Belarus and the Ukraine Trap
Belarus is among the most likely places where a war could break out between Russia and the West. News from Belarus has flashed in and out of headlines in the past year. When a wave of protest washed over the country in the summer of 2020, it was a major story. The diversion of an airplane traveling between two E.U. member states, followed by the kidnapping of a Belarusian opposition journalist and his (Russian) girlfriend from this plane, captured the world’s attention for more than a week. Otherwise, this country of almost ten million people tends to get ignored, which is unfortunate. The future of Belarus poses urgent and acutely unpredictable questions for the entire region. Bearing this in mind, Western policymakers should do what they can to articulate a viable policy toward Belarus — before the next round of crises comes. They can begin this difficult job by reviewing the relationship between Belarus and Ukraine.
Compared to Belarus, Ukraine is much bigger in territory and population. It has a more developed national sensibility: a commonly spoken Ukrainian language, a distinctively Ukrainian culture, and a strong sense of its own historical accomplishments and grievances. Ukraine’s post-Soviet political trajectory was, from the beginning, more pluralistic and more chaotic than that of Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been a dictator close to Moscow for decades, while Ukraine has vacillated in its politics and its geopolitics. In 2008, NATO stated that, one day, Ukraine and Georgia would become members. No such promise has ever been extended to Belarus, an isolated country without a visible diaspora and without much to offer economically. Belarus is typically regarded as a county in Russia’s orbit, whereas Ukraine, ever since its “Orange Revolution” of 2004, has been more of a wild card.
Despite these differences, Belarus and Ukraine present similar policy challenges to the West. A former Soviet socialist republic, Belarus (like Ukraine) was a part of the Eastern Partnership program, established by the European Union in 2009. Policymakers in Europe and the United States — the West for short — believe that both Belarus and Ukraine should determine their own relationships to Europe. These leaders also champion the machinery of reform in Belarus, preferring it for obvious reasons to the agonies of authoritarian rule. They would like to see civil society prosper and serve as the precursor to democratic renewal. A similar Western preference was palpable for Ukraine when protestors thronged Kyiv’s Maidan Square in opposition to Viktor Yanukovich. The West emphasizes sovereignty and hopes for democracy. Hence a joint U.S. and E.U. policy of punishing Russia for violations of state sovereignty and, at the same time, of encouraging a regional transition to democracy, which is likely to entail “Euro-Atlantic integration,” an explicit aim of the American and E.U. Ukraine policy.
The example of Ukraine over the past 10 or so years should inform Western policy toward Belarus. In Ukraine, there has been a stark difference between the stated aspirations of Western policy and the realities on the ground. U.S. and European policy has often been more aspirational than effective, validating the principle that modest goals successfully accomplished are preferable to grandiose goals that float free from reality. Furthermore, if Western policymakers were to apply their past experiences in Ukraine to Belarus, they are likely to overlook two important factors: 1) Belarus’s vertical integration and its lack of democratic experience, which bodes ill for whatever political chapter will follow Lukashenko’s reign; and 2) the high degree of political and military connection between Belarus and Russia. The loftier and more immediate the policy goals are regarding Belarus, the more they are likely to mislead its opposition movement into presuming a degree of support and commitment that American and European states will be unwilling to deliver.
Circa 2014, Western policy on Ukraine rested on three pillars. One was the return of Crimea to Ukraine, reversing Russian annexation. Another was the elimination of a Russian military presence in Donbas. A political process was supposed to follow, restoring Donbas to the Ukrainian body politic through free and fair elections. A third pillar was the reform of Ukraine itself, a more nebulous objective than the other two pillars. Ukraine had been an oligarchic democracy since 1991, and Yanukovich was elected president in 2013, when his decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union sparked protests that culminated in his fleeing Ukraine for Russia. After Yanukovich’s exit, the reform of Ukraine meant a reduction in corruption, the minimization of oligarch rule, and the progress of civil society, building upon the participatory democracy that had flowed from social media and from the street protests of 2013 and early 2014. The eventual benefit of such reform would be “Euro-Atlantic integration,” an embedding of Ukraine in some European and trans-Atlantic institutional structures.
European and U.S. policy instruments were also threefold. Most prominent were the U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Russia, which were tied to the annexation of Crimea and eventually to the Minsk diplomatic process. Hammered out in 2014 and 2015, this process was intended to expedite a Russian withdrawal and to initiate the political procedures through which Donbas could be reintegrated into Ukraine. An additional policy move was to enhance military cooperation between Ukraine and the West. NATO committed itself to the training of Ukrainian troops; Washington provided non-lethal military aid and, after a few years of back and forth, the Trump administration decided to furnish Ukraine with lethal military assistance. As for reform, the West gave Kyiv both money and advice. The foundations of partnership were supposed to incentivize further reforms in Ukraine, a virtuous circle. In the long run, NATO and E.U. membership might be the fruits of such incremental reforms.
