the Industrial areas of The Rhine and France, essentially cutting off the Scandinavian states and low countries from their allies. The sight of waves of Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks rumbling through Germany’s industrial Rhineland into Northern France kept allied planners awake at night. This also works in the opposite direction causing sleepless nights for Russian planners who haven’t got the luxury of a Fulda gap or bottle neck in which to defend.
Revisionist historians argued that it was this fear which led to The Soviet Union taking control of large parts of Central Europe and creating a system of client states known as the Warsaw Pact and leading to the Cold War. The argument being that she had just lost 20 million souls during a battle for survival that led to the gates of Moscow and back to Berlin. Would anyone blame the soviet leadership for wanting to expand its buffer zone beyond the Soviet borders? In comparison the US has none of these fears. She is bordered to the north by friendly and much weaker neighbours. On the east and West of the US there are just fish.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and, loss of large parts of the Tsarist Empire, left Russia feeling exposed. Both Yeltsin and subsequently Putin quickly set up agreements and treaties attempting to maintain the former Soviet Nations (the near abroad as Russia calls them) within the Russian sphere of influence ,the first of these being the Commonwealth of Independent states (CIS) which included 12 of the 15 former Soviet Republics, the Baltic states abstained already looking westwards.
Russia has watched as these former Soviet states have gradually gravitated away from her Sphere of influence, many of The Stans have created alliances with the US or have signed up to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. This shift in the east, whilst terrifying, isn’t the most pressing of issues for Russia. She has watched former members and clients of her empire, not just move away, but join the EU and NATO, their former Cold War adversaries. Nations like Poland, Hungary and Romania are now fully integrated members of Europe and NATO’s economic, political and military alliances. With the addition of the Baltic states to the EU and NATO, Russia’s sense of threat was heightened as it now had NATO members on its northern border and in the Black Sea, making Russia feel the noose touching her neck. Finland on its far north also joined the EU but refrained from joining NATO opting for the more diplomatic solution of having ties with both sides.
The problem the west has failed to grasp is that Russia is operating in a traditional Structural Realist mindset, the anarchy in the structure of the international system means they view the world through an, ‘everyman for himself’ lens. They feel under threat and there is no 999 service to call if they are attacked, allies are viewed as potential enemies, to quote Henry Kissinger “to be an enemy of America is dangerous, to be a friend is fatal”. According to Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, Russia was content to have a neutral Ukraine as a neighbour but would draw a line at any more NATO expansion to its borders. The 2008 invasion of Georgia illustrated Russia’s willingness to adhere to its lines in the sand concerning her former republics joining NATO. The Maidan Revolution and the subsequent threat of Ukraine’s axis shifting towards the West triggered Russian anxieties yet again. Feeling the noose tighten, Russia sought to act in its own interest, rather than have another potential EU and NATO ally on its border.
The threat of Ukraine shifting westward and joining NATO would also mean that Russia could potentially lose the home of its Black Sea Fleet moored at Sevastopol (the base had been leased from Ukraine since 1997). So how does one go about making enough noise and protest without resorting to military action (kinetic warfare was possible in Georgia because, like Poland in 1939, Georgia was a long way from the protection of its allies. Ukraine is not). They do it by fomenting protests in the streets staging pro-Russian separatist demonstrations and sending “little green men” (Russian special forces dressed without any identifying badges or insignia) to take over strategic points. It was a perfect example of what the Russians call Maskirovka or disguise. It is this concept of deception which allowed Moscow to annex the Crimea whilst maintaining plausible deniability. It wasn’t until weeks after the de facto annexation that Putin admitted that it was a Russian operation, but by then it was too late for The West to do anything about it. As an autonomous region of Ukraine, The Crimea was also a calculated risk with a population of over 50% ethnic Russian and the presence of Russian military bases on the peninsula made the fall out less incendiary, and resistance minimal.
There are many reasons cited for why Putin took the Crimea in 2014: recapturing Russia’s former empire; distraction for the people of Russia from the dire political and economic situations at home; Crimea was always Russian anyway; protecting Russian passport holders (Russia embarked on a strategy of giving Crimean residents Russian passports back in 2008); or even just an impulsive action (many analysts argue that the whole of Russian strategy towards the West is based on random reactions to events rather there being any end game). Apart from it being a quickly fading hit of nationalistic euphoria for the Russian populous. There is one thing for sure, it was a sign. A warning to the West that Russia will not have the Black Sea become a NATO lake and should seriously consider their actions when it comes to political and military influence in Ukraine. This last pincer of NATO warships dominating the Black Sea, on Russia’s south western flank combined with the Baltic republics in the north is something that no Russian leader would want to confront.
Russia has no real allies in Europe and often see’s the smaller states on her borders in terms of potential beachheads for her enemies rather than allies. And it is here that we turn to Belarus, Putin’s dagger in NATO’s northern flank.
Why is Belarus so important to Russian anxieties?
