Belarus will attempt to escape military entanglement between NATO and Russia
Belarus’ calls for reconciliation between Russia and the West, and her cautious attitude to the military activity in the region is hardly a sign of pacifism. The Belarusian authorities are well aware that as the confrontation between Moscow and NATO deepens, they would find it increasingly difficult to pursue a policy of equidistance from the parties to the conflict. In addition, enhanced military presence in the region is creating additional threats of clashes between the parties to the conflict.
NATO and Russia stepping-up their activities and a military build-up close to Belarusian borders has complicated the situation for Minsk and narrowed the room for manoeuvre in relations with Moscow. Nevertheless, Belarus has avoided harsh rhetoric and has not taken explicitly pro-Kremlin stance on regional security issues.
June has been marked by full-scale NATO exercises very close to the Belarusian border. On June 7th, 2016, NATO launched Anaconda-2016, its largest exercise. Other exercises, such as ‘Swift Response’, ‘Baltops’, and ‘Saber Strike’ are held in parallel. Their scenario carries a clear message for the Kremlin: the Alliance is consolidated and has the political will and capacity to protect its members. All Russia’s attempts to divide the Euro-Atlantic community were to no avail.
The Belarusian authorities are explicitly neutral when speaking about the ongoing events. The state propaganda is only outlining facts, without making any assessments. The Belarusian leadership has claimed to have interest in both, the West and the East and pointed to the lack of interest in aggravating the situation in the region. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has concluded that contradictions between the key centres of power in Europe over security matters are gradually transforming into a real military build-up. That said, the Belarusian authorities do not hide their negative attitude towards the foreign military presence in the neighbouring states, as such steps only escalate the conflict. In this respect, according to the Belarusian authorities, Belarus’ refusal to enable the deployment of a Russian military base in Belarus in autumn 2015 could be a positive example for all the neighbouring countries. However, the military build-up near the Belarusian borders is already irreversible. Minsk can only observe the Kremlin’s military preparations in Russia. The Belarusian authorities do not have any influence on the Russian plans.
The unfolding situation is a challenge for the Belarusian authorities. Minsk cannon bluntly disregard Moscow’s views on regional security issues. Moreover, it has move towards Moscow in order to downplay concerns in the Kremlin about the possible ‘betrayal’ of Russia’s interests by Belarus. That said, such concerns are only increasing. Having this in mind, one should treat the statement by the Ukrainian intelligence about the air reconnaissance of facilities in the neighbouring states by the Russian military from the Belarusian airspace, accordingly. The Belarusian authorities are pursuing the strategy of balancing, when each step towards the West and Ukraine is balanced by a gesture towards Russia and vice versa. Evidently, this state of affairs will be preserved in the near future.
Belarusian authorities are consistent in their negative perception of NATO’s increasing military activity in the region and the deployment of military contingents in the neighbouring states. This could be due to fears of possible reaction from Russia, which is reinforcing its military forces in the west. Moscow may step up its pressure on Minsk in order to drag Belarus into the confrontation on the Russian side. The fact, that influential circles in Moscow regard the post-Soviet space as a field for confrontation with the West, means that the Belarusian authorities do not have other means than foreign policy manoeuvring. If the confrontation enhances, such tactics may become a challenge and after a certain point, simply impossible. And Belarus will be forced to chose: between a losing option with Russia against the West, and any other option, not necessarily in favour of the West, but which will be regarded by the Kremlin as anti-Russian.
Following crackdown and arrests of participants in the spring protests, the authorities resumed arrests as punishment for participating in street protests in addition to fines, which for some time were the only punishment for political activity. On September 22nd, 2017, the riot police detained the Belarusian National Congress leader Nikolai Statkevich, the opposition politician was placed in detention centre on Akrestin street. On the same day, after serving seven days of arrest, another BNC leader, Vladimir Neklyaev, was released. He was sentenced for organising a street protest on September 8th against the West-2017 exercises. Other participants in the protest have been fined too. The authorities are likely to continue to use fines and arrests against political activists to punish for their protest activity.