After seven years, the Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi — the main boulevard in the Belarusian capital of Minsk — seemed little changed. The immense Soviet-era administration buildings still towered ominously over the sidewalks, making the trees and the pedestrians feel tiny. A large bust of Lenin remained in front of the presidential library, an austere, cubist building still adorned with Soviet insignia. Yet these impressions from a chilly evening in May were rather misleading. Belarus had changed. The 2014 uprising in Ukraine had shaken Minsk into seeking a new role in the standoff between Russia and the West. In addition, Belarus and the other countries in these Eastern European borderlands have been trying to turn the stalemate to their advantage.
In our 2018 Annual Forecast, Stratfor wrote that tensions are likely to rise in 2018 between Russia and the United States, and would include the pursuit of military buildups in the European borderlands. Recent developments in the region — as well as an analyst's visit to Belarus, one of the key contested countries in the borderlands — confirm that this trend is continuing.
The Belarus Rebound
During my last visit in the autumn of 2011, Belarus was in the midst of a severe recession and experiencing triple digit inflation. Cafes and restaurants were largely empty, and the prices on menus had been papered over many times to keep up with the quickly depreciating ruble (which was trading officially at nearly 8,000 to the dollar but selling for much more on the black market). Some items, including bread and vodka, were in short supply in certain grocery stores in the capital, and long lines of anxious people waited at currency exchange booths.
Now, the country appeared much better off. The economy was growing — 2.7 percent GDP growth in 2017 — and inflation had stabilized at about 5 percent, after the introduction of a newly redenominated currency, firmly set at 2 rubles to the dollar. Restaurants had more patrons, grocery stores were fully stocked, and large construction projects could be seen throughout the city. While some residents said that times were still tough economically, everyone agreed that the country was generally in a better place now than it was seven years ago.
And even bigger and more important changes have occurred on the foreign policy front. In 2011, Belarus was firmly within Russia's orbit and completely isolated from the West politically. A crackdown on protests after the 2010 presidential elections, in which the long-serving President Aleksandr Lukashenko secured his fourth term in a controversial vote, led the European Union and United States to impose sanctions on the country and its top officials, including Lukashenko. Russia was Belarus' major and only ally, and Minsk had recently joined the Moscow-led customs union, which evolved into the Eurasian Economic Union.
Avoiding the Ukraine Hurricane
However, the situation in Belarus changed dramatically in 2014 after the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine, which sent shockwaves through Eurasia. Lukashenko watched as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was forced out of power with the support of the West, after the pro-Russian leader had forcefully cracked down on anti-government protests. Lukashenko was all too familiar with such protests, and he knew that his survival could be at risk if he did not adapt to the changing geopolitical winds.
Thus, after Euromaidan, he adeptly repositioned — or rather rebranded — Belarus from being a stalwart Russian ally isolated from the West to being a mediator between Russia and the West in their standoff over Ukraine, talking to and working with both sides. Minsk became one of the primary negotiating sites for officials from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union, and the primary agreement to address the conflict became known as the Minsk Protocol. Lukashenko turned his country's geographic liability into a geopolitical advantage, ensuring that the Ukrainian conflict didn't spread to Belarus and that Minsk would be seen as a favorable neutral site for diplomacy (not unlike Switzerland during World War II or Finland during the Cold War).
While Minsk's mediation efforts have not resolved the conflict (in its fourth year, the war in eastern Ukraine shows no signs of abating), Lukashenko has reinvented his country. The European Union and United States have lifted sanctions against Belarus, and the country has experienced a small yet significant economic and political opening with the West. Belarus has done so without compromising its strategic alignment with Russia, and the government has made only tactical adjustments to the way it handles protests and the opposition without offering major concessions.
Geopolitics is about making the most of the cards that you're dealt, and the changes seen in Belarus are a good reflection of that.
Belarus' emergence as a mediating player was on full display at the Minsk Dialogue Forum, an open annual conference launched in 2015, not long after the Minsk Protocol was signed. The forum made a clear and concerted effort to balance the participation and viewpoints of officials, analysts and journalists from Russia, the rest of Eurasia and the West. Lukashenko also attended for the first time, reflecting the prominence as a place of mediation and dialogue that the forum (and Minsk) has gained in the years since Euromaidan.
Despite these changes, Belarus remains tightly integrated economically and militarily with Russia, and it is nowhere close to joining the European Union. But that, in a way, is the point: Lukashenko recognizes (as Yanukovich found out the hard way) that full alignment with one side at the expense of another can undermine a country's overall strategic position. To further diversify its foreign policy strategy in recent years, Belarus has strengthened its political, economic and military ties with China, which has emerged as a major player in Eastern Europe. Geopolitics is about making the most of the cards that you're dealt, and the changes seen in Belarus since the pre-Euromaidan era are a good reflection of that.
Taking Advantage of the Standoff
However, no matter how Lukashenko adapts and positions his country, it remains at a geopolitical disadvantage because of its location in the European borderlands between larger powers. And it is these larger powers, as well as other borderland states that have different strategic interests, that Minsk must take into account. For Belarus is not the only one seeking to exploit the Russia-West standoff.
Take Ukraine, for example. While it has served as the primary theater of the Russia-U.S. standoff, Ukraine has positioned itself to receive significant economic, political and military support from the West to a degree that it was never able to do before the Euromaidan uprising. This includes multibillion-dollar aid packages from the United States, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, as well as integration into Europe's energy infrastructure. For years, Ukraine lobbied the United States for lethal weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, which Kiev finally secured this year from the administration of President Donald Trump. While such efforts have improved Ukraine's position, they have also served to flare tensions between Kiev and Moscow and undermine Belarus' efforts as a mediator.
Poland and the Baltic states have also sought to harness the standoff for their own interests. To offset their proximity and exposure to Russia, these strongly pro-Western states successfully lobbied for a rotation of NATO battalions through these countries, as well as a regular NATO air patrol missions over the Baltics. Poland has taken matters a step further. It was reported this past week that Poland has been lobbying the United States to place a permanent military base in its territory. Warsaw is also offering Washington its political support on everything from Iran sanctions to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
In addition, Warsaw is reportedly offering Washington financial incentives of $2 billion. This inducement is a clever move to pre-empt U.S. sensitivities about costs, and the leaders of the Baltic states have vocally come out in support of such a base. A permanent U.S. base in Poland — still a big if — would bring much more pressure to bear on Belarus from Russia, which has been pushing for a permanent air base there.
Lukashenko has been able to resist the air base so far, knowing that this would compromise his position as a mediator between Russia and the West (one Belarusian analyst at the Minsk Forum told me that if Belarus had agreed to the air base, such a diverse gathering of officials at the conference never would have been possible). Moscow has too much leverage (whether in a positive form such as financial assistance or in a negative form such as energy supply cuts) over Minsk for Lukashenko to be able to resist forever, and Belarus itself would feel threatened by a U.S. base so close to its territory. This was not so subtly suggested by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, who recently said that "nothing is impossible" in reference to Belarus' plans to respond to a potential U.S. base in Poland.
So the standoff between the United States and Russia shows no signs of abating, and nowhere is that more clear than in the European borderlands. Even if Belarus could mediate a meeting between the two great powers, deeper geopolitical forces would prevent a resolution of the stalemate. And this complication should serve as a reminder to Belarus: No matter how much it has adapted to keep up with the changing geopolitical winds, it — like the other borderlands countries — is still at the mercy of the larger powers surrounding it.