Desperate times call for desperate measures. This is likely what Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko was thinking this past week when calling on the United States, a country where he’s often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator.” In a rare interview with Western media, Minsk’s strongman urged Washington to engage in talks to resolve the Ukraine crisis and stressed that “without the Americans, there can be no stability in Ukraine.” Even by Lukashenko’s eccentric standards, this is quite an about-face on a country that he has long accused of trying to oust him and that has blacklisted him, his cronies, and their businesses for blatant human rights abuses. Yet, surprising as this outreach may seem, it hardly signals a change of heart.
Lukashenko’s regime rests on several pillars. At home, a vertical of power has maintained tight control over politics, state administration, and courts. The extensive security apparatus silences political opposition, independent media, and civil society. The largely state-controlled economy ensures material redistribution, purchasing political acquiescence from elites and society. Abroad, Belarus is allied to Russia, without whose cheap energy, loans, and preferential market access it cannot survive. While pretending to seek ever-deeper integration with Russia, however, Minsk is primarily interested in this steady flow of subsidies. Whenever the political price asked by the Kremlin becomes too high, Belarus typically turns to the West, feigns rapprochement and liberalization, collects loans and aid, and waits until Russia gives in to its blackmail. This combination of rigid rule from within and crafty maneuvering without has kept Lukashenko in power for more than two decades.
However, the Ukraine crisis has fundamentally altered the stakes for Lukashenko. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its subsequent war in eastern Ukraine have sent shockwaves through Belarus, explicitly outing the Kremlin’s aggression towards former satellites that pursue an independent political course. The concept of a “Russian world,” used by Moscow to justify drastic measures to defend Russian-speaking populations outside its borders, is particularly threatening to Belarus in which the majority uses Russian. Much like other post-Soviet states, Belarus has become painfully aware of the extent of its vulnerability to Russian meddling, including among others, economic and energy dependence, propaganda by Russian state media and pro-Russian NGOs, strong-arming of parts of the security apparatus, and the presence of Russian military bases. Belarus, still trauma-stricken from World War II, finds itself at the center of a potential standoff resulting from the confrontation Russia seeks with the West, as evidenced by its frequent military exercises, regular nosing into NATO airspace, and nuclear threats. Belarus is also badly hit by the economic fallout of the ongoing crisis. The impact on Russia of low oil prices and Western sanctions and Ukraine’s imminent economic collapse mean that Belarus’ first and third-largest trade partners are in recession, resulting in a massive decline in Belarus’ currency, revenues, and reserves. In short, Lukashenko is seeing his seemingly stable power base eroded from several sides at once.
Facing this dynamic, Lukashenko has lost no time in shoring up his position at home and abroad. At home, he has portrayed himself as the bedrock of stability and identity, justifying his dictatorial rule and stressing the importance of Belarusian language and culture. Toward Moscow, he has asserted a modicum of independence: stressing the territorial integrity of Ukraine and recognizing the new government in Kiev, while acknowledging Russia’s takeover of Crimea. And toward the West, especially the European Union, Lukashenko has posed as the guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty and as a mediator in the Ukraine crisis, hosting (rather than moderating) the Minsk 1 and 2 ceasefire negotiations.
Lukashenko’s overtures to the U.S. are coherent with such efforts. However, these are fraught with political risks for the West. First, there is the danger of legitimating and emboldening an odious dictator. Lukashenko is seizing the opportunity of the Ukraine crisis to break out of international isolation. EU officials and experts are already advocating for closer ties, effectively acquiescing to Lukashenko’s demand that Belarus’ precarious independence be prioritized over its sorry state of democracy, and arguing that the Russian geopolitical threat trumps European values. This is deeply frustrating for the many Belarusians striving for democracy in their country, while offering no real succor to Belarus’ sovereignty in case of violation by Russia. In the short run, the only winner is Lukashenko; in the long run, the losers are democracy and Belarusian independence alike.
Secondly, there is a timing problem. Lukashenko’s call for U.S. involvement comes at a moment when a European-brokered agreement to settle the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is still in place. To be sure, the Minsk 2 accord that was concluded by Ukraine and Russia jointly with France and Germany in February is flawed; the ceasefire it introduced is barely holding, and the full implementation of its provisions is hardly conceivable. However, declaring the agreement dead, as Lukashenko effectively has with this call for U.S. engagement and a new conflict settlement, has several consequences. It leaves unresolved the question of which of the warring parties is chiefly responsible for the failure of the accord. It would signal a vote of no-confidence on the part of Washington in a negotiation process in which Berlin and Paris have invested considerable political capital and would put serious strain on Transatlantic relations and European unity. And it would move forward the question of U.S. arms aid for Ukraine, which is pitting important Washington political elites against President Obama. In short, there are good reasons for holding off, at least for time being, on intensified U.S. engagement on Ukraine.
Finally, Lukashenko’s call is also designed to please Russia. The appeal for the U.S. to return to the negotiating table on Ukraine plays to Russia’s desire for acknowledgement as a global player, a sentiment that none of the EU leaders involved in recent talks can satisfy. Instead, Russia’s assertion of a sphere of influence, its war in Ukraine, and its threats against NATO are all aimed at placing the country on par with the U.S. Little irks President Putin more than President Obama’s qualification of Russia as a “regional power.” Re-engaging the U.S. more closely in Ukraine would certainly boost Russian self-confidence, with serious consequences. It would encourage Russia to test the limits of U.S. commitment to Europe, and especially its East, even more aggressively. It would nurture Russia’s wish to see the European order redesigned by a few large countries over the heads and at the expense of smaller ones. And it could weaken European resolve and commitment, underdeveloped as they are, for assuming more responsibility for its own security and neighborhood.
To be sure, U.S. engagement on Ukraine, with Russia, and in Europe is still needed; indeed it is more welcome than ever, especially among the EU and NATO’s easternmost members. Lukashenko’s call, however, comes from the wrong side, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons. Washington’s response so far has been disregard it. Rightly so.