VILNIUS, Lithuania — Kudos to the White House and NATO for exposing the Kremlin’s lies about withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s borders this week — as well as lies meant to justify a possible new attack on eastern Ukraine. Ukraine.
Yet, even as the world focuses on Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, the Russian leader has managed to surreptitiously swallow neighboring Belarus, when the West paid it little attention. Indeed, Belarus has become the 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,” Vytis Jurkonis, an expert on Belarus at Vilnius University, told me over breakfast at my hotel in the Lithuanian capital. In Vilnius, officials are keeping a close eye on Putin’s new experiments.
They tell me that the Russian leader is testing whether the West will let him take ‘neutral’ countries by force – those not supposedly tied to Western Europe or Russia – as Belarus once was and as Putin demands that Ukraine become one.
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One of the reasons I visited the Lithuanian capital is that it is only 20 miles from the Belarusian border. (You can see it from the revolving restaurant atop the Vilnius TV Tower, five kilometers from the city center, and drive there in less than half an hour.)
Moscow moved 30,000 troops to Belarus this month, ostensibly for military ‘exercises’ – but in reality to threaten Kiev, just 60 miles from the Belarusian border. But these troops also pose a dangerous new threat to NATO countries like Lithuania.
With Putin’s troop movements, the Russian border has effectively shifted east, flush with the 420-mile border that Lithuania shares with Belarus. “We don’t believe [Putin’s claims] that these troops will leave,” Laurynas Kasciunas, chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s national security committee, told me. “If Russian troops stay in Belarus, it will be a game-changer for us.”
Indeed, Putin can now establish new military bases in Belarus that would threaten the Baltic States and Poland. And Russian troops would be in a perfect position to cut off the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – from the rest of NATO.
Putin thus 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 that we no longer have an independent Belarus, which is very difficult to accept,” I was told over lunch with Lithuanian Deputy Energy Minister Albinas Zananavicius. And Putin clearly hopes to emulate his success in Belarus with Ukraine.
Putin has taken advantage of the West’s failure to deal with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who for most of his 27 years in power has 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. This opened the door for Putin to take full control.
To learn more about this takeover, I caught up with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the plucky former English teacher and housewife who ran against Lukashenko in August 2020. She made the decision to risk running, m she said, after her husband – a famous blogger and up-and-coming candidate – was thrown in jail.
“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 was not involved in political activities. I didn’t think they would accept my candidacy, but they didn’t catch people’s mood. A new generation [that had traveled widely in Europe] didn’t want to live as if they were in the former Soviet Union.
And a wider audience has been frustrated by Lukashenko’s utter failure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Belarusian officials threatened to jail her right after the election, which they claimed they won by a quite unbelievable 80% despite strong indications that she was the winner. As a result, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Vilnius, in order to protect her children.
There, she seeks to make the voice of the Belarusian opposition heard, despite the exodus of many educated Belarusians from their country and the continued brutal crackdown on protesters who have been imprisoned. Her husband remains in solitary confinement with little contact with the outside world.
“He [Lukashenko] must pay a price to Putin for his support,” she says, of the presence of Russian troops. “These drills…he has to do it to show the Kremlin that he will do whatever Putin says.”
She wishes the West had sanctioned Lukashenko much sooner for stealing the election. She also believes that he should have been punished much more severely for having hijacked a Ryanair plane last May in order to deport a Belarusian dissident, and for having invited Afghan and Iraqi refugees to the Belarusian border in December 2021 for the use as weapons against Poland and Lithuania. The Belarusian dictator did all of this with Putin’s full support – and Russia is helping him evade Western economic sanctions imposed as a result of these crimes.
Tsikhanouskaya knows that the fate of the Belarusian model is a litmus test – of whether the United States and Western Europe will allow Putin to destroy fledgling or developing democracies in Eastern European countries that do not belong neither to NATO nor to the European Union.
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“Russia must crush it [Belarus democracy]“, explains the academic Jurkonis, explaining that a Belarusian success could have inspired the Russian democratic opposition, at a time when Putin was organizing a severe repression against them. “This is in line with what is happening in Ukraine. Putin wants Ukraine to fail. He wants to show that liberal democracy is a failure, not only in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe and the United States.
The message from Belarus, where the struggle for democracy is not over, is that the West cannot afford to let Putin use some variant of the Belarusian model against Ukraine – whether by seizing more territory, destroying its economy or violently trying to install a pro-Russian leader.
As Lithuanian officials told me, Putin has already changed the rules of post-World War II Europe by forcibly seizing Ukrainian Crimea and chunks of its Donbass region. His coup on Belarus proves that his ambitions do not stop there.