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Observations of an Expat -The Alex Problem

Observations of an Expat -The Alex Problem
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin – Photo courtesy – Insider.org

Belarus is a key to Russia’s paranoia-driven foreign and defense policy   

By Tom Arms

Often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, Belarussia’s Alexander Lukashenko can blatantly break international law with an act of air piracy and kidnapping because he thinks he can get away with it. He feels politically secure.

He feels secure because he has total backing from Russia’s Vladimir Putin who regards the maintenance of a pro-Russian Belarus as vital to Russia’s national interests. And because he knows that the rest of the world—especially the European Union—is frightened of stepping on the toes of the Russian bear.

Belarus is up there with Eastern Ukraine and Crimea as Russian Red Lines the West must not cross. Putin has made it very clear that doing so would have “consequences.”

So why has the Russian president dipped his line-painting brush in the red paint? Putin is not interested in isms, whether they be liberalism or capitalism or communism or socialism. His philosophical guiding stars are the twin 19th century political philosophies of geopolitics and realpolitik, with the simple goal of defending the Russian Motherland with defensive expansion.

Belarus is a key to Russia’s paranoia-driven foreign and defense policy.  For a start it lies in the middle of the North European Plain which stretches from Moscow to the Atlantic coast. This fertile flatland is the breadbasket of Europe. It is also the traditional invasion route linking Russia and the West. It is the broad avenue along which both Napoleon and Hitler marched and Stalin attacked back. Putin is determined to move the Russian-controlled end of the North European Plain as far to the West as possible.

Belarus is independent—but becoming less so as Lukashenko’s dependence on Putin grows. However, Minsk and Moscow have a close bilateral military alliance. The two armies and air forces hold exercises. There are no combat Russian troops based in Belarus. The only official Russian military presence is two communications centers. But Putin has the right to move his tanks through Belarus towards NATO allies Poland and the Baltic States without even bothering to ask for permission.

There is also the fact that on the other side of Belarus is Kaliningrad. The armed to the teeth military enclave sits in the north eastern corner of Poland and borders the Baltic. Only a tiny strip of Polish territory—and a larger piece of Lithuania—separates Kaliningrad from Belarus. The enclave hosts a total of 26 military groups involving the Russian Navy, Air Force and Army and their readiness and numbers have all been increased over the past two years.

In Putin’s diplomatic playbook, supporting opposition groups questioning the validity of the clearly rigged presidential elections of August 2020 is a major step towards his Red Line. That is because it could lead to regime change with the Lukashenko dictatorship being replaced by a pro-Western anti-Moscow government which would be clearly against Russia’s national interests.

That is why Putin has given unquestioned support as Lukashenko has arrested 35,000 protesters who have taken the streets in opposition to his government. It is also why Putin has opposed every sanction imposed by the West since the election and is backing Lukashenko’s air piracy to the hilt.

The EU for its part has been less than firm in dealing with both Belarus and Russia. The sanctions it has imposed have been ineffectual. But then most sanctions are. Studies have shown that in the 155 instances of sanctions being issued since 1945, only 15 could be rated a success.

One of the reasons for ineffectual EU sanctions is Europe’s divided common foreign policy. It has the trappings of a diplomatic goliath but the power of an unarmed David. There is a diplomatic service, a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and an ambassador accredited to every member of the UN. Officially the foreign policies of the 27 members of the EU are coordinated at every level from ambassador to ministers meeting in the Foreign Affairs Council. Unofficially, the different governments can go their own way if they don’t like a policy. Or they can block or dilute its implementation at the commission or in the council. The Visegard Four countries of Eastern Europe have repeatedly done this in relation to actions against Belarus, Russia and China.

This creates frustrations for the rest of the world. They need Europe to take the lead on Belarus as it is EU countries that are most directly affected by Lukashenko and his Russian patron. The current case of air piracy is a good example. It involves a plane owned by an Irish company, registered in Poland and flying between Greece and Lithuania—all EU countries. The kidnapped journalist, 26-year-old Roman Protasovich, is Belarussian, but he has been granted asylum status in Poland. The US, Canada and other countries need a united European lead.

But there is another reason for Europeans—and the rest of the world—to avoid an ultra-tough line on Belarus. They know that when Putin says Red Line he means just that. Regime change is not in the interests of the West. Truly effective sanctions support for the Belarussian opposition which could lead to regime change.

The West would dearly love a return to the pre-election days of the Lukashenko dictatorship. They disliked his human rights policy, but they managed a working relationship and at least there was no immediate danger of military conflict. The problem is that Lukashenko’s actions are impossible to ignore and all parties have moved dangerously closer to the Red Lines.

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 About the Author

Tom Arms Journalist Sindh CourierTom Arms is foreign affairs editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and is based in London. He has nearly half a century’s experience of world affairs, and has written and broadcast for American, British and Commonwealth outlets. Positions he held included foreign correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, foreign editor, editor and founding CEO of an international diary news service. He is the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War,” “The Falklands Crisis” and “World Elections on File.” His new book “America: Made in Britain” is due to be published in October.