VILNIUS, Lithuania — Three cheers to the White House and NATO for calling out Kremlin lies this week about withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s borders — along with falsehoods meant to justify a possible new attack on eastern Ukraine.
Yet even as the world focuses on Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, the Russian leader has managed to surreptitiously swallow neighboring Belarus, while the West wasn’t paying enough attention. Indeed, Belarus has become the role model for what Putin would like to do with Ukraine and other sovereign states that were once under Soviet rule.
“Belarus is a laboratory for Putin,” I’m told by Vytis Jurkonis, an expert on Belarus at Vilnius University, over breakfast at my hotel in the Lithuanian capital. In Vilnius, officials are watching closely what new experiments Putin conducts.
They tell me the Russian leader is testing whether the West will let him forcefully take over “neutral” countries — those supposedly linked neither to Western Europe nor to Russia — as Belarus once was and as Putin is demanding that Ukraine become.
30,000 ‘game-changing’ troops
One reason I visited the Lithuanian capital is that it lies only 20 miles from the Belarus border. (You can see it from the revolving restaurant at the top of the Vilnius TV tower, three miles from the city center, and drive there in less than half an hour.)
Moscow moved 30,000 troops into Belarus this month, supposedly for military “exercises” — but in reality to threaten Kyiv, only around 60 miles from the Belarus border. But these troops also present a dangerous new threat to NATO countries like Lithuania.
With Putin’s troop movements, Russia’s border has effectively moved east, flush up against the 420-mile border Lithuania shares with Belarus. ”We don’t believe [Putin’s claims] that those troops will leave,” I was told by Laurynas Kasciunas, chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s National Security Committee. “If Russian troops stay in Belarus, it is a big game changer for us.”
That’s because Putin can now set up new military bases in Belarus that would threaten the Baltic states and Poland. And Russian troops would be in perfect position to cut off all three Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — from the rest of NATO.
Thus Putin has managed to successfully integrate a formerly independent buffer state into military (and economic) dependence on Russia, in full view of Western nations.
“We have to recognize we no longer have an independent Belarus, something which is very difficult to accept,” I was told over lunch with Lithuanian Vice-Minister of Energy Albinas Zananavicius. And Putin clearly hopes to emulate his Belarus achievement with Ukraine.
A stolen election
Putin has profited from the West’s failure to deal with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who, during most of his 27 years in power maintained a degree of independence from Moscow. But when Lukashenko blatantly stole a presidential election in August 2020, and crushed a massive civil uprising protesting the fraud, he had to turn to Putin to save him. That opened the door for Putin to take full control.
To hear more about that takeover, I met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the courageous former English teacher and homemaker who ran against Lukashenko in August 2020. She made the decision to risk running, she told me, after her husband — a famous blogger and promising candidate — was thrown in prison.
“I was so angry,” she told me when I asked her about her personal decision to risk running, as we sat in her Vilnius office. “It was my idea. I wasn’t involved in political activities. I didn’t think they would accept my candidacy, but they didn’t catch the mood of the people. A new generation [that had traveled widely in Europe] didn’t want to live as if they were in the old Soviet Union.”
And a wider public was frustrated by Lukashenko’s total failure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Belarus officials threatened to jail her right after the election, which they claimed they won by a wholly unbelievable 80 per cent despite strong indications she was the victor. As a result, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Vilnius, in order to protect her children.
There, she seeks to keep the voice of the Belarus opposition alive, despite the exodus of many educated Belarusians from their country, and the continuing brutal repression of protesters who have been imprisoned. Her husband remains in a solitary cell with little contact with the outside world.
“He [Lukashenko] has to pay a price to Putin for his support,” she says, about the Russian troop presence. “These exercises ... he has to do it to show the Kremlin he will do anything Putin says.”
She wishes the West had sanctioned Lukashenko much sooner for stealing the election. She also believes he should have been punished much more harshly for hijacking a Ryanair plane last May to remove a Belarus dissident from it, and for inviting Afghan and Iraqi refugees to the Belarus border in December 2021 to be used as weapons against Poland and Lithuania. The Belarus dictator did all this with Putin’s full support - and Russia is helping him evade Western economic sanctions imposed as a result of these crimes.
Putin’s Belarus model for Ukraine?
Tsikhanouskaya knows the fate of Belarus model is a litmus test - for whether the United States and Western Europe will permit Putin to destroy nascent or developing democracies in East European countries that don’t belong to NATO or the European Union.
“Russia needs to crush it [Belarus democracy],” says the academic Jurkonis, explaining that a Belarusian success story might have inspired Russia’s democratic opposition, at a time when Putin was mounting a severe crackdown against them. “It goes in line with what is happening in Ukraine. Putin wants Ukraine to fail. He wants to show that liberal democracy is a failure, not just in Eastern Europe but in Western Europe and the USA.”
The message from Belarus, where the fight for democracy isn’t over, is that the West can’t afford to let Putin use a variation of the Belarus model against Ukraine - whether by seizing more territory, destroying its economy, or trying violently to install a pro-Russia leader.
As Lithuanian officials told me, Putin has already changed the rules of post-World War II Europe by seizing Ukraine’s Crimea and chunks of its Donbas region by force. His move on Belarus proves that his ambitions don’t stop there.