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The Morning Vertical, February 14, 2017

  • Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Given everything else that's going on, Belarus may look like a sideshow. But it's not.

When Western military planners look at scenarios for how a conflict between Russia and NATO would shape up, Belarus is widely assumed to not only to be in Moscow's camp, but its territory is looked at as a virtual extension of Russia's.

This is why the Suwalki Gap, a roughly 100-kilometer stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border wedged between Belarus and Russia's Kaliningrad region, is such a problem.

If Russia captured the gap in a conflict it would cut the Baltics off from the rest of the alliance. Belarus also looms large in Russia's deployment of its Area Access/Area Denial capabilities.

But Alyaksandr Lukashenka's statements that he would not allow Belarusian territory to be used to attack a third country and his stubborn refusal to allow a new Russian air base on Belarusian soil appear to challenge the assumption that for military purposes, Belarusian territory is an extension of Russia -- at least for now.

A recent war-game simulation hosted by the Potomac Foundation and the Casimir Pulaski Foundation (written up in a piece by Arseni Sivitski that is featured below), illustrates Belarus's rising geopolitical importance.

In the simulation, a conflict between NATO and Russia is preceded by a Moscow-backed coup in Belarus that overthrows Lukashenka and replaces him with a more pliant figure.

With NATO troops now in Poland and the Baltics, with Russia feeling emboldened in its neighborhood, and with massive military exercises planned near Russia's Western borders later this year, the high-stakes dance between Lukashenka and Moscow merits watching.

IN THE NEWS

The White House has announced that national security adviser Michael Flynn has resigned amid reports he misled top officials from President Donald Trump's team about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States.

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron's campaign says he is being targeted by Russian media and Internet attacks with the goal of helping the election campaigns of his pro-Moscow rivals.

Japanese officials have said they lodged a protest with Russia over Moscow's decision to give names to five formerly unnamed islands of a disputed chain known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stressed that Moscow is hoping for closer cooperation with the United States on Syria.

Locals in St Petersburg who oppose a government plan to hand control of the iconic St. Isaac's Cathedral over to the Russian Orthodox Church have vowed to continue mass protests and other actions.

International rights groups have urged separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine to disclose the location and ensure the safety of a Russian LGBT activist and a fellow performance artist who went missing there two weeks ago.

A Belarusian official says an order requiring Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan to leave the country and barring him from entry was rescinded after high-level officials intervened.

The European Parliament has endorsed new rules governing the suspension of visa-free regimes with countries outside the European Union, a key step toward visa-free travel for Georgians and Ukrainians to the Schengen zone.

WHAT I'M READING

Why Belarus Is Important

Belarus was a key factor in a recent war game that simulated a Russian attack on Poland and the Baltic states, Arseni Sivitski, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, writes.Two think tanks, the Potomac Foundation and the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, hosted the war game, which included defense experts and representatives from various Western governments and NATO.

"In the Baltic wargaming simulation scenario, the conflict between Russia and NATO begins with Belarus, with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka refusing to establish a large-scale permanent military presence of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus," Savitsky writes.

"Therefore the Kremlin decides to launch a coup, overthrowing Lukashenka and replacing him with a fully controlled and loyal secret service general. The new leader of Belarus then officially invites Russian troops into Belarus. After this the Kremlin begins to generate hybrid threats to the Baltic countries and Poland."

The Kremlin's Alternative Histories

In Bloomberg, political analyst Marc Champion looks back at the Kremlin's history of promoting "altered facts."

"Warning: the Kremlin is trying to split the West by spreading “altered facts,” conducting blackmail and setting up front organizations, the U.S. State Department said -- in 1981," Champion writes.

The Lives Of Others

Shaun Walker has a feature in The Guardian profiling Jack Barsky, an east German man who worked for decades as a KGB "illegal" in the United States.

"Barsky’s story is a timely reminder of the immense resources the Russians were willing to expend during the cold war in their bid to embed agents in enemy territory. Hacking was not an option, and casual travel between Moscow and the west was much harder," Walker writes.

Soros On The Russian Threat To Europe

George Soros has a piece in The Guardian arguing that Russia is a greater threat to Europe than ISIS.

"The most effective way Putin’s regime can avoid collapse is by causing the EU to collapse sooner. An EU that is coming apart at the seams will not be able to maintain the sanctions it imposed on Russia following its incursion into Ukraine," Soros writes.

Dealing With Putin's Revanchism

Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and the author of the book A Revanchist Russia And An Uncertain West, has a piece in The National Interest on how the West should deal with the Putin regime.

Russia, Syria, And ISIS

Foreign Policy asks: Why are Russian engineers working at an ISIS-controlled gas plant in Syria?

The NATO Of The Mind

In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky looks at how the "NATO of the mind" limits Putin's sphere of influence.

Second Thoughts In The Kremlin

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have a piece in Foreign Policy suggesting that the Kremlin might be having second thoughts about Trump.

Putin's Munich Speech

Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov has a piece in Republic.ru looking back at Putin's Munich speech ten years ago.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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