Any attempt to force Belarus to make a choice between East and West is doomed to failure, and the only way to preserve the country’s independence is to reform it.
Michael Carpenter is Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Jamestown Foundation. Previously, he worked at the Pentagon as Deputy to an Assistant Secretary of Defense, responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans and conventional arms control.
Alexander Atroshchankau spoke with the famous American political scientist about what will happen if Russia tries to annex the country.
You have been working in different capacities on issues related to Belarus for a long time. What changes have you been seeing recently in the situation around our country?
The fundamental change was the divergence of interests: the once joint interests of Russia and Belarus are no longer such. And I see the main differences in the following. First, Russia no longer wants to subsidise Belarus with cheap gas and oil for re-export and compensate its tax manoeuvre. The once established order of cooperation breaks up, and there is no economic unity anymore.
Secondly, there are key discrepancies on security issues. Because Russia is actively promoting subversive activities against the West. Belarus does not see itself in this and does not want to be a part of this confrontation. Belarus wants most of all only stability, and not to become a territory of a clash between the East and the West.
And thirdly, the trend of the recent years, when the Russian government, as well as influential nationalist circles outside the government, are striving to expand the “Russian world”, cannot be liked by Belarus, given that Belarus has always been considered part of this Russian world. In Belarus, it is difficult to say exactly for how long it has been like this, but over the past few years in Belarus, there is a growing trend towards building its national identity and strengthening national sovereignty.
I think these three discourses significantly change the situation around Belarus and determine many processes, both external and internal.
You speak about the “Russian world”, but Putin and the Russian propaganda have not used this term for some time now. It has been replaced by the notion of a “historical Russia”, which means Russia, Belarus, Eastern Ukraine, part of Poland, the Baltic States, part of Kazakhstan and other lands that were part of the Russian Empire by the end of the 19th century. Does such a change of rhetoric pose an additional threat to Russia’s neighbours?
Yes, of course, Putin and his entourage’s references to Great Russia, to this idea which existed in the past, and the fanatical commitment of his ideologists, such as Dugin, are very dangerous. Imagine if the Germans start to talk at this level about the Holy Roman Empire, Poland starts to talk about the historical borders of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Hungary — about the revival of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These empires have encroached on other states and subdued them.
This ideological position, which is confirmed by their real actions, is very dangerous and brings quite a tangible complication of the situation for Belarus, the Baltic States, Poland and other countries in other regions, for example, in the Caucasus.
You have met with Alexander Lukashenko several times. In your opinion, at a personal level, does he understand the complexity and danger of the current situation?
This is a good question. I think he really understands the threat. That’s why we can see some changes in foreign policy. I would not say that they are significant. Rather, they are symbolic: contacts with the West, the desire to attract investments.
That is, he is well aware of the threat, but is only beginning to understand the extent to which he is in a vulnerable position — both in economic terms and in terms of security, as well as in terms of culture.
In this situation, it is very difficult to expand the space for building and strengthening the sovereignty of the country.
To what extent is the international community aware of the threat to Belarus’ sovereignty and the growing intensity of hybrid operations against Belarus?
Not fully. I would even say — not at all. Over the past few decades, Belarus has “fallen off the radar” and hasn’t attracted any interest of the people who form the Western political agenda. Maybe for the last year or two people have started to pay attention to what is happening in Belarus again. Because they are also beginning to understand the strategic importance of Belarus as a country located between NATO and Russia.
For a long time, Belarus has not been paid attention to, and I do not think they know about hybrid threats to sovereignty. Unlike Georgia or Ukraine, Belarus still has too few Western diplomats and journalists who inform their governments and society about what is going on inside. Therefore, groups such as iSANS, which identify and publicise such activities, are very important.
When commenting on John Bolton’s visit to Belarus, you said that the world should stop treating Belarus as a black hole and should pay attention to what is happening there. But this is only part of the solution. What should Belarus offer on its part in order to become more interesting to the West, to demonstrate the value of its sovereignty?
That’s a wonderful question! I think the Western countries, as they awaken under the influence of the geopolitical reality, will pay more attention to Belarus regardless of what Lukashenko does or does not do. This is the situation.
Frankly speaking, Lukashenko has done little to open the political field in Belarus.
But if he addresses the issues which are of interest for Western investors: he guarantees the inviolability of property, free access to the market, will do the things that convince the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to make it more attractive for investment — this interest will grow.
Belarus has a very educated population with very popular skills. Human capital is really great, which creates a huge potential for the placement of various services — not only in IT.
So there is a huge field for activity here. What else can be done? Giving space to civil society. And if he does it, he will see that Western countries are extremely open to involvement in Belarus. This is already happening, but the processes can accelerate considerably if there is more space for different types of activities.
