When military strategists in London, Moscow, Warsaw, Washington and elsewhere look at the political chaos in Belarus they could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Mind the gap’. In this case, the Suwalki Gap. They’ll also have a gate on their minds: the Smolensk Gate.
The gap and the gate are why they care about Belarus, a relatively poor country with a population of about 10.5 million people and the unofficial title of ‘The last dictatorship in Europe’. This year’s disputed election result has concentrated minds beyond its borders due to recent history and the country’s strategic location.
In August, President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, was re-elected with a brow-raising 80 per cent of the vote. Russia congratulated him on the result; EU countries rejected it, as did huge numbers of Belarussians. Protests immediately broke out and have been repeatedly smashed off the streets by the riot police. At times, when Lukashenko has looked in trouble, Russia has hinted that it could move in to ‘calm’ the situation, by which it means ensuring someone answerable to Moscow is in charge.
President Putin doesn’t give a fig about Lukashenko and will drop him when it suits, but Russia is determined that Belarus won’t go the way of Ukraine and flip into the Western sphere of influence. If that means moving troops into Belarus, Putin will give the order. The Western powers meanwhile would like the opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to assume the presidency, but not at the risk of triggering Russian military action. Both sides have their eyes on the gap and the gate.
For the NATO powers, the Suwalki Gap is the more important. It’s a narrow, 40-mile-long land bridge that connects Poland and Lithuania, and is the only way NATO can reinforce the three lightly armed Baltic NATO states by land. On one side of it lies the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, home to 15,000 Russian troops; on the other lies Belarus. A Russian military presence in Belarus could easily close the gap and cut off the Baltic states. It would also unnerve Poland.
Russia’s presence in Belarus, in the shape of its 1st Guards Army, would mean it had direct access to Poland across a wide front. The army currently sits inside Russia at the Smolensk Gate – a 50-mile-wide territory between the Dzwina and Dnieper river systems that for centuries has had armies channelled through it – in both directions. It lies just 300 miles from Moscow. The Guards have more offensive equipment than NATO members Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Baltic states combined, and have conducted simulated invasions of Poland numerous times.
From a Russian perspective, Belarus is part of a buffer zone between it and the west and southwest, the directions from which it has faced several invasions, notably by the French and the Germans. Since the Cold War ended, Moscow has already seen NATO move up from positions 1,000 miles from St Petersburg to within 100 miles of the city. That NATO has no intention of invading is irrelevant in Moscow’s thinking. After all, times change.
Moscow doesn’t need to move into Belarus, however. Simply ensuring a pro-Russian, or even a neutral but Moscow-leaning Belarus would suffice. That explains why the Western powers have been relatively muted in their response to the crisis. They must be seen to support Tikhanovskaya, but not to the extent that Lukashenko falls, unless it’s Putin who pushes him, having had Russian fears placated.
The EU is imposing sanctions on those it accuses of electoral fraud. Fine – most of the people targeted are already on a sanctions list and know how to get around such measures, and some of their companies can increase trade with Russia to make up their losses. Besides, sanctions tend to fray; German exports, for example, often get to Russia via Belarus.
Lukashenko holds some of the cards in that he still has the support of the military and, for the reasons above, knows that Western powers are nervous about trying to topple him in case they trigger Putin. Best perhaps for both sides to keep calm, carry on, and – mind the gap.