Is It Worth Isolating Belarus From The West?
August 30, 2023
  • Grigory Ioffe
    Analyst, Jamestown Foundation
Grigory Ioffe criticizes the West’s policy toward Belarus for being reduced to punitive measures. He argues that by ignoring the signals sent by Alexander Lukashenka, the West is losing the opportunity to influence Belarus and pushing it instead ever closer to Russia.
Alexander Lukashenka being interviewed by Diana Panchenko. Source: YouTube
On August 17, President Alexander Lukashenka gave a 2-hour-long interview to Diana Panchenko, a Ukrainian journalist no longer based in her home country. Panchenko used to be on Ukrainian TV; in 2020, the Ukrainian magazine Focus included her in its list of Ukraine’s most influential women. She then ran afoul of the authorities over the Russian language and Ukrainian nationalism. In August 2022, she left Kyiv and in January 2023, in the wake of her televised reports from Donetsk and Mariupol, Ukraine’s Security Service accused her of spreading Russian propaganda. 

In essence, Lukashenka’s opinion on the war that he shared with Panchenko did not differ from what he had articulated before: the war was provoked by the West, especially the US, Russia responded to the challenge; Kyiv did negotiate and was intent on further negotiating with the Russians but was stopped by the US; given the current situation on the front line and the resource inequities between the warring parties, Ukraine needs to return to the negotiating table, and the hostilities should stop; otherwise, Ukraine may lose its statehood completely.

Belarusian opposition media in exile, as well as the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, analyzed the interview in detail and uncovered multiple distortions and duplicities. For example, Lukashenka claimed that Russia’s army was not defeated on the outskirts of Kyiv but rather retreated out of good will. He criticized the Ukrainian government for mistreating journalists like Panchenko, whereas dozens of journalists have been jailed in Belarus or squeezed out of the country.

In his interview to Panchenko, Lukashenka pushed for Ukraine effectively conceding to loss of some territories, especially but not only Crimea. However, during a meeting on the same day with the Chinese minister of defense, Lukashenka claimed he is committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Even the fact that Lukashenka exaggerated the rate of car ownership in Minsk was not spared the attention of the opposition-minded journalists.

Off the beaten path

There were two remarks by Lukashenka that some of the most insightful of those journalists focused on. One of them was his unexpected statement that “the objectives of the special military operation have already been achieved today.” In the opinion of Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran opposition journalist, this was a message sent on behalf of Vladimir Putin, who, believes Klaskovsky, “needs a pause so that the Russian economy eventually reorganizes itself on a war footing, to accumulate missiles and other weapons, to further mobilize, and so on. Lukashenka plays along with him and hopes to receive dividends.”

The second remark was seemingly more suggestive. Rather than rehashing Russia’s propaganda, it reflects Belarus’s own interests and predicaments related to the war. When Panchenko asked the Belarusian leader if he was informed by Putin in advance about Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion, Lukashenka had this to say:

“You saw his speech on TV [after the start of the operation]. Me too… Right on the eve of hostilities, we did not have a conversation that would suggest the war would begin. I swear to you. Yes, we discussed that Russia may be taking some actions against Ukraine. The only thing is that when we met with him in his country residence and discussed the situation that had developed, he told me verbatim (I’m telling you this for the first time ever): “Listen, Sasha, you know the situation; if, God forbid, suddenly something happens... I say: listen, what can happen? Well, he said, anything can happen. Cover for me, please.”
What this statement, whether candid or not, implies is that Lukashenka was not exactly informed about the impending attack on Ukraine, including from Belarusian territory.”
According to the anonymous author of Zerkalo.io, the successor to the legendary Tut.by, Belarus’s most popular news and analysis site, closed by the government in May 2021, this confession “smacks of the truth, although it raises logical questions for a politician who was not even warned that they [Russians] would start a war against a neighbor from the territory of his country.”

In contrast, Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty is not inclined to take Lukashenka’s confession at face value. Even so, he still takes it as the most remarkable part of the interview. After all, Lukashenka could easily boast of being informed in advance; instead, he preferred to effectively play along with his image as Putin’s puppet that cannot help but be humiliating to him. In Drakakhrust’s opinion, this is because Lukashenka chose what he perceives as the lesser of two evils.

In other words, it is less damaging to his image to be seen as a puppet than to be seen as someone fully complicit in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Apparently, he sees Belarus’s isolation from the West as transient and believes that relations with the West would need to be restored as soon as possible.

