Why You Should Care About Belarus

People holding Belarusian flags take part in a demonstration in support of protests against the results of the Belarusian presidential election.

Why You Should Care About Belarus

By John McLaughlin


Because a country is crying out for help and demanding competent leadership.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

If you were advising the U.S. president, what would you say to him about Belarus?

It’s very important in the context of Russia’s desire to establish a strong sphere of influence in its neighborhood, because Belarus provides a buffer of sorts between Russia and one of NATO’s key frontiers (Poland, which hosts two U.S. Army battalions). So, in looking at the whole question of European security, the degree to which Belarus remains either independent or becomes a satellite of Russia or united with Russia — Putin earlier proposed a union of the two countries — affects the European security picture and what posture NATO has to be in.

I would also be telling the president not to expect a Ukraine type of independence movement. Belarus does not have the same history as Ukraine. They were both part of the Soviet Union and they both became independent countries, but Ukraine had a long prior history of democracy and is connected to western countries like Poland and others culturally and is much more inclined to reach west, and to be influenced by Western ideas and traditions. But mainly, Ukraine had a very vibrant opposition and relatively free elections for a number of years after independence, whereas Belarus has not. So the protests in Belarus are unlikely to produce a westernized society as we hope for in a place like Ukraine. 

How does Russian President Vladimir Putin see the situation?

This is important to Putin for a number of reasons. Socially, culturally, ethnically, linguistically, there are very few differences between Russia and Belarus. And it is tied intimately to Russia economically. The idea of some sort of economic independence is beyond any realistic hope.

Belarus is like a mirror of Russia, and when there are large-scale protests in Belarus, Putin has to worry because it could encourage more Russians to do the same. Putin’s popularity has fallen somewhat and more Russians are protesting his rule. If Belarus gets out of control and Belarusians succeed in gaining some measure of democracy and free elections that Russia doesn’t have, Russians will want the same thing. In a way, that’s the one similarity to Ukraine. Putin fears Ukraine gaining greater prosperity and success as an open, pluralistic society because Russians see these countries as their little cousins. If one of them has a functioning democracy, why shouldn’t they?

What is Putin likely to do?

Putin’s options for dealing with this are rather limited. He made some remark to the effect that the Russian military was available if needed. But it would be very risky for him to send in military forces. It would probably just spur more protest in Belarus and draw attention to Belarus in the West. This could stimulate a movement for deeper sanctions against Putin. So that’s not a good option for him. His best option is probably to use his intelligence service, which is very close to the intelligence service in Belarus, which still calls itself the KGB, and is probably totally penetrated by Putin’s intelligence operatives. 

How should the U.S. respond?

At this point, I think the U.S. policy should probably be limited to rhetorical support for greater freedom and for fair elections in Belarus. But we need to stop short of suggesting that we would contemplate any sort of intervention. The United States has to be careful not to give the protesters, who have been quite brave, false hope that somehow we’re going to come to their rescue because that would embolden them to take greater risks in a vain hope for U.S. intervention. Again, Belarus compared to Ukraine has a much more pervasive and brutal security service that will crack down with ferocity.

Working through the European Union is a good approach. I don’t think they will do anything as clearly and overtly as they have in Ukraine, where it’s possible to imagine a future in which Ukraine becomes an EU member. No one in the EU is contemplating an association agreement with Belarus. But, that said, the European Union has an interest in encouraging democracy in Belarus because it makes for a more secure Europe. The EU does not want a situation in which all this chaos permits Putin to become the puppet master or to install his own figurehead in Belarus. Belarus borders Poland, Poland is a NATO member, and NATO has forward deployed five battalions — three to the Baltics and two in Poland. The last thing anyone wants is for the Russian influence to creep even closer to Central Europe.


Belarus opposition supporters hold a giant former white-red-white flag of Belarus used in opposition to the government, during a demonstration in central Minsk.


Can Belarusian protesters succeed in bringing change?

One of the problems in Belarus is that the protest doesn’t have a clear leader. When you see mass protests succeed, it has, in my experience, almost always been because there’s been a clearly recognized, widely supported leader of the movement as there was in Poland with Lech Walesa and in former Czechoslovakia with Vaclev Havel. But there’s no clearly recognized leader in Belarus. The closest thing is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against him. By some accounts, she would have received something like 60 percent of the vote if it’d been fairly counted.

It’s not even clear to me what the protesters want. I think beyond fair elections, it’s not clear that their protests have a crystalized objective. Their objective is not to join NATO or the EU. It is very much an inward set of grievances focused on the fact that there is tremendous corruption, poverty. I think the coronavirus response, which has been incompetent and foolish, has probably also contributed to their grievances. 

Are protests in Belarus likely to spread to other countries?

I don’t see this spreading elsewhere in the former Soviet Union or outside. I think this is pretty much confined to Belarus. Belarus is not a country with extensive well-developed ties to other countries outside its neighborhood.

Why should folks in the West care?

We have forgotten a little bit of this in the Trump era, but the United States’ soft power in the world depends to a large degree on recognition that we aggressively support universal human rights, and we haven’t seen much of that in the last three or four years. But the first reason is that the world expects us to speak up when legitimate freedom of speech and legitimate protest is brutally suppressed.

The second reason is more geopolitical. And it’s because what happens in Belarus will affect, in one or another, the influence of Putin, who is no friend of ours and means us harm and seeks to subvert our elections. 

If Lukashenko does leave, who is likely to replace him?

He would try to have a family member installed, perhaps his son. But typically when dictators like him are driven from power, it is rare that their families are able to hang on.

So then there are two alternatives. Either out of the chaos in the absence of a fallen dictator, it’s conceivable that a person like Svetlana could come to power. But it is more likely that would be seen by Putin as a threat to his authority in his sphere of influence, and he would work hard through his security services to undermine that outcome and install someone that he regarded as his cat’s paw.

If hundreds of thousands of people get in the streets and won’t go home, it becomes harder and harder for a dictator to hold on. So it’s conceivable that Lukashenko could be pushed over, but I think it’s doubtful because he seems prepared to use his security forces in brutal ways, which usually turns out to be effective in the absence of strong, unified leadership in a protest movement. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).