Russia takes Europe’s support to calm Belarus

Opposition protests in Minsk, Belarus, Aug 16, 2020

The mercurial Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has not been an easy ally for the Kremlin. But the growing interference by Belarus’ “New European” neighbours is setting the stage for a “colour revolution” with potentially anti-Russian orientation. Poland, egged on by the US, has convinced itself that it has become a regional heavyweight and eyes Belarus as a valuable piece of real estate that could shift the military balance on Russia’s western borders.    

Indeed, historically, present-day Belarus figured in all the four major invasions of Russia since the 18th century — by Sweden allied with Poland (1708-1709); by Napoleon through the North European Plain (1812); and by Germany, twice (1914 and 1941). Plainly put, Belarus forms a buffer zone crucial to Russia’s national security.   

In post-Soviet history, with the Baltic states and Poland having been integrated into NATO and a pro-western regime installed in power in Ukraine since 2014, the western alliance has advanced closer to Russia than ever before. If during the Cold War era, the nearest NATO power was 1600 kms from St. Petersburg, that distance has shrunk to a mere 160 kms today. 

Furthermore, the signing of an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement between the US and Poland on August 15 has made the latter “a lynchpin of regional security” (as the US state department describes Poland.) The agreement signed in Warsaw provides the legal basis for the establishment of American military bases in Poland, which harbours historical animosity against Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on August 17 that increased US military presence in Poland “aggravates the difficult situation near Russia’s Western borders, facilitating an escalation of tensions and increasing the risk of inadvertent incidents.” It flagged that the latest US-Poland defence agreement “will help qualitatively strengthen the offensive capability of the US forces in Poland.” 

To be sure, the Belarus developments cannot be seen in isolation. A Kremlin statement said that on August 15 Lukashenko reached out to President Vladimir Putin to brief him on the developments. It said that the two leaders discussed the unrest in Belarus following the presidential election of August 9 and and both sides “expressed confidence that all existing problems will be settled soon.”

However, the next day, Putin called Lukashenko for another discussion. The Kremlin readout said that after a discussion touching on the external interference fuelling the unrest in Belarus, “Russian side reaffirmed its readiness to render the necessary assistance to resolve the challenges facing Belarus based on the principles of the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State, as well as through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, if necessary.”

That was a dramatic announcement, with ominous overtones of past Russian doctrines of collective security. Clearly, the announcement had the desired effect. Lukashenko has voiced on August 17 his readiness to hold fresh elections in accordance with a new constitution to be drafted in the coming few months.

The protests in Belarus may not subside easily. A transfer of power has become inevitable at some point and Moscow senses that the priority should be to navigate the developing situation toward an orderly transition. But Moscow’s capacity to navigate Belarus to calmer waters and stimulate a rational political dialogue is limited when external interference to stir up tensions continues.

Indeed, for the first time since protests began in Belarus a week ago, Washington has openly warned Moscow to stay out of the situation. An unnamed “senior Trump administration official” told the media on August 17, “The massive number of Belarusians peacefully protesting make clear that the government can no longer ignore their calls for democracy… Russia must also respect Belarus’ sovereignty and the right of its people to freely and fairly elect their own leaders.” 

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said on August 15 (while on a visit to Poland) that the US is discussing with the European Union to “try to help as best as we can the Belarusian people achieve sovereignty and freedom.” 

To be sure, a Russian intervention in Belarus would be viewed by Europe as a negative development. Therefore, Putin is moving cautiously. But the fact is also that the European countries are struggling with the pandemic and a grave economic crisis. It’s unclear whether the major European powers would be inclined to follow the lead of Washington and Poland to provoke Russia. 

Significantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned Putin on August 19 in the first such contact since protests erupted in Minsk. A Kremlin statement said Putin and Merkel “thoroughly discussed” the emergent situation and “Russia pointed out that foreign attempts to interfere in the country’s domestic affairs were unacceptable and could further escalate tensions.” 

Summing up Merkel’s conversation with Putin, the German Spokesman Steffen Seibert  stated, “The chancellor said the Belarusian government must refrain from the use of force against peaceful demonstrators, immediately release political prisoners and enter into a national dialogue with the opposition and society to overcome the crisis.”

A Russian-German convergence seems possible over Belarus. Significantly, French President Emmanuel Macron has since called Putin and the latter again “emphasised that interfering in the (Belarus) republic’s domestic affairs and putting pressure on the Belarusian leadership would be unacceptable.” The Kremlin readout said Putin and Macron “expressed interest in the prompt resolution of the problems.”

Subsequently, Putin also reached out to the  President of the European Council Charles Michel where, again, he expressed concern over “some countries’ attempts to put pressure on the Belarusian leadership and destabilise the internal political situation.” This was a reference to Poland and Lithuania, two EU member countries and strong allies of the US, who are principally culpable for destabilising Belarus.

But the big question is whether the Cold Warriors in Washington and the “New Europeans” in Central Europe would be satisfied with anything less than a regime change in Belarus that brings that country into their orbit. A Russian military intervention would lend credibility to their thesis of “revanchist Russia”. 

A sub-text here is that the German-Russian proximity greatly annoys Washington and Warsaw. A recent paper by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, noted, “Compared to many of its neighbours, Germany has longstanding political, economic, and cultural ties to Russia—not to mention a streak of skepticism toward the United States that inclines parts of the German political class to sympathise with Russian views about the need for a less U.S.-centric international order.” 

Equally, there is growing acrimony lately in the German-American relations following Washington’s recent threats of “crushing legal and economic sanctions” if German companies took part in any form in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which would carry natural gas from Russia to Germany. (Incidentally, Poland also staunchly opposes the Nord Stream 2 project, which bypasses it.)  

The German Minister of State Niels Annen has “firmly rejected” the proposed US sanctions and hit back saying, “Threatening a close friend and ally with sanctions, and using that kind of language, will not work. European energy policy will be decided in Brussels, and not in Washington, DC.” 

These acerbic exchanges between German and American politicians as well as the recent move by the Trump administration to withdraw over 12000 troops from Germany (and to divert some of them to Poland) highlight the complexities of Germany’s relationship with the US and Poland. The right-wing Polish government is happy to perform as the US’ Trojan horse within the EU.  

However, so long as the EU refuses to rally behind Poland, whose rightwing populist leadership is already viewed with scepticism as something of an enfant terrible in the portals of Old Europe, Moscow gets diplomatic space. Putin’s calculus is working on this basis.

The bottom line is that Russia has legitimate interests in Belarus and Moscow’s preference is for an orderly transition in Belarus through consultations between Lukashenko and the political opposition. A helpful stance by the EU, therefore, matters to Putin.

The latest reports from Brussels disclosed that in the 30-minute phone conversation earlier today between Putin and Charles Michel, they “discussed options to facilitate a dialogue between Minsk and the opposition, including with the OSCE mediation.”