The Strategic Significance of Belarus

The news is currently flooded with stories about Belarus, where mass demonstrations have taken place following rigged elections won by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Why are world leaders and the press so invested in this particular bit of oppression out of everything going on in the world? Because Belarus occupies a strategically significant position between Russia and NATO/the EU.

Lukashenko has been President since Belarus’s first post-communist elections in 1994, and is sometimes called “Europe’s last dictator.” Belarus is sandwiched between Russia on one side and Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia on the other. The Russian Oblast (an administrative region similar to a province or a state) of Kaliningrad is on the Baltic sea, cut off from the rest of Russia but separated from Belarus by the “Suwalki gap”, a plain about 70 miles across. The gap is also NATO’s only internal access to the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

In war, NATO control of the gap means it can rapidly and (relatively) easily send troops and supplies to support & defend the Baltics. If Russia can close the gap, NATO’s only supply line to them would be by sea, which is limited by available shipping, slow, and vulnerable to attack by Russian ships, subs, and aircraft. If Russia cannot close the gap, it also won’t be able to support Kaliningrad by land, leaving it vulnerable to assault by NATO forces.

If Russia controls Belarus, it can station military support in Belarus close to Kaliningrad, giving it a preplaced pincer with which to close the gap, support Kaliningrad, and cut off the Baltics. If Belarus were to become fully aligned with the EU and NATO, then in order to close the gap and support Kaliningrad Russia would have to conquer an entire country with potential defense in depth, rather than 70 miles of difficult-to-defend terrain.

As things stand, Lukashenko has aligned Belarus with Russia but has not given Russia the military integration and access it desires, and recently had been diplomatically splaying the middle between the EU and Russia. Now that his grip on power is slipping, Russia will be offering him support in exchanger for increased Russian influence and military access. A century ago other European leaders might have competed with Russia to influence Lukashenko, but now their leaders either truly believe in representative democracy or are bound by the beliefs of their populace to support it, making support for new elections their only option. Russia will not support new elections unless they can guarantee that the winner will align with Russia, which seems unlikely, and will do whatever is necessary to ensure that Belarus does not become NATO or EU aligned and that it retains at least some military access. For how far Russia is willing to go in these strategic balance of power situations, see Crimea.

Most likely, Lukashenko will promise Russia as much as he has to in order to get as much support as he needs to remain in power. As demonstrations ratchet up, so will his concessions and so will Russia’s support for his regime. Were he to fall or become too much of a liability, Russia will likely move quickly to ensure it can control or influence whatever happens next and that any new leader will be friendly to Russia.

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