In an increasingly multipolar world, sovereignty is more than lines on a map. Small countries wedged between larger powers use careful diplomacy to maintain their independence, and great powers turn this fear into political concessions. In Belarus, relative neutrality could have been pursued, but the United States demanded conditions that forced Belarus into further alignment with Russia.
Countries bordered by competing superpowers can avoid picking a side so long as they balance political concessions to avoid invalidating their status as independent actors. Conflict can be avoided when great powers are able to gain more in concessions from these non-aligned powers than they could gain when factoring the risk in trying to bring them into their own sphere of influence.
The 20th century saw many examples of delicate neutrality. Switzerland provided the Axis with their transportation and financial networks, in some clear and controversial concessions to the fascist powers. But they also chased out, impounded and shot down both Axis and Allied planes, while hosting the embassies of many Allied governments in exile and refused to officially recognize the territorial expansions of the Third Reich. While these concessions undermined Swiss neutrality and the moral imperatives surrounding the Holocaust, Switzerland survived the surrounding land war practically unscathed.
During the Cold War, Finland maintained “Active Neutrality”, maintaining good relations with both the Soviet Union and NATO during the Cold War. Decades prior, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 to create a buffer for the key city of Leningrad and keep Finland from aligning with Germany. Post-war territorial concessions pushed Finland to join with the Nazi invasion of the USSR, completely undermining the initial intention of the invasion. The Soviets gained much more in security benefits from Finnish neutrality during the Cold War than they did from territorial concessions in the 1939 Winter War. While the Soviets retained intrusive practices like vetoing certain Finnish government aspirations – a circumstance that certainly was difficult for Finland but on the whole relations were cordial and ultimately preferable to renewed armed conflict.
Similar to neutral Finland, America benefited from the neutrality of Yugoslavia during the Cold War. Despite Yugoslavia’s communist dictatorship, America negotiated mutual economic agreements and intelligence sharing which avoided the potential blowback of regime change in the region and provided unique benefits to great power competition with the Soviet Union. Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito had been repeatedly bullied by the Soviet Union, and was willing to cooperate with America because of Soviet overreach. Yugoslavia’s neutrality worked to the benefit of American foreign policy goals without having to accept western hegemony in their own country.
While America compromised on Switzerland, Finland and Yugoslavia, Belarus failed to be neutral because they were forced to pick a side. Bordering NATO allies Poland and Lithuania but sharing their largest border with Russia, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko took power in the wake of the 1991 collapse of the USSR and suddenly confronted Belarus’s place in the rapidly changing European landscape.
Whereas the Baltic states opted for rapid integration with European institutions like NATO, Belarus embraced Soviet aesthetics. The state security service is still referred to as the KGB, Belarus regularly awards labor heroism, and the nation pursues 5 year plans reminiscent of their Soviet past. Belarus has uniquely strong cultural and linguistic ties with Russia, perhaps closer than any of the other post Soviet states.
Nonetheless, Belarus played both Russian and European sides in order to get maximum results and preserve autonomy. For most of his career, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko was trusted by neither Russia nor Europe because he didn’t answer to either party. In sacrificing warm relationships with either side he maintained independence from either bloc. Much like the Swiss example, Lukashenko found it preferable to anger both sides rather than losing independence.
Recently, Russia used Belarus as a forward base for their military’s advance on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Dutch professor Matthew Frear eulogized how Lukashenko had “continuously made promises to Russia and the West and [had] done their utmost to avoid keeping them”… with chronically contradictory rhetoric that praises and admonishes Europe. While Lukashenko’s approach worked for decades, “after 20 years of doing that, everybody [knew] that trick’”. But Belarus’s complex relationship with Russia extended beyond rhetoric to diplomatic and material concerns. This system, while a headache for Russian and American diplomats, lasted for decades because it left room for both countries to make sure the other was not using Belarus as a forward base.
