Will Belarus Be Putin’s Next Victim?

Another Kremlin-driven crisis may be coming to Eastern Europe

Belarus rarely makes it into Western news reports, and hardly ever in a positive way. Governed since 1994 by Aleksandr Lukashenka, a Soviet-era throwback strongman—in a perfect touch, he once ran a Communist collective farm—Belarus for decades has been bemoaned as Europe’s last dictatorship thanks to its poor human rights record and less than democratic ways.

Lukashenka has shown little interest in currying Western favor until quite recently. His regime, guided by the strong hand of the secret police—still termed the KGB in fully Soviet fashion—has imprisoned and occasionally disappeared journalists and politicians who get on Lukashenka’s bad side. As full-time Soviet nostalgists, the regime and its leader have pined for days of lost Communist glory, and efforts at liberalization of the economy and society have made little progress in Minsk.

The ramshackle Belarusian economy remains mired in statist inefficiencies, and the only thing that has kept Lukashenka afloat all these years has been Kremlin help. Vladimir Putin long courted Minsk with loans and low prices on imported Russian energy, in exchange receiving Belarus as a vital buffer state against NATO and the West.

Its geographic location, bordering on three members of the Atlantic Alliance—Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia—gives Belarus an undeniable importance to Russia, one which has only increased since 2014, when Moscow’s ties to NATO soured after Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. Given perennial Russian fears of invasion from the west, Belarus looms large in Moscow’s military imagination—and war plans.

In practice, the Kremlin has long considered Belarus hardly more than an extension of Russia in security terms. For years, relations between Moscow and Minsk have been close in defense and intelligence matters, and joint military exercises with Russian and Belarusian forces have been commonplace. Since the latter uses Russian weapons and defense doctrine, and both armies speak the same language, the Kremlin has considered Belarusian forces to be fully interoperable with its own. In Russian war planning, Minsk’s military has counted in the Kremlin’s numbers.

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