Unprepared for the war

The initial Facebook version of Drakakhrust’s article generated an insightful discussion. Sergei Bogdan, a Belarusian historian at Free University of Berlin, opined that:

“the analysis of the disposition, structure, and head count of the Belarusian army both then [in 2021] and now indicates the absence of plans for an offensive war much more convincingly than the words of President Lukashenka as such or those of anyone else. Unfortunately, no one is interested in such nitty-gritty details like that by the fall of 2021, almost the entire south of the country had been demilitarized, with even important military infrastructure facilities decommissioned, or that Minsk fully engaged all types of troops in the direction of the NATO countries, and even after the start of the war, the Ukrainian border had to be covered [due to emergency] by the elite special operations units.

As for the Belarusian army in general, it did not expand at all, only border guards in the south and militia did.
Minsk delayed the formal creation of the Southern Operational Command as long as it could, and even now it is deficient.
They would need at least a couple of motorized rifle brigades from somewhere, and if even they are not added, then the creation of that command is just a gimmick. Overall, even Russian tactical nuclear weapons were introduced, perhaps because the Belarusian government did not strengthen its army, and the Russian government also does not have extra soldiers to send to Belarus. At the same time, it is necessary to cover the borders with Ukraine and the NATO countries, especially against the backdrop of huge military enforcement of Poland.”

In other words, though it became a willy-nilly co-aggressor, Belarus never prepared for war. On the contrary, it did the exact opposite to what would have been seen as such preparations. In the back-and-forth between Bogdan and Drakakhrust, the latter remarked that Bogdan’s information is unknown to most, whereas Lukashenka’s confession that he was not even informed about the pending war was now known to many people, whether it was true or not.

To that Bogdan replied that what he revealed about the Belarusian military was reflected in the 2019 and 2020 yearbooks of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and in the publications of the Minsk Dialogue Council that were delivered to foreign embassies in Minsk and other subscribers and internet users. Still, this information was never published by popular media outlets, insisted Drakakhrust.

Drakahrust may have put his finger on something essential. One can argue that the information Bogdan referred to was not in demand because it was preempted by the preconceived notions: Lukashenka is Putin’s puppet, and Belarus is just an extension of Russia. Likewise what Lukashenka insisted on in the interview to Panchenko – “Putin is head to one country, while I am to another, and the human heart is a mystery” – was not taken seriously either. There seems to be a self-sustaining chain reaction of punitive Western sanctions depriving Minsk of a modicum of room for geopolitical maneuver and boosting dependence on Russia. These outcomes are then taken as a justification for more sanctions, and then the reaction continues.

Sealing off a perceived adversary

A recent closure of two out of six border crossings between Lithuania and Belarus and the publicized joint threat by Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland to close all border crossings to Belarus is a case in point.

In April 2022, Minsk unilaterally introduced visa-free entrance to Belarus from all three above-mentioned countries. Since the beginning of this year, about 300,000 people took advantage of this opportunity.
The Privalka border crossing between Lithuania and Belarus. Source: Facebook
Altogether since April 2022, they amounted to 685,687, including 434,794 people from Lithuania. And that is despite steady discouragement by the authorities in those countries.

For example, at the Privalki crossing used by those making it from Vilnius to Grodno, a poster asks Lithuanian citizens not to risk their security and not travel to Belarus for they may fail to come back. So far, no failures to return have been reported. The border between Lithuania and Belarus cuts across a formerly integrated Wilno/Vilnius area where many people to this day share Polish identity even if they do not speak the language. There are many cross-border family ties. Many Lithuanian citizens cross to Belarus to visit relatives, cemeteries, and many purchase gasoline and groceries, especially sausages on the Belarusian side.
Wagner soldiers in Belarus. August 7, 2023. Source: VK
The threat to completely isolate Belarus from the West was motivated by the fear of border provocations by the Wagner group, part of which found “refuge” in Belarus. Perhaps following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death, this fear will subside, but it did not seem founded in the first place. Multiple Belarusian analysts from among the exiled opposition expressed their concern in conjunction with the border closure threat.

Thus, Artyom Shraibman, a Carnegie Endowment nonresident scholar, now residing in Poland, suggested that in the case of a complete border closure, ordinary Belarusians will suffer the most, not just because personal travel would be curtailed, but also the still remaining imports from the EU, including medications and processed food items. A roundabout via Russia would make all those products vastly more expensive. Belarus would become a Crimea in the center of Europe in a sense that all roads to it would have to be via Russia.

