Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @WorldAffairsPro. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.
With mass protests erupting in Belarus over a disputed presidential election on Sunday, after which incumbent Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory, the Kremlin must be watching nervously.
Thousands have been arrested in the former Soviet republic and heavily armed Belarusian security forces are on the streets. The leading opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has fled to neighboring Lithuania. Internationally, the reaction has been a mix, from Western governments warning against violent suppression of protesters (the United States, the European Union, NATO and many European neighbors have sounded that alarm) to a congratulatory note from Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for Lukashenko to resume stalled integration plans to join Belarus and Russia into one country.
As with any development on Russia’s periphery, the rest of the world should take note – and should think a bit about Putin’s intentions.
Putin’s comment on Belarus is clearly intended to stop that country’s drift to the West, and we should take it as a subtle warning to Lukashenko to not stray from Moscow’s orbit. Not exactly a shot across the bow, but it would be foolhardy to underestimate Moscow’s willingness to respond with force – just ask neighboring Ukraine.
That is because what Russia fears most is Maidan-style protests which rocked Ukraine for several months in 2013-2014 and led to the removal of the pro-Moscow President, Viktor Yanukovych. Those protests were sparked by Ukraine’s agreement to develop closer trade ties with the European Union and Yanukovich’s withdrawal from that agreement after a meeting with Putin.
Belarus has been cooperating with the EU, but its ties with Russia are deep and not likely to diminish, and it would behoove everyone to remember this recent history of Putin seeing pro-Western protests in a neighboring country and responding with force. When protests in Kiev set Ukraine back on the road toward integration with Europe, it was quickly followed by a Russian invasion.
With protests arising now in Belarus, conflict in Ukraine still simmering, and the world distracted by Covid-19, it’s worth examining what these dynamics mean for Putin and whether another brazen act is on the horizon.
Dim peace prospects in Ukraine
And more than six years later, the prospects for peace in eastern Ukraine are bleaker than ever. This despite the 2014 signing of peace accords, the active engagement of the French and German leaders, and no less than 20 ceasefires, including one reaffirmed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky that went into effect on July 27 but collapsed just a few hours later, according to Ukraine’s military and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The conflict, one of the longest-running in the world, has claimed more than 14,000 lives, displaced an estimated 1.5 million people, and damaged billions of dollars worth of property and infrastructure.
On one side of the conflict, in an unenviable position, is a TV comedian-turned-politician still cutting his teeth. On the other, a former KGB agent who, in Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, orchestrated the smoothest invasion on Europe’s doorstep in modern times.
And in the middle, a US president who has a noticeable affinity for Putin and appears fearful of confronting him regardless of what he does.
The time for another land grab is ripe
Ukrainian officials have been quoted as saying that Russia is building up personnel and firepower in Crimea and along eastern Ukraine. While it is difficult to corroborate such reports – especially since OSCE monitors have been blocked many times at rebel-controlled checkpoints and are being given very limited access at an observation point on the Ukraine-Russia border – the geopolitical landscape appears perfect for Putin to either expand his sphere of influence or intervene to keep a weak client state such as Belarus in the fold.
Alarm bells should be going off in Western capitals.
Here’s why. Putin likely feels emboldened by the success of his latest consolidation of power at home, through a recent constitutional change which extends his hold on power until 2036.
And with Russia struggling to fight the Covid-19 pandemic and with its economy in the doldrums, there’s no more perfect time to fire up the public than by reclaiming sovereign lands which Russia regards as its own. After all, it worked before with the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Second, the world’s go-to policeman – the United States – is distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic, an upcoming election, and by a President who not only admires strongmen but conceals conversations with them and lets them do as they please. President Donald Trump’s troubling silence on reports of Russia paying bounties to the Taliban for the heads of US military personnel in Afghanistan also sticks out. Also puzzling is Trump’s poorly explained decision to draw down the US troop presence in Germany by almost 12,000 at a time when the threat of Russian military aggression has not subsided. (Republican Sen. Mitt Romney blasted the decision as “a gift to Russia”).
So, if Putin cannot gain more ground in advancing his agenda with Trump in the White House and a former comedian as President of Ukraine, then he never will.
A free pass for Putin?
Should Putin decide to gobble up his neighbors – either in eastern Ukraine or in Belarus – the chance of strong US military response is as likely as the White House ordering strikes on Chinese naval vessels for claiming disputed territory in the South China Sea. In other words, it ain’t going to happen.
If the commander-in-chief doesn’t have the spine to stand up for his own soldiers in the face of intelligence suggesting Russian bounties on their lives, what are the chances of him standing up for Ukraine? Having dragged Ukraine and Zelensky into domestic politics through last year’s ill-fated quid-pro-quo scandal and denying him an Oval Office visit, there’s little the administration has to show for deterring a Russian military move against Ukraine.
As for Putin, further military adventurism runs the risk of a backlash at home, especially if there is major loss of life on the Russian side. (Of course, he could hide any deaths, as Russia reportedly has done in eastern Ukraine.)
Putin thrives on chaos. As he did in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, he could justify a military intervention by pointing to a deteriorating situation in Ukraine and threats to Russian-speakers.
“No one knows what’s in Mr. Putin’s mind, but we should all be prepared for anything,” William B. Taylor, the former top US diplomat in Ukraine, told me.
To be sure, there’s been strong, bipartisan American support for Ukraine since independence. But can a dysfunctional executive branch of the US government, which struggles to deliver support to millions of Americans impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, be expected to deliver for Ukraine and at the same time stand up to Russian aggression?
The Belarus turmoil is yet another opportunity for Putin, and if history is any indication, then he will act decisively while the world is distracted.
It leaves the rest of the world, and Zelensky in particular, to figure out how to stave off any ways in which he might seize that advantage.