Updated at 5:00 p.m. ET on February 22, 2022
In the space of a month, Vladimir Putin has effectively managed to transform a former Soviet state into an extension of Russian territory, in full view of the United States and Europe, without firing a single shot in the country. This isn’t unfolding in Ukraine but neighboring Belarus, which has served as a home for Russian troops and military hardware since the start of the year, ostensibly because of planned drills between the two countries’ militaries. Over the weekend, the Belarusian government announced that the 30,000 Russian troops on its soil—Moscow’s largest deployment on Minsk’s territory since the end of the Cold War—could be there to stay.
Regardless of what happens in Ukraine, this is a major victory in Putin’s war with the West. The move not only represents a violation of Belarusian sovereignty, but poses a significant challenge to NATO as a security guarantor in the Baltics: Belarus shares a border with three NATO members. Still, few leaders outside the Baltic region have said anything about the announcement or how they plan to respond. The cost of doing nothing could be enormous.
Belarus wasn’t always so easy to ignore. In 2020, the country captured the world’s attention after a rigged presidential election ensuring the continued reign of its longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko, sparked some of the largest prodemocracy protests in Belarusian history. He survived with the help of the Russian government, which provided him with the police forces to quash the demonstrations and the financing to overcome the West’s sanctions. Suddenly, a nation that purported to be neutral (military neutrality is built into the Belarusian constitution) and whose leader often complains of Russian overreach came to be seen around the world as a vassal state.
Nearly two years on, Russia’s investment has largely paid off. Not only can Putin claim a strategic outpost in his escalating conflict with Ukraine (Kyiv is just 140 miles away from the Belarusian border), but he has also managed to cement Belarus’s position within Moscow’s sphere of influence. In recent months, Lukashenko has opted to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and pledged to support Moscow in any military conflict involving Ukraine. A forthcoming constitutional referendum is expected to formally scrap the clauses guaranteeing Belarus’s neutrality, as well as its obligation to remain free from nuclear weapons.
For the Belarusian opposition exiled in Lithuania, the deteriorating situation in Belarus has happened faster than even they could have anticipated, and the shift carries with it a warning. “In Belarus, we are seeing the soft version of what could happen to Ukraine,” Franak Viačorka, a senior adviser to the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told me. “The only difference is that in Ukraine, the state is opposing the occupation; in Belarus, it embraces it.”
This shift won’t go unnoticed in places such as Poland and the Baltic states, which have long viewed Belarus as a bulwark between themselves and Russia. By ceding its territory to Moscow, Belarus has effectively invited Russian troops onto these countries’ doorsteps. One area in particular gives military leaders and experts pause: a 65-mile strip of land along the Polish-Lithuanian border known as the Suwałki Corridor, which connects Belarus to Russia’s far-western enclave of Kaliningrad. It is also what connects the Baltic states with the rest of NATO in Europe. If Russian forces were to seize control of this corridor from either side, not only would they have a quick route to Poland or Lithuania; they would also be able to cut off NATO’s Baltic members from the rest of the alliance.
The threat posed by the Suwałki Corridor is no longer an academic exercise. “This is now a significant vulnerability,” Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told me. The way Hodges sees it, even if Russian provocations in Ukraine were to end, Moscow’s control of Belarus would likely remain permanent, and could even be formalized further. This would not only destroy Belarusian autonomy, which Lukashenko has all but forfeited, but it would also pose a permanent threat to NATO.
It’s no wonder that leaders in Lithuania and Latvia have echoed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s calls for the West to impose immediate sanctions on Russia—a move that the U.S. and the European Union were initially reluctant to take prior to an invasion of Ukraine, in the hopes that the threat of sanctions alone could deter further Russian provocation. But Moscow’s military takeover of Belarus and the subsequent deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine’s eastern separatist regions have shown the limits of this kind of optimism.
“In 2008 [in Georgia], in 2014 [in Crimea], and again this time, Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use military threats against its neighbors,” a spokesperson from the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry told me in an email. “Although Belarus is already de facto integrated into [the] Russian military structure … Russia’s forces build-up in Belarus increases Russia’s military advantage over NATO in the region. These developments require stronger NATO defense and deterrence posture in the Baltic region.”
Insofar as Western leaders and commentators have focused on Belarus, they have largely centered on the threat that Russia’s presence in the country poses to Ukraine. But the threat extends to Belarusian sovereignty too. The problem for Belarus is that unlike Ukraine, its leadership has welcomed Moscow’s presence. Even if the West wanted to take a stand in defense of Belarusian sovereignty, it wouldn’t have many levers to do so. Belarus’s opposition leaders have been either jailed or exiled. The Belarusian people remain under the tight control of the country’s security forces, which have already demonstrated their tolerance for peaceful protest. “There is no space for action,” Viačorka said. “We feel abandoned.”
But the West ignores Belarus at its own peril. So long as Russian troops remain on Belarusian soil, Putin will have the means to menace Kyiv—as well as NATO—from close by, all the while wrecking Ukraine’s economy and destabilizing its government. And what starts in Belarus may not necessarily end there.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that Belarus borders three NATO countries.