Shraibman explains that the threat to close the border pursues the goal of discouraging border provocations on the part of Minsk; it is like the Sword of Damocles boosting the price of such provocations for Lukashenka. However, it would not make sense for the three countries to implement their threat, because it would deprive the West of any remaining influence on Lukashenka’s behavior – a meaningful admission effectively implying that sanctions may become counterproductive.

On August 21, the US State Department urged US citizens in Belarus to depart the country immediately and warned against travel there. Given that there are precious few Americans in Belarus, while the State Department document provided no explanations as to what constitutes the specific threat to Americans but did have a mention of a partial border crossing by Lithuania, this creates a feeling that the Blinken-Nuland team simply wants to add some decibels to the joint Latvia-Lithuania-Poland warning.

Cold-shouldering Belarus

Pavel Matsukevich, a former Belarusian diplomat, now in exile, observed that back in 2021, prior to sanctions, Belarus’s export of transportation and logistical services, a reliable measure of Belarus’s connectedness to the outside world, was worth $4 billion; there were 37,000 entrepreneurs organized into 11,000 branches. Belarus has long been an open economy, with exports exceeding 60% of its gross domestic product.
Now, to proceed with exports, with the Lithuanian and Latvian ports being cut off, Belarus has to use 19 different Russian seaports and incur significant additional expenditures.
“The threat in the form of Wagner is actively used by a number of actors in the internal political struggle in Poland and Lithuania,” writes Alexander Klaskovsky. “The Poles have elections to the Sejm in October, while the Lithuanians look forward to the presidential and parliamentary electoral campaigns next year. Critics say it is important for Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party to emphasize how it protects voters from danger from the Belarusian dictatorship. That is why the Wagner threat is exaggerated. The same card is being played by some political actors in Lithuania as well.”

In addition, Lithuanian officialdom has suddenly expressed concern over Belarusian opposition effectively stealing the Lithuanian national history. To wit, one of two historical narratives of Belarus, the Westernizing narrative, has long considered the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (in existence from the middle of the 13th century to 1795) a kind of proto-Belarus, with most Slavic residents of the Duchy being called Litvins (Litvyny). Those allegedly became Belarusians, whereas a small minority of the Duchy’s inhabitants who spoke Lithuanian were referred to as Žemaitis or Zhmud’, and they subsequently usurped the toponym Lithuania that in the past used to be more Slavic than Baltic (Letto-Lithuanian).

In fact, such an interpretation used to be in circulation since Vaclaw Lastouski (Lastowski) laid the foundation of the Belarusian history’s Westernizing narrative in his 1910 textbook of Belarusian history published in Wilno. In modern Belarus, this narrative was revived in the late 1980s and manifested itself in books by Mykola Yermalovich, Vadim Deruzhinsky, Vladimir Orlov and Gennady Saganovich, etc. All those treatises collided with the dominant Russo-centric view, according to which Belarusians are integral to the three-prong East-Slavic community that gave way to (Great) Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians) and Belarusians.

Why Lithuanian officials never took the above narrative seriously but only recently asserted it was “no good to appropriate Lithuanian history” may be explained by the significant post-2020 inflow of Belarusians, as well as to Lithuania’s domestic politics. Be that as it may, Belarusian emigres no longer feel quite comfortable in Lithuania, and many IT specialists from Minsk who found their new home in Vilnius are now beginning to leave it or at least thinking about leaving.

The champions of punitive sanctions

Belarus has never been the focus of attention of the West’s foreign-policymaking community. Consequently, the latter has not had a handle either on the meaning or the implications of Belarus’s blurred identity or on its vital national interest of maintaining ties with both Russia and the West. Preconceived notions initially emanating from a classic democracy promotion handbook and then categorizing Belarus as an extension of Russia have reigned supreme. Lukashenka’s harsh treatment of the opposition that enjoyed vigorous support from the West and especially Russia’s war against Ukraine solidified those notions. However, a lasting confrontation between the Russo-centric and Westernizing narratives of Belarusian history is not exactly the same as the autocracy-versus-democracy showdown, although it is tempting to perceive it that way. The champions of punitive sanctions against Belarus may have overplayed their hand. Not only did they punish Minsk – they also deprived the West itself of influence on Belarus. Choosing to perceive Belarus as an extension of Russia is particularly counterproductive. Not only does it willfully neglect available evidence to the contrary – it inexorably morphs into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
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