From the border of Belarus to Draugystes on the border of Russia’s heavily armed Kaliningrad enclave (formerly known as Konigsberg) it’s a 2-hour 45-minute drive, approximately 143 miles. Any Russian army making this journey to link up with Kaliningrad would exploit NATO’s greatest weakness since the days of the Fulda gap. Closing the Suwalki corridor, as the gap between Belarus and Kaliningrad is known, would instantly isolate the three Baltic states and any NATO army stationed there, all this could be achieved before NATO was able to react. For Russia, this is a superb tactical advantage as NATO would have to decide whether to spend time and resources in supporting the isolated states or continue with its own separate plans. Abandoning allies has implications for NATO cohesion, which would also have the potential to cause rifts within the alliance. Smaller nations will often speculate if they are the next sacrificial lamb to protect the larger members, for the greater good doesn’t really cut it when national survival is at risk.
NATO has recognised this Threat and has tentatively placed troops in the Baltic republics, whilst being careful not to rattle the bear. Thus far the threat has been minimised by Lukashenko’s reluctance to acquiesce to Putin’s request to build Russian military bases in Belarus. Russia does have a military presence in Belarus and their militaries are closely aligned, but until now they have resisted becoming a potential staging post for any real or imagined Russian aggression towards NATO. Putin has long eyed Belarus for subsuming into Russia, a Slavic version of Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria, which has thus far been resisted. As recently as 2019 Putin Hosted Lukashenko at his Dacha in Sochi to bash out a potential economic union between the two nations, which is shorthand for Russian economic supremacy. Putin, however, wants more, he wants suzerainty over Belarus. This way he can be secure that his buffer state develops into a salient reinforcing NATO anxiety about its Northern border.
What are Putin’s options?
Putin is faced with a client state whose economy is reliant on Russian benevolence. However, he is also reliant on Belarus for geopolitical security, both offensive and defensive. Yet there is little love lost between both leaders, Lukashenko often threatens closer relations with The West in order to play with Russian fears and gain economic favours. In recent days Lukashenko has threatened to ask for Russian assistance in quelling the protests. His latest outbursts, as of writing, have been accusing The West of trying to overthrow him adding that it is not just Belarus but Russia who should also be wary. This seems to be another ploy by Lukashenko to use the threat of the West to make Russia act in his defence. This, however, could potentially backfire for Lukashenko. It could exacerbate the situation alienating him from any remaining support. If Putin were to act, and his troops are successful then Lukashenko would be Putin’s man and forced into accepting terms on some form of union between the two. This would, no doubt be a success for Putin but is not without its risks. How far could Putin push Europe and NATO when it comes to military action in Central Europe? Putin got away with Crimea because he caught the West off guard. He managed to use plausible deniability in waging his war in Eastern Ukraine. Overt military action in support of, what many observers see as a brutal dictator may be one step too far for The Western powers. Plus, it’s not the Russian style of doing things. Russia would also attract additional sanctions which are already having an effect on the economy.
Putin knows that the West will not support Lukashenko as it would be political double standards. He can also take some comfort in the fact that neither the current opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, or her jailed husband, whom she succeeded on his arrest, have shown any inclination towards moving Belarus towards Europe or The West.
Russia could use its tactic of Maskirovka again, as it did in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Some analysts actually feared a ‘fake Maidan’, in that these protests against Lukashenko could be Kremlin inspired, a reference to the Ukraine revolution which brought down the pro kremlin Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev in 2014. An ominous portent occurred a few weeks before the election. Belarus police arrested 33 members of Russia’s quasi-private security group Wagner. Famous for its work as the Russian state’s mercenaries, working in the shadows in support of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, Wagner is known to be operating I places such as: Central African Republic, Syria and Sudan . Their most infamous outing being the Battle of Khasham where Wagner mercenaries supported pro Assad troops during an assault on Kurdish positions. US special forces, embedded with the Kurds, helped fight off the attack with the aid of US airstrikes resulting in the deaths of a significant number of Wagner operatives. The fear, in Belarus, was that these 33 were just a few of the hundreds of rumoured Russian undercover troops in the area stoking pro-Russian agitation in an attempt to remove the old dictator and install a far more Russia friendly replacement. However, many analysts agree that the more likely scenario is that these men, who have been identified as wanted by Ukrainian authorities for having fought with Donbass separatists, were using Belarus as a handy stop over for a mission to The Sudan.
Whatever the truth about Russian involvement in the protests to topple Lukashenko one thing is certain. Russia will be watching events very closely with a view to helping the situation along in their favour. Belarus is, after all, seen as Russia’s front garden. The fall of Lukashenko would be welcomed by Russia, it would also not be in Europe’s interest to be seen supporting the rule of a dictator who has repeatedly imprisoned political opponents and accused of multiple violations of human rights. This leaves the door open for Lukashenko to go, but, and this is a big but, this would have to be carefully stage managed by Russia in order to alleviate her anxieties. Russia would no longer countenance a NATO or EU aligned Belarus than the US would allow Russian bases on the island of Cuba, or Mexico. It seems that Putin has been caught wrong footed, if the fears of a fake Maidan where correct then the protests have outgrown the original Russian agent provocateurs and has taken on a life of its own. Putin may be forced to watch how these forces of change develop the political landscape in Belarus and whether it goes the same way as Ukraine. One thing is for sure, Russian involvement in Belarus is far from over.