As the West watches the dramatic events in Belarus unfold, it is clear this former Soviet Republic is on the precipice of a historic change, one which will set the tone of regional politics for decades to come. The Belarusian people seem to have lost patience with President Alexandr Lukashenko, long known as “Europe’s last dictator.” At this critical juncture, the United States and its European allies must show their support for the people of Belarus and their future. Logically, this can only mean opening a dialog with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
These days there is much talk of the conflict between the foreign policy establishment sometimes referred to as “The Blob,” and the mavericks, the dissenters, the realists. What we don’t hear are those commonalities where both sides more or less agree. Resolving the looming Belarusian crisis via direct negotiations with Moscow could serve as fertile ground on which to unite the Blob and realists.
To some observers, it might seem odd to propose negotiating the fate of Belarus with Russia without the involvement of Belarusians themselves. The response is twofold. First, this is why we have foreign policy experts- to formulate policies and proposals which may seem counter-intuitive, even bad, to laymen’s ears, and which may seem to have failed disastrously and repeatedly to laymen’s eyes, but which are in fact good and correct policies. Secondly, and more importantly, by showing willingness to engage with Putin over the future of Belarus without needless third party meddling by Belarusians, the West would be sending a message to Moscow that it comes to engage in good faith while taking Russia’s security and economic interests into account.
Indeed, the desire to open talks with Russia and achieve yet another reset is already popular in the IR community. Recently, Politico published an open letter signed by 103 foreign policy experts urging decision makers to rethink American policy toward Russia in favor of something more flexible, particularly on the matter of sanctions. In the spirit of that letter, the following recommendations on the resolution of the Belarus question should be seriously considered, and hopefully the signatories of that letter would endorse and promote them as well.
-The US and its allies must take a stand for democracy and human rights, but in a way that isn’t too threatening to Vladimir Putin. This is one reason why Russia should be allowed to take a leading role in the negotiations, possibly by directly providing aid to Lukashenko so as to stabilize the situation and “keep the peace” while the long-term future is being hammered out by US, European, and Russian diplomats. Ideals like self-determination and human rights must take a back seat to the most important value in international relations- stability.
-Western negotiators must resist the urge to involve Belarusians, especially the opposition. With all due respect to the alleged “winner” of the recent election, Svetlana Tikhonovsaya, her alma mater is Mozyr State Pedagogical University, not Georgetown. How could she possibly understand what’s best for Belarus’ short-term, let alone long-term future? We need Russia’s input, and in the extremely unlikely chance that it proves absolutely necessary to include representatives from Belarus, Russia’s interest in the region means they can competently select the voices worth listening to.
-Another danger of holding talks with Belarusians, especially the opposition, is Moscow might see it as official Western recognition, akin to the way Ukraine sees Moscow’s demand that they directly negotiate with the pro-Russian separatists in that country’s civil war. On that note, one way for the West to signal its willingness to meet Russia halfway in Belarus would be to pressure the obstinate, nationalist government in Kiev to finally open talks with the rebels directly, thus possibly resolving that conflict while heading off another potential civil war in Belarus.
-Putin drives a hard bargain and isn’t likely to offer many concessions, if any. That shouldn’t rule out negotiation, however. The West has plenty of carrots to offer Moscow in order to entice the Russians into possibly considering thinking about seriously suggesting something resembling a concession. The most obvious enticement would be a relaxation of the sanctions regime against Russia. Of course there has to be room for the stick as well, and thus it must be made absolutely clear to Putin that there will be consequences should he make a formal declaration of war against Belarus and openly invade and occupy the country militarily, which is the only conceivable justification for taking any harsh measures against Russia in response. In that worst-case scenario, the West should respond by leaving the current sanctions in place, albeit while reminding the Kremlin that these sanctions can still be removed should they cease their aggressive military action. Or if they significantly reduce said military action. Or if they deny military involvement in Belarus. Flexibility is key.
-Although Ukraine isn’t Belarus, it is necessary to include the mutually neighboring country in the negotiations with Russia. “Include” in this case means the West can use Ukraine as a bargaining chip in dealing with Russia. For example, in exchange for a formal agreement promising not to overtly militarily invade Belarus, the US and Europe could recognize Russia’s reunification with Crimea, as well as removal of all related sanctions. This might sound unthinkable to some of the New Cold Warriors, but is this truly too high a price to pay for peace in Belarus? Surely a multilateral agreement, co-signed by Russia, guaranteeing the borders and territorial integrity of a neighboring country is more than valuable enough to justify such an exchange. Would any rational, educated person suggest that such an agreement with Russia is worthless? What evidence is there for such assertions other than everything that’s happened between Russia and Ukraine since 2014? Apart from that, there simply is none.
-From the start it should be made clear to Russia that Belarus will not be allowed to join the European Union or NATO. It’s time to finally admit that the Helsinki Final Act is in fact an obsolete dinosaur of a bygone age that needs to be laid to rest. By insisting that Belarus remain staunchly neutral (continuing to belong to Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union is fine), Moscow will be forced to admit there is no conceivable reason to use military force against Belarus. Russia doesn’t invade countries that aren’t in NATO; it has only invaded countries it thinks might join NATO at some undetermined point in the future. Non-bloc status is a surefire deterrent to Russian military aggression.
-We must resist the New Cold War narratives that call such bargaining policies ‘appeasement.’ They are at best, terribly misguided, at worse, motivated by vicious Russophobia. Those who lack a strong connection to Russia and the mysterious Russian soul (i.e. unlike the author) simply do not understand that Russia’s mentality is shaped by the despotic rule of the very same Mongol rulers they share much of their bloodlines with. As such, it is foolish for us to project Western values onto these people and insist that they not invade their neighbors militarily when it’s literally in their DNA. We must deal with Russia not as we’d like it to be, but as it is, i.e. a backward country of half-Mongol Slavs who have an inherent need to live under a strong leader like Vladimir Putin. It would be Russophobic to measure those people by our lofty standards, which they could never hope to live up to.
-The United States should seriously consider, as a show of good faith, opening talks with Russia for joint ownership of the state of Alaska, a former Russian imperial territory whose loss is still lamented by some Russians today. Not only could this alleviate some of the federal government’s deficit, but it could potentially secure some kind of Russian cooperation in Syria.
-Once again it is important to stress flexibility in terms of sanctions. For example, the US and its allies could remove some of the more detrimental sanctions on a temporary, trial basis, to become permanent if Russia can go a certain period of time, say three months, without openly engaging in any behavior deemed too egregious, such as engaging in genocide on an industrial scale.
There is no doubt these recommendations may seem controversial to some, but as any expert knows, controversial ideas are always the right ones. Contrary to the skeptics’ narrow-minded, holdover Cold War mentality, the West now has a wide variety of options when working with Russia to decide the fate of Belarus. These range from acquiescing to some of Russia’s perfectly reasonable demands, to acquiescing to nearly all of them. The United States and its allies hold all the cards and can easily achieve a diplomatic victory if only their leaders are willing to meet Moscow half, or ideally, 80 percent of the way.
And to those who say another reset is not possible, they should remember that the term comes from reset button, not reset thing that can only be done one time, as in reset bottle rocket or reset Keurig pod. The West must push that reset button again. And again. And perhaps one more time. For the sake of Belarus and its people, we must come together with Russia and decide their fate bilaterally.
Richard Versteher has worked as a Senior Fellow at ‘all the think tanks,’ and is author of Munich and Molotov-Ribbentrop: Mistakes or Misunderstood Genius? He enjoys yachting and golf between appearances on Russian state news programs and lecturing at the Moscow-based Russian Institute of Strategic Studies.