Belarus May Be Key to Solving NATO’s Problems with Russia

Tensions between Moscow and Brussels have led to a dangerous militarization of Eastern Europe. But Minsk is showing an alternative.

Belarusian opposition protesters carry a giant flag during a rally in Minsk on March 24, 2013.
Belarusian opposition protesters carry a giant flag during a rally in Minsk on March 24, 2013. Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, in an interview with the Economist, French President Emmanuel Macron lamented the “brain death of NATO.” His statement went viral. He was not the first Western leader to comment publicly on the North Atlantic alliance’s problems, but his questioning of NATO’s commitment to collective defense—the cornerstone of the organization—indicated serious trouble. Numerous Western officials were quick to repudiate Macron’s words, but the unfolding discussion only emphasized that NATO faces perhaps its most intense challenges since its inception in 1949.

For some observers, NATO’s internal turmoil is a dangerous gift to Russia, a country with which the alliance has had a particularly strained relationship since 2014. No wonder that a spokesman from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, praised Macron’s statement as “golden words.” Yet both Western condemnation of Macron’s remarks and Russia’s happy reaction neglect a possibly more worrisome future.

Over the last few years, Russia and NATO have been caught in something of a security trap, where neither trusts the other’s intentions and thus tries to build up more military power to deter its rival. Although both think of their actions as defensive, their enemy sees pure aggression—and the cycle dangerously repeats.

For simple reasons of geography, Eastern Europe, which lies between Russia and NATO, has become the epicenter of this unfolding security dilemma, which has resulted in increasingly dangerous militarization. Russian exercises in the Baltic Sea, for example near the Karlskrona Naval Base in Sweden, are an indicator of Moscow’s plan to expand its influence over the states of the former Soviet Union and beyond.

Macron’s public questioning of the alliance’s commitment to collective defense will only exacerbate the sense of uncertainty along NATO’s eastern flank. Countries there may believe they have no choice but to do more about their own defense. In particular, they may look beyond NATO to Washington. Poland has already done as much in its attempt to secure a “Fort Trump,” including a permanent U.S. military presence, within its borders. Other countries appear ready to follow suit.

Meanwhile, by mid-2018, NATO and the United States had placed around 4,500 soldiers in the three Baltic states and Poland, as well as several thousand armored troops in Eastern Europe to prevent Russian aggression. That will also raise the stakes for Russia, which would surely see any increased buildup as an act of aggression.

The short- to medium-term repercussions are easy to predict. They will include more tensions inside NATO and inevitable counteractions from Russia. Those will, in turn, prompt ever more Western presence on the ground. No country will be left feeling more secure. Another worry is that a stronger NATO commitment to an ally would make that ally behave more aggressively than it would otherwise. In the longer term, the security dilemma could throw the region and the entire Euro-Atlantic space into danger.

It will be difficult to reverse Eastern Europe’s security dilemma. Doing so would require the Western countries and Russia sitting down together and striking a grand bargain on numerous issues such as sanctions, an arms control framework, and Ukraine, which currently appear unresolvable. A more realistic solution would be to find ways to make the twists and turns of Eastern European security more predictable. And here, Belarus is key.

Although Belarus’s domestic politics are troubling, its recent foreign and security policies show a lot of potential for Belarus to play a stabilizing role in Eastern Europe.

For a long time, Belarus has been disregarded in the West as Europe’s last dictatorship, languishing in Russia’s geopolitical backyard. Although the country’s domestic politics are troubling, its recent foreign and security policies show a lot of potential for Belarus to play a stabilizing role in Eastern Europe.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and fighting in the Donbass, Belarus took an emphatically neutral stance between Russia and the West. It even became a venue for the peace talks that saw the two Minsk agreements concluded in 2014 and 2015. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Trilateral Contact Group (including representatives of the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine) convenes there every second week. And at a Minsk Dialogue Forum on regional security in October, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pledged to make the country a “success story of European security” and asked key global and regional actors for help.

Belarus remains a Russian ally, of course, and in a military conflict, it would side with Moscow. But it is also ready to do everything possible to prevent such a war from starting and alleviate regional tensions. “We are on the front line. If we don’t survive these years, if we will fail, it means we will have to become part of some other state, or they will simply wipe their feet on us. God forbid they unleash another war, like in Ukraine,” Lukashenko said in the summer of 2018.

Because of its desire to head off the fighting, Belarus has refused to host a Russian air base, which Moscow sees as crucial in responding to NATO’s growing presence on its western flank. Minsk has also gone a long way in improving relations with both the United States and the European Union, and it has expressed readiness for direct dialogue with NATO.

Most importantly, Belarus has a unique network of bilateral, military-to-military agreements with its neighbors. It has agreements with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland (all NATO members) for regional confidence and security-building measures. With Ukraine, Minsk has an even stronger agreement on security cooperation.

Such agreements, long dismissed as window dressing, have become uniquely practical tools since 2014. The agreement with Kiev proved highly important in easing Ukrainian concerns that Belarusian territory could be used to launch a Russian attack, and agreements with NATO member states are becoming particularly useful in light of the upcoming Defender Europe 2020 exercises.

On the basis of these documents, Belarus could serve as a geographic cushion between NATO and Russia, protecting the two against miscalculation. As Belarus seeks better relations with the EU and the United States, Western actors should encourage bilateral and multilateral engagement with Minsk. Belarus’s willingness to act more independently between East and West has grown, and questions about Belarus’s sovereignty are at the heart of this determination.

Belarus will not solve the fundamental problems between Russia and NATO, nor will it ease growing differences inside the North American alliance itself. Yet it could help tame the security dilemma—and given today’s climate, anything that prevents escalation would be welcome.

Vitali Shkliarov is a Harvard University fellow at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Twitter: @me_vitali

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