WASHINGTON -- While U.S. relations with Russia remain out in the cold five years after Moscow’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, ties with Belarus appear to be quickly thawing.
Following a flurry of official meetings, Washington and Minsk announced in September that they will again exchange ambassadors after more than a decade-long disruption in diplomatic relations.
But while Belarus has freed political prisoners in recent years, its record on human rights and democracy -- the root cause of the breakdown in relations with the United States -- still ranks at the bottom among European nations.
Washington’s renewed engagement, analysts say, reflects a realization that with Moscow seeking to redraw European borders and shore up its power in the neighborhood, U.S. interests required a shift from a strategy of isolation designed to foster democratic change in Belarus to one of support for its continued independence from Moscow.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and others in the nation’s elite “want to preserve a modicum of sovereignty. And so, engaging them rather than pushing them away and refusing to talk is really the only way you can do that,” Michael Carpenter, a former U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary who helped lead the push to revive diplomatic relations, told RFE/RL.
Russia’s cross-border military moves in the Putin era, including the seizure of Crimea and the five-day war with Georgia in 2008, have raised concerns in Minsk -- and in Washington -- about the Kremlin’s plans for Belarus.
The United States wants to keep Belarus free of permanent Russian ground forces or bases, something that could weaken NATO defenses in Europe, several experts said. Russia’s hold over the Belarusian economy gives it leverage in talks with its smaller neighbor.
“The number one priority is to halt -- and potentially reverse -- any further integration between Belarus and Russia, particularly on the military side but also economically,” Eugene Chausovsky, a Eurasia analyst at intelligence firm Stratfor, told RFE/RL.
However, Washington will have to step cautiously in supporting Minsk’s independence. Signaling that engagement is aimed to counter Russian influence could antagonize the Kremlin and potentially beat a path toward the very outcome Washington is seeking to avoid, analysts said.
“If the U.S. goes in trying to pry the Belarusians away or minimize Russian influence -- that could very easily backfire and cause the Belarusians more problems,” said Samuel Charap, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, a Washington-based think-tank.
“If we want to take on Russian influence, this is the last place on Earth where we can expect to achieve an outright victory,” Charap said. “I think it's important to have modest expectations and act diplomatically.”
Possibly to address that concern, Undersecretary of State David Hale, who announced the U.S. plan to resume an exchange of ambassadors after talks with Lukashenka in Minsk on September 17, said that Washington is “not asking Belarus to choose between East and West.”
Russia accused the West of forcing Ukraine to make that choice in 2013, and what happened next may be a lesson in the trickiness and risks involved in relations with countries that Moscow wants to keep in its orbit -- or pull closer.
The Kremlin applied a mix of pressure and multibillion-dollar incentives to keep Kyiv out of a landmark pact with the European Union -- and when the president it supported was pushed from power by a popular uprising as a result, Russia seized Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in a continuing bid to maintain influence over the France-sized neighbor.
Belarus is smaller than Ukraine, landlocked, and has a population of less than 10 million. But it also lies between Russia and the West, bordering NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia -- a location that adds to its status as a strategic player in the current great-power politics between Moscow and Washington, which some see as a Cold War-style zero-sum game.
The country has assumed “even greater geopolitical importance in Central Europe’s balance of power” since 2014 and -- by remaining free of Russian ground troops and air bases -- enhances NATO security, Jamestown Foundation President Glen Howard said in a September report.
Then-U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton said this month following a meeting with Lukashenka in Minsk that the two nations should explore mutual interests despite “significant issues” over Belarus’s human rights record in part because of “the geostrategic environment in this part of Europe.” He reiterated the U.S. policy of supporting the sovereignty of former Soviet states.
Howard, who was among a group of U.S. analysts who met with Lukashenka in November 2018, called the West’s focus on Belarusian human rights “unbalanced.”
That focus has shifted since Russia’s takeover of Crimea, said Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based political analyst.
“For the last four years, every U.S. official has started and ended their visit to Minsk with statements about unwavering support for Belarus’s independence. Previously, it was all about human rights,”
Deep Ties To Moscow
Concerns over Minsk’s sovereignty stem from its deep ties to Moscow. Belarus is part of a military alliance with Russia known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, but Russia -- not for lack of trying -- has no permanent forces known to be stationed there.
