Conflict and Leadership
The ‘Difficult Age’ of Eastern Europe and the Case of Belarus

Poland and Lithuania are young and strategically inexperienced countries that do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. Their goal is to undermine Belarus internally, to deprive it of its subjectivity in international affairs, and to make use of its resources and the outflow of people that may occur as a result of the crisis, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

2020 has become a particularly difficult year for social stability and security in many regions of the world. The pandemic has increased social stress in continental Europe. In France, numerous “yellow vests” demonstrations continue — thousands have been detained and more than two thousand have been incarcerated; some of them were charged with crimes. Massive public protests in Germany against quarantine measures have led to the largest clashes with law enforcement in several decades and forced the country’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to talk about a threat to the constitutional order.

Additionally, international crises persist. The US tried to overthrow the government in Venezuela at the beginning of the year. Washington continues to exert military and political pressure on Tehran, and this pressure is accompanied by special operations within the territory of Iran itself. Tensions between Turkey and France over Libya are deepening. Recently, the situation between Turkey and Greece has worsened over territorial claims in the Aegean Sea. Finally, Nagorno-Karabakh has seen the largest escalation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in nearly 30 years.

2020 was a difficult year for Russia and Belarus. As a result of Belarusian elections, part of Belarusian society became disoriented. This was used by external forces, which exerted unprecedented pressure on the Belarusian leadership, comparable to that which was put on the government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014 during Euromaidan. This reflects the European countries’ policy of double standards, as they categorically reject any form of foreign participation in the settlement of protests at home.

Conflict and Leadership
The Crisis in Belarus and Its International Dimension
Andrey Sushentsov
The historical advantage of the Belarusian authorities has been the desire to keep the political initiative. However, a major mistake was made during the election campaign  the  initiative was misused. The ideology of a besieged fortress was chosen again, this time besieged allegedly by Russia, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
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Sanctions were applied against Belarus, and the most acute phase of the electoral campaign coincided with at least one provocation of the special services, this time Ukrainian ones, who intended to capture Russian citizens. However, the situation played out in such a way that they were detained by the Belarusian special services under the pretext of accusations of Russian interference in the presidential campaign in Belarus.

The countries of Eastern Europe, primarily Poland and Lithuania, have shown the greatest activity in the implementation of these measures. These are young, often strategically inexperienced countries that do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. Their goal is to undermine Belarus internally, to deprive it of its subjectivity in international affairs, and to make use of its resources and the outflow of people that may occur as a result of the crisis. They also intend to damage cooperation between Russia and Belarus. This is the classic strategic maxim — first break your opponent’s intentions, then its alliances.

These plans were not realised. The Belarusian leadership continues to hold the reigns. It announced a constitutional reform that should reduce the severity of social confrontation in the country. The Belarusians themselves, through dialogue, should sort out and resolve the fate of their country without external pressure.

Why are the countries of Eastern Europe putting pressure on their Belarusian neighbour?

The fact is that a border between two security areas runs through Eastern Europe: NATO and Russia’s CSTO. This borderland confirms the existence of deep and insoluble geopolitical contradictions between different understandings of security in Europe. The bloc approach, based on the refusal of the United States to dissolve or transform NATO after the end of the Cold War, as well as the expansion of the bloc toward the borders of Russia, has inevitably returned the categories of power confrontation to the European security environment — in contrast to the border zone between Russia and China, where the two countries do not compete for geopolitical influence. For example, Russia and China never support different presidential candidates in any of the Central Asian republics or Mongolia. In contrast to this situation, every electoral cycle in the Eastern European countries automatically gives way to geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the Western countries. And the countries of Eastern Europe, primarily Poland and Lithuania, are most active here.

Morality and Law
The Belarusian Protests and the Limits of the EU’s Normative Power
Oleg Barabanov
The European Union did not recognise the outcome of these elections and condemned the violence. But its next steps became surprisingly cautious, which was strikingly different from the EU's approach to the Ukrainian events six years ago.
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What is the explanation for such activity among the Eastern European countries?

They are constantly worried about the so-called threat from Russia. They recognise that they are on the border of a geopolitical rift, near a strong Russia, while NATO’s main security providers are far from Russia’s borders and are less concerned about the threat of an escalation of conflict with Moscow. Poland and Lithuania are especially acutely aware of the lack of security guarantees from the leading NATO countries. They are also acutely aware of the lack of subjectivity on the part of the EU. Their measures to put pressure on Belarus are aimed at moving the security buffer further from their borders and moving it closer to the borders of Russia. Lacking the tools of hard power, they use soft tools such as pressure, the overt support of opposition presidential candidates, interference in the internal affairs of Belarus, information and sanctions pressure. They have already studied this toolkit quite well.

However, Poland and Lithuania are initiating a conflict that they themselves are unlikely to be able to stop if it follows the most dangerous scenario. Like a child who is held accountable for his actions, they will be the first to suffer if the security crisis in Europe worsens. This crisis will be resolved with the participation of the main security providers in Europe: Russia and the United States. The interests of Poland and Lithuania will turn out to be as secondary as the interests of Serbia, whose actions unwittingly served as a pretext for unleashing the First World War.

What real motives should be guided in the event of a crisis in any of the geopolitical border countries in Eastern Europe

The common denominator of a constructive solution is saving lives. Any measures should lead to a de-escalation of the crisis and reduce the likelihood of its aggravation and transformation into a continental crisis.

Over the past twenty-five years, we have repeatedly witnessed situations where good intentions have led straight to hell: instead of spreading democracy, the imposition of liberal order as a result of an internal crisis and external intervention have yielded catastrophic situations placing nations on the brink of civil war, leading to mass death and emigration.

Let’s not be naive — there is a geopolitical confrontation between East and West in Eastern Europe. Its instruments are numerous. They include political pressure, sanctions, and multiplying provocations, as well as information and media campaigns. There is no talk of cooperation now. Belarusian society is divided and external forces are trying to take advantage of this. However, proposals for mediation from Eastern European countries appear to be poorly hidden attempts at manipulation. Let’s imagine that the OSCE mechanism is applied in Poland to the unfolding internal political crisis or to popular unrest in Germany or France. Even the very posing of such a question seems absurd. However, this is more of a problem for the OSCE and the European security institutions in the form in which they took shape after the end of the Cold War, and demonstrate deep distortions in their institutional design.

Over the past few years, since the Ukrainian crisis, the countries of Europe should have accumulated negative experiences leading to an understanding of how internal political crises can unfold in fragile Eastern European countries in the event of external intervention. This experience should contribute to the development of balanced and responsible decisions. What the Eastern European countries should do now with regard to Belarus is not to interfere, thereby demonstrating maturity and responsibility.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.