Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko refused to have Russian military bases in the country. But despite past differences, the turmoil following the August 9 presidential election is pushing Minsk closer to Moscow. What does it mean for Lithuania’s security?
Back in the 1990s, Russia and Belarus agreed to form a union state. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded Lukashenko about the deal, but the two leaders failed to agree on the exact terms.
“[Russia] could now quickly complete the [merger] that it could not finish 20 years ago. It is very worrying,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius said. According to him, the integration of the two countries “could hardly be stopped” given the current situation.
When protests engulfed Belarus, Lukashenko accused foreign powers of meddling in his country’s affairs. He announced the highest military readiness in response to the alleged NATO movement near the Belarusian border.
Putin also promised to send military units to Belarus to ensure security and help suppress the peaceful protests. At the same time, Russian air forces and navy conducted exercises in Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad wedged between Lithuania and Poland, demonstrating that they would be ready to react to the situation in Belarus if necessary.
Based on the strategies tested during the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises Zapad, the Belarusian army would be subordinate to the leadership of the Russian Western Military District in the event of a conflict.
Gustav Gressel, an analyst from the European Council on Foreign Relations, who previously served in the Austrian military and the country’s Defence Ministry, said that such unexpected exercises demonstrated that Belarus had already surrendered its army and sovereignty to Russia.
But Belarusian military commanders might not be as loyal to the Kremlin as Moscow would expect. In recent years, Lukashenko has conducted reforms in the security and military structures replacing, staff with his loyalists.
So far, Lukashenko has resisted the Kremlin’s pressure to make Belarus an integral part of the Russian Western Military District and set up a permanent military base in the country. Despite fears raised by countries like Lithuania, the Russian army also did not stay in Belarus after Zapad.
“This will end now. The Belarusian Army was quite integrated with the Russian one in terms of equipment, logistics, training, and education. During wartime, it had to be subordinated to the Russian Army Western Military District,” Gressel said.
He added that Russia would exploit the current situation to increase control over the Belarusian army during peacetime as well.
“There will be Russian ground forces deployed in Belarus. Russia may also increase its C4ISR [surveillance and reconnaissance] installations in Belarus to spy on NATO from there,” Gressel explained.
But other experts were more cautious in their evaluation of possible Russian manoeuvres.
“Putin’s actions are hard to predict. He always surprises us. […] He might come up with a new surprise other than an obvious Belarusian integration into Russia,” said Elisabeth Braw, director of the Modern Deterrence project at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
One of the greatest Lithuanian security challenges is the so-called Suwalki gap, a 100-kilometre-wide strip separating Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad, where Russia has deployed Iskander missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.
In the event of a military conflict, Russia could occupy the Suwalki corridor and cut off Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, from the rest of NATO.
According to Gressel, for some time, Lukashenko has “tried to steer clear of being a springboard for offensive Russian operations”. Unlike Russia, Belarus also complied with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Vienna Document and Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE).
Both treaties are aimed at preventing escalation and introducing transparency and monitoring measures. The latter also limits military equipment and troop build-up in Europe.
“At least in the military sphere, this gave NATO some knowledge on what was going on in Belarus. If Russia had evil intentions, we would have had some pre-warning time,” Gressel said.
He added that now, the “situation would unfold very quickly” if Russian troops were deployed in Belarus, because there would no longer be any warning signs.
New military bases in Lithuania?
Russia and Belarus are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance comprising six post-Soviet states. The importance of the alliance is hard to evaluate. In mid-July, Russia reacted vaguely to clashes between CSTO member-state Armenia and its neighbour Azerbaijan.
But NATO leaders often reiterate their commitment to collective defence clauses. According to Gressel, NATO would also have to react, if Russia took over Belarus.
“It will have to abandon the NATO–Russia founding act and its restraints to deploy only limited forces to the border,” the expert said.
“The ‘deterring from a distance’ had advantages. It was cheaper, easier to explain to reluctant Western European audiences, and more flexible if you wanted to use the troops elsewhere. […] But defending the Baltics is a race against the clock. It is not so much about the overall size of forces, but about the operational tempo,” Gressel added.
In his words, losing Belarus could prolong the reaction time of NATO by four days.
Ukraine would also be negatively affected if Russia formed a union state with Belarus. Ukraine’s border with de facto Russia would become longer, which would complicate the war in Donbas and would move the capital Kyiv closer to a hostile state.
“In my view, NATO should consult about this, and threaten Russia with consequences if it proceeds the way it does. The Kremlin’s mind is more militarised than ours, so tanks are a far better deterrent than sanctions,” Gressel said.
According to him, the West must make Russia pay if it occupies Belarus by introducing sanctions and cutting energy imports.
Braw, however, said that NATO must follow international treaties even if Moscow breaches, them because the West is subject to a different political culture.
“I think [NATO] should maintain its strategy […]. A permanent deployment in the Baltics or Poland would not be favourable to the bloc because it would give Russia permission to say that NATO does not comply with its legal obligations,” she said.
Will Lukashenko leave?
The Belarusian protesters are now focused on fighting for free and democratic elections, not discussing the geopolitical future of the country.
According to Braw, the Kremlin may allow elections, as it wouldn’t want to occupy a country that strives for democratic changes. The Soviet occupation of the Baltic states showed that controlling a hostile territory was difficult and costly.
Gressel added that a Russian military action against Belarus was also less likely due to its experience in Ukraine. There, Moscow’s intervention strengthened the anti-Russian sentiment and pushed the country closer to the Euro-Atlantic integration.
According to Gressel, even if Lukashenko were replaced by a new leader, he or she would be bound by the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) agreements.
“But [the new leader] could reinstate Lukashenko’s previously held red lines on independence and sovereignty. […] And then very carefully work from there to open the country,” Gressel said.