Moscow also props up its western neighbor’s outdated economy with cheap energy and loans and consumes more than one third of Belarus’s exports, adding to its leverage.
But the Kremlin’s recent push to consummate a two-decade old plan for a union state -- which for now exists largely on paper -- that would lead to further integration, including a common currency and foreign policy, has caused jitters in Minsk.
Fears that tightening ties would be a way for Russia to swallow its smaller neighbor -- potentially as a path for Putin to maintain power after he hits up against term limits in 2024 -- have long been stoked by statements from officials in Moscow including the president, who hinted back in 2002 that a true union would turn Lukashenka into a mere regional governor.
Along with the union push has come the Kremlin demand for an air base in Belarus to counter a greater NATO presence in Eastern Europe that was a direct result of its annexation of Crimea.
In January, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleh Krauchenka told a conference in Washington that Minsk does not see the enhanced troop presence as a threat.
Strained Relations With Russia
Lukashenka, an authoritarian leader who has ruled the country for a quarter century, has often made overtures to the West to enhance his weak bargaining position with Russia.
The current thaw with the United States comes as Russia plans to charge Belarus global prices for its crude oil by 2024. Belarus stands to lose as much as $12 billion in budget revenue over the next five years -- unless Moscow compensates it -- as the increase is slowly phased in.
Belarus, already facing a growing debt burden, would be forced to cut public spending, the World Bank wrote. Russia’s energy policy has infuriated Lukashenka.
"I understand the hints [from Moscow] saying, 'OK, take our oil but in exchange for that destroy your statehood and become part of Russia'.... It is useless to use extortion against Belarus," Lukashenka said in December.
"If someone wants to break [Belarus] into regions and force us to become a subject of Russia, that will never happen."
Belarus in August hired a Washington-based lobbyist to help the country end sanctions and purchase U.S. oil. Carpenter, the former U.S. defense official, who is now senior director at the Penn Biden Center, a U.S. think tank, called it a public-relations move aimed to “slap” Russia for its new energy policy.
Nonetheless, a month after Lukashenka’s outburst, Krauchenka told his Washington audience that his country has no intention of ending its “special relationship” with Russia.
“There is no plan in Belarus to turn our back on Russia. It will always be a strategic partner,” he said at an Atlantic Council conference.
Kravchenko also sought to tame expectations from a resumption of full diplomatic ties with the United States.
“When we do return to normalcy, when we have ambassadors back -- and it will still take time -- we will see if any progress beyond that is possible,” the deputy minister said.
Washington’s relations with Minsk, poor for years, deteriorated in March 2006 after Lukashenka’s government cracked down hard on street protests following a presidential election that -- like all elections held in Belarus under Lukashenka -- international observers deemed neither free nor fair.
Lukashenka was declared the winner with 84 percent of the vote and tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest. Police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, prompting President George W. Bush’s administration to impose sanctions on nine state-owned entities and 16 Belarusian individuals, including Lukashenka.
Bush widened the sanctions in 2008 amid what it said were worsening human rights abuses, and Lukashenka responded by expelling the U.S. ambassador and 30 other U.S. diplomats, out of 35. President Barack Obama further expanded the sanctions in 2012 following another election deemed flawed.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014 kicked the relationship into a new gear.
By September, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich headed an official delegation to New York City for the first Belarusian-American investment forum.
In August 2015, Lukashenka released all six of the inmates deemed political prisoners in Belarus and the United States suspended sanctions on the state-owned entities. The State Department told RFE/RL in September 2019 that it currently does not consider any inmate in Belarus to be a political prisoner.
A year later the two countries once again exchanged defense attaches, a step analysts said was aimed to ensure Belarus did not feel threatened by a NATO buildup in Poland and the Baltics.
Hale signaled on September 17 following his meeting with Lukashenka in Minsk that the United States could further ease sanctions against Belarus -- which would help reduce dependence on Russia -- if the country makes strides on democracy.
Belarus is set to hold parliamentary elections in November and a presidential election in 2020.
Lukashenka may allow a few more opposition politicians to enter parliament to appease the West and ease sanctions but that “won’t change anything because parliament is still completely controlled and impotent,” said Shraibman.