Russia and the West are engaged in a strategic competition for influence in Eastern Europe. Although two military and political organizations, NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), are confronting each other in the region, the main Western players believe that some countries have not yet made a geopolitical choice. This strategic opportunism has created a nervous situation and can potentially provoke a regional crisis.
The Ukrainian crisis is a major source of Russia-West tensions. It has also created a backdrop for economic disputes between Russia and Belarus. Poland, Lithuania and the United States, as well as some other countries, have suddenly raised the question of the geopolitical choice of Belarus. It is a purely opportunistic campaign waged without clear forward-looking plans, essential proposals or constructive influence, which is having a disruptive effect. These countries are trying to exacerbate tensions between Moscow and Minsk based on the classical strategy, according to which the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans.
This has become possible due to certain disarray in Belarus, which has been caused above all by the stalling of economic growth due to economic imbalances and the economic dependence of the Belarusian economy on the Russian market. Belarus was one of the first countries in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) to be hit by the 2014 economic crisis and the plummeting oil price. The rating of the Belarusian government is falling due to the low or even negative economic growth rates. In addition, local nationalists and the increasingly active liberal opposition have called for a revision of the national strategy of creating a union with Russia.
Another factor is Minsk’s inconsistent policy in its relations with Russia. Minsk is critical of Russia’s advocacy of pragmatic relations. The Belarusian elites are urging Russia to formulate a comprehensive integration proposal that would ease the pressure on the Belarusian economy. In fact, they want Moscow to make concessions on some sensitive economic matters. The Belarusian government needs a visible and rapid improvement of the living standards, whose decline in the past few years has been associated by many with the allegedly excessive integration with the Russian economy. The biggest fear of Belarusian authorities is an erosion of political consensus around the president.
While demanding clear economic integration proposals from Russia, Minsk also fears losing its national identity during the next stage of economic integration. The Belarusian officials point out that they have an independent position and have made increasingly sharp official statements regarding the sovereignty of Belarus.
But these rhetorical maneuvers cannot overshadow the fact that Belarus has made a geostrategic choice in favor of Russia. This was the talking point at a recent Minsk Dialogue Forum on European security, which was attended by the leading Russian and Western experts. Belarus presented its main diplomatic argument on the importance of avoiding a military escalation in the region, while the Russian delegation, which was the largest one at the event and consisted of high-ranking diplomats, did its best to add weight to that argument. The Belarusian officials called for responsible behavior in the field of European security. They spoke again about the initiative to ban the deployment of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles in Europe, which the Russian president has supported.
East European countries are very sensitive to security threats. Poland, Lithuania and Belarus do not want to become the arena of a confrontation between great powers again. However, Belarus, which does not want tensions to grow, has called against the deployment of additional tanks in the region, whereas Lithuania and Poland believe that the more tanks the United States deploys in Europe the better. The reason behind these asymmetric views is that Poland and Lithuania want more US attention and security guarantees, while many people in Minsk believes that the amount of Russia’s attention to the region is excessive. They fear that impulsive actions by a NATO country would prompt Russia to take decisive actions.
The risk of military escalation in Europe is now higher than in 1995, but it is considerably lower than in 1985. NATO’s plans to hold the Defender 2020 exercises are highly alarming, just as Poland’s desire to host a US military base. Another alarming feature is the irresponsible attitude of the European elites, which have become disillusioned with the possibility of improving relations with Russia, are getting bogged down in liberal demagoguery, and have delegated the drafting of a strategy towards Eastern Europe to ambitious and radically-minded climbers.
Nevertheless, there is no threat of a large-scale military crisis that would be comparable to the events of 1913 or 1938. Metaphorically speaking, modern day NATO is a workshop of security compared to the Cold War period. The level of militarization in Europe is considerably lower compared to 1991. The Ukrainian crisis stands out as a road accident that could have been avoided but which happened because of the risky and irresponsible actions of the Ukrainian and Western elites.
It is difficult to expect statesmanship from the United States now, let alone from Poland or Lithuania. However, US foreign policy is a disorganized and unfocused process, whereas the attempts by Poland and Lithuania to influence Belarus are based on their fear of Russia. It will be a strategic defeat for them if the Union State of Russia and Belarus becomes effective. Since they are unable to directly influence consensus between Russia and Belarus, they are increasing indirect humanitarian influence on Belarus. This is why domestic politics is the main factor of strategic competition in Eastern Europe.
In fact, this competition boils down to a fight for national identity. The West is trying to erode the independence of Belarus by questioning its geopolitical choice and undermining its self-esteem. Russia would like Belarus to be a strong and allied country, because the increasing synergy of their efforts is a reliable guarantee of peace in the region. Unlike Ukraine, Belarus has always been a reliable ally of Russia. The Belarusian elites have always followed the line regardless of the foreign policy situation. It is in Russia’s interests to create conditions for improving the economic environment in the Union State and ease public pressure on its ally’s government. The difference between Russia and its Western rivals is that Russia has never abandoned its allies and has always honored its commitments.
Are Poland and Lithuania strengthening or undermining their national identity by inviting the United States to come to rule and reign over them? A whimsical reliance on the big brother in a real fight seldom pays off. If the Polish and Lithuanian elites insist that the geopolitical priorities of Belarus are an open question, Moscow may raise the matter of the geopolitical priorities of Lithuania and Poland and start to influence their domestic political discourse.