While Belarus is now seen as fully in Russia’s sphere of influence, in the early 2000s, Belarus and Russia clashed over oil prices. Even today, Belarus relies on low Russian gas subsidies, but leverages Russian gas lines running through Belarus. Russia attempted to raise oil prices for Belarus several times leading to many tense situations. Similarly, when Russia attempted to get Belarus to host Russian Air bases in 2019, Lukashenko refused in what Russian diplomat Sergei Lavrov referred to as an “unpleasant episode”. In this way Belarus was able to maintain more independence by giving ground on oil prices but refusing basing rights. The ability to say no to a threatening great power is a powerful mark of independence.
This diplomatic flexibility was crippled by the Belarusian presidential elections of 2020. Lukashenko’s government claimed that it had won the hotly contested elections in a landslide, but the elections were widely condemned as fraudulent by the United States and the EU. Belarusian protestors took to the streets, often supported by Western European leaders like Emmanuel Macron who demanded Lukashenko’s resignation.
The subsequent EU sanctions leveled against high ranking officials and business interests in Belarus cemented Lukashenko’s turn away from the West. Russia capitalized on the vacuum, and offered aid to the embattled Lukashenko government during the large-scale protests. The Lukashenko government in turn shut down hundreds of Western funded NGOs operating in Belarus, further deepening the divide between his country and the European Union..
Lukashenko still attempts to carve out autonomy within this alliance with Russia. Nonetheless, Lukashenko now has new commitments that are harder to renege on, because he lost the only alternative backer for his regime’s security. Russia’s stationing of nuclear weapons in the country presents a long-term challenge to Belarus’s autonomy. While accompanying security guarantees might benefit the Lukashenko government, it also comes with the implicit understanding of a greater indefinite Russian military presence within the country.
The time in which the Belarussian government could play off the East-West divide ended. Russian troops using Belarusian territory during their conflict in Ukraine clarified Belarus’s new relationship with Russia. Lukashenko repeatedly signals that he will send in his own troops to fight Ukraine if there is an attack on Belarus. Alienation from the West has left the Lukashenko government with little other choice, and submission to Moscow might be seen as preferable to being ousted by the western powers.
America’s hardline approach to the Belarusian government has given Vladimir Putin more room to dominate Lukashenko. This should be seen as a tactical error in America’s great power competition with Russia and China. The United States is not above tacitly or even openly supporting illiberal governments like Saudi Arabia. Now American policymakers must ask whether the American stance against alleged election rigging in Belarus was worth the loss of a more neutral Belarus.
America has tried and tested official approaches to working with undemocratic states, even those with a history tied to the Soviet Union. A 1960 operations manual for the US State Department insisted that:
“The United States should avoid actions which, on the one hand, could be interpreted as unreserved endorsement of the Tito regime, or which, on the other hand, would encourage attempts to overthrow that regime by violence.”
Losing a struggle for influence with Russia over ideological purity is bad policymaking and such mistakes should be avoided in the future.
The end result of a NATO-aligned democratic Belarus due to 2020 protests should have been seen as unlikely. In attempting to gain a fully democratic Belarus against Russia, the United States and its allies instead convinced Lukashenko that NATO threatens his leadership and Russia is his best chance at remaining in office. The Putin government has made use of Belarus’s new status, with Lukashenko conducting critical negotiations to defuse the recent mutiny on Russian territory. The head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, backed down to a challenge toward the Russian Ministry of Defense and will now be kept on a short leash in Belarus.
A narrow U.S. approach to Belarus fails to reverse these drawbacks to American national interests. The case of Belarus calls into question the policy of maximalism towards non-democratic governments and whether a lack of realism will undermine American great power competition. China has been able to capitalize on hardline U.S. foreign policy in brokering a normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Recent developments like this ought to put policy makers in Washington on notice that if they are unwilling to settle with adversarial countries, rivals will.
Matthew Bryant graduated with a BA in Global affairs from George Mason University. He is currently a joint Graduate student at the University of Trento & the Higher School of Economics. He researches and writes about the Post-Soviet area as well as US-Russia relations.