Staunton, February 5 – Anna Maria Dyner, head of the Eastern European Program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, says the Russian general staff does not view Belarus as an ally but rather as a Russian “military district” and will act without regard to Minsk, a view that both frightens Alyaksandr Lukashenka and is behind his new “soft Belarusianization.”
In an article for her institute’s journal entitled “Challenges for Belarusian Security Policy” (in Polish, pism.pl/publikacje/biuletyn/nr-11-1584) and in an interview with Belsat (belsat.eu/ru/news/lukashenko-bespokoit-za-kogo-budet-voevat-armiya-intervyu-s-polskoj-issledovatelnitsej-belarusi/), Dyner argues that Lukashenka’s concerns are well-placed.
The Russian general staff, the Polish analyst says, “really conceives of Belarus as its own territory. Some there even joke that one could call it ‘the Belarusian military district’” of the Russian Federation. But some Russians recognize that if they ignore Minsk entirely, some parts of the Belarusian army are likely to resist, creating real problems for Moscow.
That means that if Moscow wants to have Minsk as an ally, it must seek to reach some kind of agreement with it in advance of any aggressive moves. “Let us hope,” Dyner says, “that official Minsk will never allow” such an alliance to form for a move against Poland and NATO; but not everyone in Moscow views that as impossible.
The Zapad 2017 exercises last summer demonstrated that “Russia will use the territory of Belarus as its own,” a reality that officials in NATO have long been seriously concerned. But if NATO is concerned, so too is Minsk; and its behavior during and after the exercises highlighted that reality.
During the exercises, Dyner says, “Belarusian diplomacy did a great deal in order to develop ties with NATO to provide advance information about how the exercises would go and to invite observers from the Western alliance.” That set them apart at least somewhat from the Russians.
Moreover, she continues, officials in Minsk have long been reflecting on the lessons of Ukraine. “Ukraine initially also was viewed as an ally of Russia. Then this changed. Now in Belarus people are thinking about this very intensively,” both in terms of how to oppose a hybrid war and also how to act given that “Russia will never allow Belarus to shift to the West.”
Belarusian geographic position is simply too important for Moscow, Dyner says. If NATO forces were located on the eastern border of Belarus, Moscow would only be 250 to 300 kilometers away, and Moscow could not hope to defend against them. “This is the most important reason.” But holding Kaliningrad is yet another.
For these and other reasons, Dyner argues, she doubts that there will be “a Ukrainian variant” in Belarus. The threat is different, and Minsk has responded already with what one can call “soft Belarusianization,” a program intended to show that “we are Belarusians, independent people who live in an independent state and are not part of Russia.”
“Lukashenka and his entourage are very much concerned about whom their army will fight for, because there was already a problem of loyalty in Ukraine, above all among senior officers who had been trained in Russia.” Most senior Belarusian officers also were trained in Russia and have very strong connections with the Russian military and security services.
Over time, there is a possibility that Belarus will strengthen its independence and Russians will see this as a reality with which they must contend. Minsk is already broadening cooperation with NATO via the Partnership for Peace program. This is a small step but “all the same one Minsk has taken.”
And there is another country that provides a lesson here, Dyner says. “If Armenia which is also a good ally of Russia takes part in military exercises and operations of NATO, Belarus could also think about this.” That would have an additional benefit to the obvious one: it would help train those who could then better defend their country.
That is what happened in Ukraine; it could happen in Belarus as well, the Polish analyst concludes.