Offering Lukashenko a graceful exit could be the best way to stop a Putin land grab in Belarus

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Western lassitude is enabling Russia’s possible total reabsorption of the former Soviet republic

This article appeared in The Telegraph on November 13, 2021. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
November 13, 2021

Short attention spans, willful ignorance, wishful thinking, and no strategic planning have preceded international debacles throughout history. That brings us to Belarus.

Thirty years after the Soviet Union lost the Cold War and dissolved, Western lassitude is enabling Russia’s possible total reabsorption of Belarus, the first former Soviet republic so endangered. Although Moscow’s goal elsewhere may be suzerainty rather than sovereignty, Vladimir Putin did annex Crimea from Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics are wavering under his relentless efforts to reverse three decades of their independence.

From Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Moscow had waged an increasingly successful campaign to assert hegemony. Books will be written about the West’s collectively feeble response.

Indeed, in present circumstances, both Belarus and Ukraine may be under assault simultaneously, although in different ways and for different reasons. Russia’s latest military build-up along Ukraine’s border, if it is a serious threat, could well be a precursor for annexing a significant part of the Donbas region, currently under the control of Russian-backed paramilitaries.

Belarus, by contrast, is now the schwerpunkt of Kremlin activity that might involve a total re-amalgamation of the entire country. Obviously by foreshadowing possible conflict in two theatres, Russia has expanded its possible options and confused its adversaries.

In Minsk, President Alexander Lukashenko is not yet fully under Russian control, and his unfolding efforts to flood Poland and the Baltic countries with imported Middle Eastern refugees (and threaten natural gas cutoffs) may be entirely his own plan.

Unfortunately, Turkey’s earlier success in transferring Syrian refugees into Europe (abetted by Germany’s unilateral open-borders decision) is being repeated, as the European Union loses sight of the forced Russia-Belarus reunion while it scrambles to handle a potential new influx of migrants. Incredibly, Warsaw is actually being criticised for violating the “refugees’ human rights” by not considering them for asylum, as if they trekked to Poland on their own.

Whether Minsk’s idea or Moscow’s, this artificial refugee crisis, a form of “hybrid warfare” Putin has used adroitly, provides the distraction needed to justify both increased repression within Belarus and more serious provocations by Russia throughout its “near abroad”. Putin’s renewed troop build-ups and maneuvers along the Ukrainian border may be part of such a larger strategy.

Neither Washington nor Brussels has responded adequately to Belarus developments in recent years. America’s excuses for failure are Trump and Biden. Europe’s excuse is that the EU is still less than the sum of its parts; its primitive politico-military capabilities don’t match its rhetorical pipe organ.

No Western country responded strategically to the extensive protests against the regime in Belarus in 2020, nor to Lukashenko’s kidnapping earlier this year of the opposition leader Roman Protasevich, an act of air piracy indicating that “hybrid warfare” was already under way. Biden missed significant opportunities to confront Putin on Belarus at their June 16 Geneva summit, and over September’s quadrennial Zapad joint-military exercises in Belarus. Putin may think he has a green light.

Lukashenko’s clear preference is retaining authority in an independent Belarus. His Plan B is keeping power even if only as a Russian protectorate. The West’s problem is that sanctioning Minsk for suppressing its political opposition may not topple Lukashenko, but it may allow Putin in.

To paraphrase Lord Ismay, Nato’s first secretary general, our key objectives in Belarus should be to keep Russia out, a free Belarus government in, and Lukashenko down. Unfortunately, however, we are long past the point where we should have developed a coherent strategy to achieve these goals. Prudence therefore dictates being willing to accept what is probably the most we can get: a free, independent Belarus. At a minimum, we must avoid the worst-case outcome, with Russian bayonets keeping Lukashenko in power.

Virtue signalers in Europe and America would prize a successful “colour revolution” in Belarus, with Lukashenko and his fellow miscreants humiliated in court and ultimately imprisoned, but that is likely impossible. Menacingly, an entirely plausible scenario is that the opposition stages larger and larger protests; Lukashenko panics and requests Russian military support; and Putin all too happily complies, with Belarus suppressed not under Lukashenko but under Putin, followed by reabsorption into Russia.

If events took this turn, which might happen with sudden speed, Western capitals could do very little, other than engage in more useless virtue signaling about how unacceptable it all was.

Instead, we should find ways to make it attractive for Lukashenko, his family and top advisors to hand over power in exchange for a good life in exile (perhaps in a Gulf Arab country) and immunity from prosecution in Belarus.

Western threats have not succeeded with Lukashenko, sadly, because the threats are not credible. A golden parachute for Lukashenko is credible if Western leaders recognize the unpleasant correlation of forces they face.

If circumstances permit, Lukashenko can even be allowed to leave gracefully, pretending that his departure was his own plan. The key is getting him out of Minsk before Moscow can pretend to have heard an invitation to intervene.

In America, we call such a scenario “winning ugly”. But it beats losing, especially for the citizens of Belarus, not to mention Ukraine and the others.

John Bolton is a former United States national security adviser