The balance sheet for these policy objectives is not especially encouraging. Crimea has receded since 2014 as an active area of disagreement among Russia, Europe, and the United States. The annexation has by no means been recognized, nor is it ever likely to be. At the same time, it does not figure prominently in the public statements of Western politicians, from Boris Johnson to Angela Merkel to Joe Biden. Donbas remains in Russian hands. The Minsk diplomatic process has stalled completely. The United States and the European Union have conceded nothing, and its Minsk-related sanctions have been scrupulously maintained, but not one of the Western aims for Minsk has been realized. The Russian military shows no signs of leaving the area, and the prospect of elections that would rejoin Donetsk and Luhansk to Ukraine is impossibly distant at the moment. France and Germany, the prime movers of Minsk diplomacy for the West, have ceased investing political capital in the issues that had made Minsk necessary in the first place. Meanwhile, Belarus did not appear to be on the agenda of the Biden-Merkel talks in Washington, D.C.
Political reform in Ukraine is much harder to evaluate. It admits no obvious metric. The glass is half full in the sense that Ukraine has survived under adverse circumstances. It has not sued for peace with Russia. It has not gone under economically, and it has remained pluralistic and basically hospitable to civil society. The glass is half empty for several reasons. Corruption has not been curtailed. Oligarchs play the same outsized role in the Ukrainian political economy that they did under Yanukovich; Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s first president after Maidan, was himself an oligarch; and Volodymr Zelensky, who followed Poroshenko, has been unable to diminish the power of oligarchs. Rule of law is tenuous: Ukraine’s judiciary is effectively a branch of executive power. Nor is Zelensky’s government especially popular. Ukraine’s “Euro-Atlantic integration” is a misleading phrase in 2021. It overestimates the prospects for a rent-seeking, mostly unreformed, government, and it underestimates Russia’s capacity to shape Ukraine’s future.
U.S. and E.U. policy has not failed. It has done much to keep Ukraine alive as an independent country. It may boast of considerable success in the future. But neither has it succeeded. Seven years out, it has fallen conspicuously short. Western sanctions and military aid may have deterred Russia from either annexing or dominating a greater swath of Ukrainian territory. That is a hypothetical worth debating. They have so far not achieved the goals that were set in 2014. It is doubtful that they will ever do so, while the high hopes of the Maidan Revolution have slowly fizzled. In Western policy, a truly reformed Ukraine is a noble idea. It is nevertheless a low priority, so low in fact that the provision of Western military assistance has never been conditioned on genuine reform in Kyiv, which, given the state of Ukrainian politics in 2021, is a missed opportunity. Reasonable in theory, the U.S. and European Ukraine policy has done a poor job of marrying words and deeds.
U.S. and European policy on Belarus should assimilate four lessons from the Ukrainian precedent. But first a word about the inner dynamics of such policy. As with Russia, the West is not a monolith vis-a-vis Belarus. The Baltic republics and Poland seem committed — if only rhetorically — to regime change in Belarus. Southern Europe does not have a pronounced opinion on what to do. France and Germany are interested in reviving diplomatic contact with Russia, and, at the same time, they are concerned about the prospects for democracy and human rights in Belarus. So too is the United States. Throughout Europe and in the United States, the Belarusian opposition movement is held in high esteem. The trans-Atlantic discrepancies on Belarus are too modest for Vladimir Putin to exploit. The revival of U.S.-European relations under the Biden administration suggests that a unified policy on Belarus is not just possible but probable. The key will be a high degree of coordination between Berlin and Washington.
Lesson Number One
Speak softly but carry a big stick: Teddy Roosevelt’s famous aphorism is evergreen. In Ukraine, the sweeping expectations that have been so often articulated have undermined Western policy. They expose too great a disparity between intention and will, or between hope and capacity. That disparity — over time — offers a punishing commentary on the actual Western commitment to Ukraine. Since America and the European Union cannot bring democracy to Belarus, they should not promise democracy. One might reference Syria policy here as well. No matter how many times the words “Assad must go” were voiced, they did not guarantee the departure of Bashar al Assad or the arrival of Syrian democracy. Europe and the United States can confront Lukashenko on specific issues, such as his horrendous hijacking of the flight from Athens to Vilnius. Yet, Western rhetoric should be sober and free from any confusion of the normative with the possible: Democracy in Belarus is, at the very least, a massive undertaking. A Libya-style removal of the tyrant would have to be followed by the sustained commitment of time and resources to the reconstruction of Belarus or, more precisely, to the construction of a Belarusian democracy. For the time being, limited influence on internal Belarusian affairs should be seen for what it is — limited influence. Because their influence is limited, American and European deeds should be bolder than their words.