The West and Russia are not the only players in Belarus. Lukashenko is making efforts to attract China as a counterbalance to Russia’s growing influence.
It is hard to say whether it is good or bad, but it is connected with certain risks for Belarus. China can partially balance the Russian influence, but not in the military sphere, nor in the sphere of security. China is too far away, and under no circumstances will it challenge Russia in a country like Belarus. Maybe in Korea, where there can be disputable interests too, but not in Belarus. Of course, both Lukashenko and other people in the government are working to attract Chinese investments, as well as any other investments that can be obtained.
One should understand that this is followed by obligations in the form of the growing Chinese influence and the fact that the added value created with the help of Chinese investments mainly goes to China. This is their way of working, and they always do it like this. So there can be no definitive answer. Belarus can be as diverse in its foreign policy as it likes, but the benefits that can be gained from cooperation with China are not comparable to those that can be gained from cooperation with the West.
And if we talk about a black scenario and assume that Belarus will lose its sovereignty or its essential part in the form of a new kind of union state or some other one, what will be the reaction of the democratic world?
You will hardly like the answer to this question.
I think that if Belarus loses its independence, the reaction of the democratic world will not be impressive.
I wish it wasn’t like this. But, unfortunately, most likely, many countries will say: “Well, Belarus was already in the Russian orbit. Belarus has been Russia’s ally and a part of the Russian strategy for so long that it is not worth wasting forces and resources to fight with Russia also because of Belarus”. Of course, there will be people who will insist that Russia should incur serious costs in the form of sanctions for any move towards depriving Belarus of its sovereignty. And personally, I will be among these people. But I will be honest with you and confess that I do not think that this path will be chosen by the majority of people who determine the position of the West.
I understand that this gloomy answer is not what you would like to hear, but this is my assessment. Just look at Paris and Berlin’s policy towards Ukraine. There is only a desire to resolve the conflict through any concessions, and not to invest in confrontation, in sanctions pressure. There is a desire to get away from the conflict, not to solve it. And I do not see how this can change under the current governments in these countries.
Many are talking about the “big deal” that took place between Russia and the US under the guise of the 2009 “reset”. They claim that in return for supporting the US operation in Afghanistan, supporting negotiations with North Korea, refusing to support Iran, participating in the Middle East processes, Russia received guarantees of a mitigated response to aggression against Ukraine and other future tricks in Eastern Europe. How do you feel about this?
I would not look for conspiracies where things are much easier to explain. Indeed, the Obama administration clearly wanted a reset of relations with Russia. And neither the Obama administration, which came to power at the end of January 2009, nor the Bush administration, which was the current administration in the US when Russia invaded Georgia, imposed sanctions on Russia for invading a neighbouring country. It was a huge mistake. Russia has learned this lesson: it can do what it wants with its neighbours and the Western community will not react.
The direct consequence of this was the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. If the West had acted stricter in 2008, especially in the fall — immediately after that war, if the Bush administration had imposed sanctions, we would have been in a different situation today. But the Bush administration decided not to do so.
I don’t believe in any general conspiracy, because if we look at all the points separately, we will see that Russia is not helping with Syria and the Middle East at all.
Yes, it helped with the adoption of the 2009 resolution on Iran, which was a significant achievement, a huge achievement. But there was no global geopolitical deal that helped to achieve impressive success. The reset allowed the early Obama administration to make progress on Iran and Afghanistan, but very quickly these results began to evaporate, partly because the rivalry between the United States and Russia was still there.
Is it possible to talk about the common position of the US and the EU on Belarus?
No, not really. I don’t think there is a single policy. Unfortunately. I think some European countries are inclined to get involved –such as Germany, Latvia. Lithuania is very hostile towards Belarus due to the construction of Astravets NPP. And I do not blame the Lithuanians, because this NPP is a serious threat — both to environment and security. But even within the EU, there is no common approach and understanding of what the common interest is.
For example, Poland has its own position, and the United States has a completely different position. That is, there is a kind of soft consensus that the West should involve Belarus in different processes using the method of carrot and stick, intensify contacts depending on the progress achieved — for example, more opportunities for civil society, clearer rules for investors, more humanitarian ties. At the moment this consensus is very vague. There is no way we can speak about a clear common policy.
You said about Lithuania, which stands alone, protesting against the construction of Astravets Nuclear Power Plant. But this is an important issue, which can become a threat to the entire region and certainly to other neighbours of Belarus. Why is only Lithuania active in this matter?
Yes, it is a big problem. And there is no common European policy, no solidarity about it. It means that Lithuania is left to itself in its attempts to protect itself from possible negative consequences. This situation brings many serious challenges: in the sphere of security, hybrid warfare and ecology.
