Closing the Northern Gates: Saving Ukraine through Belarus
By: Terence Hui
On January 28th, 2022 Belarus declared its support of Russia over the Ukrainian issue. President Lukashenko proclaimed that “if our country faces an aggression, there will be hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers here, who will defend this sacred land together with hundreds of thousands of Belarusians.” This development has emboldened the Russians in Ukraine as Belarus will offer a closer path towards Kyiv, the strategic goal of the Russian offensive. Therefore, it is imperative that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) dissuade Belarus from joining the Russians in their aggression against Ukraine.
As of the week of February 9th, Russia has mobilized over 100,000 Troops on the Ukrainian border. This force is noted by U.S. Defense Secretary Austin to be larger than any normal military exercise. While the Russians have been engaging in diplomacy with the West, most of their demands have been outrageous— that NATO does not expand their alliance any further. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken has maintained that Russia’s terms are a “non-starter.” It is evident that Moscow wishes for a violent territorial grab, and that despite optimism for a peaceful outcome, diplomacy has failed. Therefore, the West will need to consider options to aid Ukraine in the coming war.
It is not to say that NATO has not done anything to assist Ukraine militarily. NATO nations, with the notable exception of Germany and Hungary, have sent troops and equipment to Ukraine. However, this support, while helpful in closing the military gap between Ukraine and Russia, has the larger aim of being a deterrent rather than a functional fighting force. This is where geopolitical strategy comes into play. By forcing the Russians through the bulk of Ukrainian defenses, to occupy a hostile territory, and to put pressure on their logistics. These areas are decisive due to the Russian strategy of simultaneous rapid attack.
While the Russian offensive itself may seem daunting, most of the Ukrainian defenses are focused on the Russian border. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Russian advance in the center through either Kharkiv, Donetsk, or Mariupol will be over a 200km front, which will thin out the Russian offensive. A Southern Route through Crimea would be hard to maintain logistically for the Russians, due to the limited railways along this route. However, the study does note a potentially dangerous course for Ukraine, which would have the Russian forces flank through Belarus to bypass the Ukrainian defense of Kyiv. While experts believe that an invasion of Ukraine would be devastating, the U.S. aims to make Russia feel the pain of an invasion. While this pain has lately been shaping up to be economical, with the use of sanctions similar to those of 2014. The Center for American Progress believes that economic actions are not enough to deter Russia’s grand strategy, and the United States will need to synchronize military, diplomacy, economics, and domestic diplomacy to combat Russia. Therefore, it is within the interest of NATO to not give up on Ukraine militarily despite the odds, and attempt in every way to pull away Russian advantages.
According to the CSIS, Russia will employ mobilized troops in a combination of cyberattacks, assassinations, sabotage, etc. in a bid to overwhelm Ukraine and rush towards a strategic objective. This strategic objective is currently unconfirmed, though the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office believes that the Russian aim is to take Kyiv and a puppet. The Belarusian border with Ukraine offers a wide-open front for the Russians to assault through and capture Kyiv decisively. Russian forces have already begun emplacing troops in Belarus and may even plan to overwhelm Ukraine through multiple fronts, with the main attack presumably coming from the north. The denial of this route would serve Ukraine well.
The wooing of Belarus from Russia will be difficult, as the leader, President Lukashenko, aligns himself with Moscow. The West should begin placing the same amount of pressure on Belarus as they did on Russia. The obvious response would be the use of sanctions against Belarus. However, the EU and most Western allies have already emplaced economic sanctions on the Lukashenko regime due to the violent crackdown of protestors. These have proven ineffective and means to show solidarity rather than a viable squeeze strategy. Moreso, while the EU has been a major trading partner of Belarus, Russia remains their largest trading partner and it is believed they could tank the hit. While a wider sanction is possible, it is doubtful that it would work.
Another option is to leverage domestic opposition to Lukashenko. Recently, there were mass protests against the authoritarian regime. While these protests have mostly been silenced, most of the opposition fled to western countries. The anti-Lukahsenko sentiment still lingers and the West could revive this anger against the Belarusian government. This policy has the potential of distracting the Belarussian government and perhaps the Russian troops stationed there. This idea might also constrain the logistics of the Russian army operating there. However, it comes with downsides. The first is ethical, as it is doubtful the West could cause regime change within Belarus and could be hanging the activists out to dry. The second consequence could be the pushing of Belarus closer to Russia. With interference from the West, it could drive not only the Belarussian government closer to Moscow, but also its people and might not be a viable option in the long term.
A final option is wielding the carrot instead of the stick— offering the Lukashenko government concessions in order to pull it away from Moscow. Either diplomatic recognition or economic rewards, the West has some leverage when it comes to dealing with the Lukashenko regime. This also has its downsides as it would be a PR disaster for the West as they would be supporting an authoritarian regime. There is also a chance Belarus takes the concessions and runs with them.
Ukraine is facing one of the most powerful militaries in the world, however, the removal of Belarus from the equation would stack some favors to the Ukrainian side. The West should prioritize using strategic diplomacy in removing Belarus through either of the methods or a combination of them. While they may have their downsides, it could save Ukraine from being turned into a rump state of Putin.