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Russia’s increasing influence in Belarus is the price of defunding NATO

On Sunday, Aug. 9, Alexander Lukashenko won the 2020 Belarusian presidential election by a staggering 80%, beating out his four rivals with a landslide victory. Lukashenko was quick to declare victory, and quicker to use state security forces to brutally oppress popular uprisings against his 26th year in office. Riot police fought against a tide of thousands of flag-carrying Belarusians, the largest protest in the history of the former Warsaw Pact nation. Enormous protests, some up to 200,000 strong, have been springing up in the capital city of Minsk against what many world leaders consider to be a highly fraudulent election.

In the past, Lukashenko has often rigged elections by imprisoning or exiling political rivals. In fact, Lukashenko’s rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, only entered the election after her husband was jailed for running against Lukashenko earlier this year. While Tikhanovskaya has declared herself the winner of the Belarusian popular vote, her supporters have rallied in the streets of Minsk and other major cities, demanding that Lukashenko resign.

The issues in Belarus don’t end at fraudulent elections. Since Lukashenko’s first and last fair and democratic presidential victory in 1994, the country’s relations with Russia have been problematic to say the least. Over the last year, Lukashenko has acted erratically towards Russia, with interactions ranging from alleging Russian interference in the election to pleading with Vladimir Putin for help with the protests. The most concerning aspect of the Belarus-Russian relationship is a clause in an agreement that dates back to the turn of the millennium. In 1999, Russia and Belarus signed what was called a Union Nation agreement. Though the terms of this agreement were never truly enacted, the agreement essentially conjoins Russia and Belarus into a single nation. By bringing Belarus back under its protective wing, Russia can finalize yet another phase of its recent military foray into Eastern Europe. With Russia being one of few major world players to have condoned the recent Belarusian election, it’s becoming clearer that Lukashenko is gradually losing support within and without his own country. 

As Lukashenko begins to fall back on the Russian government more and more, the Kremlin will be able to start demanding more and more in return; under the threat of either cutting off the cheap oil Belarus depends on or cutting off Lukashenko’s political support, it would be extremely easy to pressure Lukashenko into agreeing to the Union State merger signed in 1999. This may not seem like a huge deal; realistically, Belarus is far from a world player, already largely dependent on Russia for oil and gas, and hasn’t changed much politically since the collapse of the USSR. However, on the global stage, this could be a game-changer. Belarus lies directly north of Ukraine, where Russia is already involved in a military campaign in the Donetsk region. Annexing Belarus would open up a northern front for the Russian campaign in Ukraine, likely with a cover story of ethnic Russians in Belarus wanting to join the fighting on behalf of their Ukrainian cousins.

In the middle of all this, the U.S. government has made moves to cut funding from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Most European nations are NATO member parties, and the alliance of North American and European nations has been credited in the past for being a safeguard against Russian expansionism. In a time when Russian forces have invaded Ukraine and are suspected of interfering in Belarus, President Trump has repeatedly threatened to reduce American funding of NATO by 6%. As a president who describes himself as tough on Russia, the president’s actions certainly don’t reflect his words. 

Cutting funding to NATO weakens the entire alliance, creating the perception of European countries as unable to resist Russian forays into Europe. Already there’s been relatively little American action against the invasion of Ukraine, and removing further financial support from one of the few organizations that have kept Russia in check in the past is certainly not the way to prevent international catastrophes. The best way to help the people of Belarus maintain their autonomy is to take a clear, strong stance on the matter: the United States should prioritize the defense of democracy wherever it is needed and asked for. 

Providing NATO and European allies with the appropriate funding and support to prevent further abuses of sovereign nations by Russia is the most effective way to prevent situations like the one in Belarus from happening again and again.

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