My personal opinion is that Lithuania made a mistake by applying a maximalist policy towards Belarus and the Astravets NPP. Lithuania’s position was: “Simply don’t build it!” I think it was not a realistic policy from the very beginning. Lukashenko and Rosatom were determined to finish this project no matter what. Lithuania should have solicited the support of the EU to establish conditions for this construction: architectural, environmental. Instead, they lost a lot of time trying to prevent the construction as such. I understand perfectly why they did this, but unfortunately, they did not get the support of other EU members. Now they seem to be trying to set some minimum conditions, but it is too late. As I understand it, the nuclear power plant will be put into operation very soon.
Belarus was once close to a foreign policy breakthrough nine years ago. How can we avoid the repetition of the mistake of 2010, when Belarus plunged into isolation for many years, which was beneficial to Russia?
The West should learn a lesson about what can be and what cannot be achieved by isolation. The United States has isolated Cuba under the leadership of Fidel Castro for decades. We have cut off all ties between the continent and the island. And we have achieved the exact opposite of the desired effect. The Castro regime became cemented, and his supporters rallied around him and ruled with an iron hand.
In Belarus, we also failed to achieve our goals through isolation. The situation with human rights has not improved. Or, one should say, it has even become worse. The space for civil society actions has not expanded. Belarus is even more firmly settled in the Russian orbit. And so on and so forth. Our policy has failed, and it is necessary to draw conclusions from it. This does not mean that we should now embrace all the dictatorships of the world just because we hope that it will get better.
We need to apply a smart, based on well defined conditions, carrot and stick policy with a clear understanding of what we want to achieve.
When this understanding is in place, we can intensify contacts with the opposite party and achieve it methodically, using economic incentives, security incentives and so on. This approach prevailed during the late Obama administration. My friend Eric Rubin from the Department of State and I from the Department of Defense tried to deploy US policy in this direction — to make it more attentive to detail and more effective. I think we have achieved certain results. I was glad to see Wesse Mitchell and John Bolton, with whom, by the way, I disagree on most of the issues, but I was glad to see them in Minsk. And I hope that this approach will continue to be applied.
You talk a lot about understanding the mistakes of the United States and the West in general. What mistakes should the Belarusian leadership realize?
I think Lukashenko is currently in the process of realising his mistakes. Because the Kremlin’s embrace is getting tighter and tighter. He gets more and more stuffy in it every day, and he is trying to figure out how to slip out of it. But Russian influence on the army, security services, officials and the economy is too strong. And in the moment of time in which we are — in 2019 — it will be very difficult to pull Belarus out of this network of interdependent ties.
Are the West and the United States ready to oppose Russian influence?
It is complicated. And we need to be very careful. American foreign policy is sometimes too simplistic. We think: “Russia is the bad guys. We are, of course, the good guys”. And this approach often puts our partners in a rather difficult situation. Because they are not obliged and often have no reason to accept our beliefs about ourselves and the world as we see it. Therefore, we see our role in strengthening Belarus’ sovereignty, but not in provoking Russia.
And the worst thing we can do is to force Belarus to choose between the West and Russia. Because in such a scenario Russia will win in any case.
You speak very carefully; the Russians are much more determined.
Depends who you’re talking about. My colleagues and I, the people who have been working on Eastern Europe for a long time, are deeply convinced that supporting the sovereignty of countries on the periphery of Russia is one of the key issues of our national security. Of course, it is in the interests of these countries themselves. It is also important for the development of democracy in Russia.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski said, with Ukraine, Russia is an empire and without Ukraine, it is a national state.
This is also applicable for Belarus. If Russia eventually becomes a national state and protects itself from imperial ambitions, then and only then will it have a chance to become a democracy. If it dreams of imperial ambitions, it will remain an authoritarian state for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, there is a very direct link.
That is exactly how it is. You say that for the West, the issues of Belarus and Ukraine are a question of a more or less comfortable and safe life. For many Russians, these are existential issues. Do they want to be one of the national democracies?
This is an ontological question that has its roots in the way Russians see their identity and their existence. It is deeply rooted in their culture. And I don’t like it when they say that change is impossible because imperialism is part of the Russian DNA. It is not part of their DNA, it is part of their culture. And culture changes. Germany changed after World War II. Hungary changed after World War II. Japan changed after World War II. All these countries were powerful empires, but they changed. Nothing is impossible here.
These changes were the result of…
The war. Yes, the war.
Is there a softer way?
(laughs) I don’t know. Putin’s project was quite successful as long as it provided economic growth, some well-being for citizens, and privileges for those who were close to him. Economic collapse can greatly shake their confidence in the correctness of the chosen geopolitical path. Such a collapse would not be war, of course, but its consequences can be compared to those of war. At least in terms of the effect, it will have on the minds of the Russians.