Russia’s tightening embrace of embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is raising concerns at NATO that the balance of military power in the alliance’s weak northeast corner could tip further in the Kremlin’s favor.
Western capitals have lambasted Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, for declaring himself the winner of a disputed election last month and cracking down on street protests. The U.S., U.K. and Canada are preparing sanctions. The European Union is debating similar moves.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is using Belarus’s crisis to press Mr. Lukashenko—who has long tried to use the EU as a hedge against Moscow’s overwhelming influence—to accede to Russian demands for greater sway, which have long included putting military bases on Belarusian territory.
That could position Russian forces as a pincer on either side of the 60-mile Polish-Lithuanian border, which is the only land route between the Baltic states and the rest of North Atlantic Treaty Organization territory. Dubbed the Suwalki Gap after the small Polish city in its middle, it is seen as the alliance’s weak point.
“Suwalki is much less of a concern if you don’t have Russian troops in Belarus,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe. “If you do, it’s a different calculation in terms of the time, speed and power they can bring.”
“It would dramatically change the calculations we have for the defense of the Baltics,” said a Lithuanian defense official. Belarus as a Russian buffer “gives us breathing space of a few days, which are vital.”
The protests against Mr. Lukashenko show no signs of dwindling despite the brutal police crackdown. The West has shown little of the support it did for Ukraine’s opposition in 2014, which eventually forced out a pro-Russian leader, sparking Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Since then, NATO has focused on increasing defense and deterrence on its eastern flank, primarily by stationing four multinational battalions totaling some 4,000 troops in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. NATO strategists worry about the Suwalki Gap because Russia’s military superiority in the region means it could seek quickly to cut the Baltics off from allied reinforcements by land.
“Securing the Suwalki Gap is regularly tested in allied exercises, and free movement of NATO forces within allied territory is an important part of our defense posture,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. NATO’s presence in the region is aimed at preventing conflict, she said, and the alliance “remains vigilant, defensive and prepared to deter any aggression against allies.”
Russia has also bolstered its military might in the region, particularly in the exclave of Kaliningrad. Its amphibious landing exercises from the Baltic Sea caused alarm earlier this year among Baltic states and prompted Sweden, a partner of NATO but not a member, to boost its military presence on its island of Gotland. Russia has denied any aggressive intent and accuses NATO of massing forces on Russia’s border.
The West had sought in recent years quietly to bolster the ability of Mr. Lukashenko’s government to resist Russia’s pressure for tighter integration. Belarus held joint training with 28 U.K. marines in March, but Mr. Lukashenko has since blamed NATO and Belarus’s neighbors for his domestic problems, suggesting they are trying to overthrow him.
The deterioration in ties between Minsk and the West has coincided with Mr. Lukashenko’s efforts to bolster his relations with Moscow, the only regional player whom the Belarus leader sees as a guarantor of his continued rule. Numerous calls have been made between Messrs. Putin and Lukashenko and the Belarus leader visited Sochi earlier this month in a display of loyalty.
“All these events have shown us that we need to have closer ties with our elder brother and cooperate on all issues,” Mr. Lukashenko said ahead of talks with Mr. Putin in Sochi.
The Kremlin has long craved more control over Belarus, where it already dominates the economy through gas and oil supplies and loans. After Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, to Belarus’s south, Mr. Lukashenko fended off Russian requests for an air force base on Belarusian territory. Mr. Lukashenko has also worked to slow Russian efforts to integrate the two countries’ militaries, intelligence services and economies.
“Lukashenko doesn’t have the space he had before for maneuver and Russia’s leverage over him is now higher than ever before,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of a Kremlin advisory board on defense and foreign policy.
Moscow, however, is aware of the danger of clinching too many agreements with a leader who has been rejected by his own people. After its experience in Ukraine, where Moscow saw popular support in that country turn against the Kremlin, Mr. Putin is careful not to swing sentiment against Russia and toward the West.
On the military front, Russia is already working toward greater cooperation.
Bilateral military exercises that were planned before the August elections started earlier this month, with live-fire drills and paratrooper landings with 1,000 Russian troops.
Those exercises, called Slavic Brotherhood 2020, ended on Sept. 25, but Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has suggested more drills in October.
NATO countries are also flexing their muscles.
Around 500 U.S. troops arrived in Lithuania this month, with armored vehicles including tanks for a near two-month deployment that includes live-fire exercises. The U.S. Army said it was a routine exercise and “is evidence of the strong and unremitting U.S. commitment to NATO and Europe.”
NATO’s defense plan relies on quickly reinforcing Europe in case of an attack. The U.S. had hoped to practice such an operation this year, in a large military exercise that had been set to involve 37,000 service members across Europe but was curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gen. Hodges, the former U.S. Army Europe commander, said Moscow may feel emboldened by squabbles and delays over Western sanctions on Belarus and questions over the U.S. commitment to Europe caused by plans to reduce U.S. troop numbers.
“The cohesion of NATO and the EU, the unmistakable U.S. commitment to Europe—that’s why Russia hasn’t attacked,” he said. When that is less evident, “the risk goes up,” he said.
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