Lesson Number Two
Be honest about the scope of Russian military involvement. Ukraine and Belarus are integral to Russia’s national security. Russia’s hard line on Ukraine should have been anticipated in 2013, and, overall, the Russian military calculus is extremely difficult to redirect from the outside. It would take a formidable array of coercive measures to get Russia to change gears and, in Ukraine, to accept a Ukrainian Crimea and “Euro-Atlantic integration” at the same time, not to mention NATO membership for Ukraine. The application of these measures would risk escalation, and quite possibly war, before Russia would consider backing down. This logic applies, if anything, more directly to Belarus. Belarus is already honeycombed with the Russian military. Lukashenko’s fall, provided the Kremlin has not engineered it, would generate a tightening of the military connection between Russia and Belarus. Russia will not tolerate a government in Belarus that appears “pro-Western,” even if it is sometimes said that the opposition movement in Belarus eschews geopolitics and tries not to position itself as “anti-Russian.” Perhaps the opposition movement in Belarus can thread the needle and separate domestic politics from geopolitics in search of a Belarusian democracy that does not challenge Russia’s suzerainty. Most likely it cannot, and the more American and European leaders actively encourage an opposition movement in Belarus, the less likely it is that this movement can prevail. No Western promise of democracy in Belarus can skirt a military dynamic that gives Moscow considerable sway over the political future of Belarus. Nor can the United States and European Union pretend that they are neutral bystanders in the region, a kind of well-intentioned transnational non-governmental organization. The West is very much enmeshed in the geopolitical destiny of Belarus.
Lesson Number Three
Jaw-jaw is better than war-war. The relationship between the West and Russia is too weak to sustain a serious diplomatic conversation about Belarus. There is too little trust, and the respective interests too strenuously clash. Russian leaders and Western leaders also speak two irreconcilably different languages when it comes to international affairs. Their mutual incomprehension is deep. That said, where any consultation on Belarus is possible, it should be pursued. In Ukraine, the diplomatic efforts of Russia, the European Union, and the United States, which were thrown into disarray when Yanukovich ran for his life in February 2014, were too little too late. They were undone as much by rapid-fire circumstances as by anything else. Were this situation to repeat itself over Belarus, the stakes would be higher. Minsk is 115 miles from Vilnius, with Kaliningrad, a province of Russia, tucked behind Poland and Lithuania. Russia, Belarus, and two NATO member states all occupy a small and potentially combustible quadrant of territory. France and Germany were right to push for talks with the Kremlin after the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva, though they did so in a way that backfired. Not talking achieves nothing, even if talking may yield only most modest gains in understanding and cooperation, and, as far as Lukashenko’s rule is concerned, the clock is certainly ticking.
Lesson Number Four
The long game. The West has done something remarkable in Belarus. Without even trying, it has made a remarkable display of its soft power. In the face of terrible oppression, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have challenged Lukashenko’s tyranny. Their courage and vision derive, in part, from what has been accomplished in the neighboring Baltic states, which were once as Soviet as Belarus was. Freedom of both speech and assembly are European goods that many in Belarus would like to see imported, no less than the rule of law and Western prosperity. It may take decades for this to come to pass, if Belarus ever becomes a democracy. For it to come to pass, the United States and the European Union should invest more in people than in transformative outcomes which it cannot deliver. Policies that make it easier for Belarusians to travel and study in the European Union should be encouraged. Gradual changes in political sensibility, whereby the habits of political liberty are internalized, should be advanced. Tempting as it is to build a wall around Lukashenko’s regime, and to consign it to being Europe’s North Korea, Western policy should really do the opposite. Build a wall around Lukashenko himself. Yet, open Belarus, however one can, to the political currents that have already and unexpectedly been changing it.
Foreign policy thinking rests on history and, often enough, on pithy phrases extracted from the historical record. With China, we worry about falling into the Thucydides trap, retracing the fears and suspicions that drew Athens and Sparta into a terrible war. With Europe, cautionary remembrance circles around 1914 and the continent’s sleepwalking into war, or around 1939 and the risks of appeasement. With Russia, the analogies are usually derived from the Cold War, stemming from containment or détente or the annus mirabilis of 1989. With Belarus, the past to be remembered and studied is right before our eyes. Call it the Ukraine trap. No tale of inevitable victory is etched into Western Ukraine policy from 2014 to the present. The worst-case scenarios have been avoided in Ukraine not because Russia has been coerced into backing down but because of the unspoken moderation of Western policy. Limitless rhetoric has been backed up by limited actions, in an instance more of strategic luck than of strategic patience. In Belarus, the worst-case scenarios should be avoided. It is hard to know whether the West’s core interests in Belarus involve the degree of Russian military influence (actual and possible) or the security of neighboring NATO member states. That will have to be worked out over time, and Russia’s military influence in Belarus is, at any rate, intertwined with NATO’s security. Whatever the immediate security dilemmas, and however they evolve, they should not stand in the way of a decades-long project of discrediting authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe and of journeying toward a regional order based not on repression and violence but on the consent of the governed. The ultimate power of the West in Belarus — as formidable as it is subtle and gradual — happens to be the power of its example.
Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and was most recently the author of The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy, published by Basic Books in April 2020. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the secretary’s policy planning staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio.
Image: President of Belarus