May 27, 2021
The Cold War 2.0 just got a whole lot worse with the hijacking of a commercial jetliner in order to abduct, torture, then imprison an exiled 26-year-old, baby-faced Belarusian activist named Roman Protasevich. It was the act of Putin’s proxy – Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko – and reinforces the need for President Joe Biden to reverse his recent decision to pull his punches in stopping Putin’s pet project, Nord Stream 2. This was another Putin-linked attack that must be addressed.
“Like every puppet leader, [Belarus President] Lukashenko doesn’t use the bathroom without asking for Moscow’s permission. It’s fanciful to imagine he’d hijack a flight between NATO allies without Moscow’s blessing. Putin’s regime is emboldened because the U.S. dropped our sanctions against his treasured Nord Stream 2 pipeline. We should impose those sanctions tonight,” said U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, on May 25.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 with an iron hand until two seminal events occurred in his “neighborhood”: In 2004, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution overthrew the country’s rigged election and in 2014 Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity overthrew its Russian puppet President. Within weeks, Russia invaded but Ukrainians were able to repel total recapture. Even so, Russia was able to annex Crimea and occupy a part of the Donbas region.
That defiance, as well as Ukraine’s success in gradually becoming more democratic and open, was noted by Belarusians, including its despotic dictator President Lukashenko. He and the President of Kazakhstan both surprisingly and publicly criticized Putin’s seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and their fates – along with those of their peoples – were sealed. Ever since then, Putin began to tighten the screws on Belarus. The next target is Kazahkstan, another former Soviet Republic, which is bigger than all of Western Europe.
Belarusians watched as Ukraine was able to handle the ongoing hot war against Russian military operatives in Donbas, and as it obtained aid from the West as well as access to trade and visas in the European Union. Its exports and opportunities boomed. By 2019, Ukrainians held a truly free election and elected a reform-minded new President and its minimum wages overtook those in Belarus and Russia – a poke in the eye of the Russian Bear as well as its Baby Bear in Minsk.
That’s when Putin moved to stop the possible “democratic contagion” and proposed merger talks with Lukashenko. He labeled it euphemistically as a “two-state solution” but it was, in essence, a soft annexation. Lukashenko played along, buying time, without much success. On January 20, 2020, I wrote that Belarus was clearly “Putin’s Next Target” in the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert publication and for Kyiv Post.
As Lukashenko was being squeezed, he began to shift, ever so slightly. He halted vicious crackdowns. He began delivering speeches in Belarusian, not Russian. He reached out timidly to Europe and NATO and refused Putin’s request to let him build Russian military bases inside Belarus, up against its borders with NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. This virtue signaling was picked up by western countries, the press, Belarusian democracy advocates, and the United States which re-opened its embassy in Minsk closed for years due to Lukashenko’s human rights abuses.
But the shift – to get out from under Russia’s grip not to become a liberal democracy – was most importantly noticed by Putin. In 2019, Putin began running out of patience and his suggestion to merge became a demand, fortified by Russia’s cutting off oil and gas to Belarus in January 2020. Presumably, Lukashenko argued effectively to postpone any resolution until after the August 2020 election in Belarus and local political opposition and peaceful street protests grew.
Lukashenko was defeated, then rigged the results which also didn’t work. Protests became immense, but, unlike Ukraine’s more powerful civil society, the Belarusians were beaten back as the result of a brutal crackdown. Lukashenko turned to Putin for help. Moscow loaned him $1.5 billion but also sent in members of the Russian military and secret police, and cyber-warriors who took over the country’s newspapers and the Internet. They bathed Belarus in propaganda and also hunted and apprehended bloggers and activists like Protasevich, who fled to Poland and Lithuania.
What’s most tragic is that Belarus’s 9.5 million people face little prospect of getting out from under Russia’s boot now. An official merger is inevitable and Putin has been able to swallow whole a country the size of Romania with an educated populace that has been abused throughout history. Landlocked, the country was ravaged, as was Ukraine and Kazakhstan, by Stalin’s famine in the early 1930s, and then by the Nazis who killed 25 percent of Belarus’s population, 100 percent of its Jewish citizens; destroyed 209 out of is 285 cities; and obliterated 85 percent of its industry, one of the hardest hit among the former Soviet Union republics. Reeling from catastrophe, it was then controlled by a stern, Communist dictator who has delivered living standards lower than Peru’s or Botswana’s.
Unlike Ukraine, Belarus lacks an enormous and active diaspora, or sizeable civil society, to help wrest itself free from the Soviet sphere. Their situation is no different than what’s occurring in other former Soviet Republics such as Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia where the Kremlin has recaptured bits of territory and aims to slowly repossess them.
Belarus’s high-profile activists and heroes have been driven into exile, but continue the fight remotely, in concert with democratic activists in the West. This is why Putin’s proxy Lukashenko this month set an unconscionable and pernicious precedent by stalking and hijacking a commercial jet to arrest Protasevich. This crosses a red line that imperils exiled dissidents everywhere and will, unless internationally sanctioned and condemned, become a favored tactic of autocrats everywhere.
Putin’s proxies, his pipelines, his oil, and his Kremlincrats and cronies must be severely sanctioned by America and Europe. And Biden’s meeting on June 16 with Putin in Geneva must be a showdown, not a summit.