PressOne talked with a reputed foreign policy analyst, a former career diplomat, to see what is next for relations between Belarus and the West, in the context of Lukashenko’s latest maneuvers. But the interview also revealed interesting details regarding potential changes in the US’ foreign affairs strategy on NATO’s eastern flank.
Aaron Wess Mitchell has been United States Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs between October 2017 and February 2019. Before filling this position, he was President and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank dedicated to analyzing and improving transatlantic relations.
Mitchell has an outstanding insight on European affairs. His book, “The Unquiet Frontier: Vulnerable Allies, Rising Rivals and the Crisis of American Power” has been credited as having a major influence on the way general H.R. McMaster formulated the US National Security Strategy in 2017.
Since 31 March 2020, NATO’s General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, names Mitchell as co-president of the Reflection Group, a commission of highest-level experts tasked with formulating a set of recommendations regarding the strengthening of political cohesion within the Alliance. Mitchell is, therefore, in the best position to know all the nuances of the eastern line of NATO, both theoretically and practically.
He had the consideration to answer some questions from PressOne regarding the latest developments in the region.
What can we expect in the relationship between Russia and Belarus, considering the recent actions by the Lukashenko regime (air piracy, abduction, torture of political prisoners)?
Moscow will intensify its efforts to curb Belarus’ independence and make that country an appendage of the Russian body politic. In the past, Lukashenko was able to maintain some freedom of maneuver, however small, between Russia and the West. He played this game shrewdly. But the margin for maneuver is now mostly gone because of last year’s instability, which brought his regime to the brink of collapse and made Lukashenko’s survival dependent upon Kremlin support. When Putin bailed Lukashenko out, he became, in effect, a ward of Putin. The leash is now very short. It is questionable whether Belarus is, in any meaningful sense, still able to run an independent foreign policy at all. So we will see the fealty of Belarus to Russia intensify, to the latter’s benefit.
Do you think the sanctions put up by the EU are enough to hurt Belarus and its regime and make it change course? Could the EU do more?
The European Union has few viable options for modifying the Belarusian government’s behavior. Belarus’ main industries – agriculture, potash, machinery – are much more reliant on Russian than European capital and markets. Forty percent of its exports go to Russia. Such levers as the EU possesses, while they can be painful for individual officials and state-owned companies, are not as painful for Belarus as the levers that Russia can bring to bear to nudge it in the opposite direction. The EU took action through sanctions when Minsk’s behavior toward political prisoners and the opposition became so egregious that they could not be ignored. But in reality there is little that the EU can do to change facts on the ground in Belarus.
Is the integration of Belarus into Russia something that is on the table? How would this work when it comes to the political survival of Lukashenko and his cronies in a larger Russian Federation?
It has been talked about for some time. At present, however, it is not clear what Putin could accomplish via a formal act of union that he cannot acquire from simply allowing Lukashenko’s dependency to deepen. Historically, Russia frequently favored the use of indirect control of frontier regions over direct incorporation into the empire. That remains true today. The object is political control and denial of the West’s presence on Russia’s borders without absorbing the costs and risks of direct rule. The threat of union is more a tool vis-à-vis Belarus’ leaders, a kind of lever for keeping them in check, than an actual plan for enlargement of the state, at least at present. I suspect Putin will keep this option at play for the foreseeable future.
What is (or should) the US prepared to do to sanction the regime in Minsk?
The United States has two interests in Belarus. The first is specific and tangible: seeing the existence of as many politically sovereignty entities along the western frontier of Russia as possible. The second is more general and flows from the first: encouraging the prospects for popular, political self-determination in this region. Both run counter to Russia’s interests. Like the EU, the tools we have for encouraging these outcomes are limited. The United States uses sanctions to advance both objectives. These are important and useful tools but they always carry the risk of pushing Lukashenko closer to Moscow. Unlike in neighboring countries like Ukraine, there is not a willing and able government on the ground to cultivate as a base of local, self-motivated resistance to Moscow. We have to play the long game, applying sanctions when needed while developing ties with civil society, competing for positive influence and ensuring that Moscow is not able to assume that the country is safely and permanently consolidated within its sphere of influence.
Germany and Russia are moving into the final phases of building Nord Stream 2. What is the Biden administration doing to prevent the completion of this project? Are these actions enough, in your opinion?
The longstanding fracas over Nord Stream 2 represents an obstacle to the Biden administration’s two highest policy goals in Europe: achieving a political reconciliation with Berlin and developing an opening for détente with Russia. For that reason, the Biden administration appears to have made the decision to not resist, in any meaningful way, the completion of this pipeline. Allowing it to go ahead while maintaining a rhetorical public stance of opposition allows the administration to manage criticism from Congress while placating the Germans and creating space for engagement with Putin. This approach generates significant collateral costs, in the form of heightened danger for Ukraine and greater exposure of Central and Eastern Europe to Russian energy manipulation. It is not yet clear what if anything the administration plans to do to mitigate these costs.
What could the Biden administration do more to stop Nord Stream 2?
The administration could use the sanctions authorities at its disposal to raise the costs of continued participation in the Nord Stream project by third parties. These are the mostly European companies involved in its construction. The administration could also organize European states (virtually all of which, with varying degrees of earnestness, oppose the project) into a more effective coalition to resist its completion at the EU level. Remember: Nord Stream runs counter to the EU’s own stated principles and policies in energy security. In this sense, Germany, which proclaims itself to be the foremost multilateral power, is behaving in an avowedly unilateral manner. The same could be said of Germany’s non-compliance with its pledge to spend two percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense. These inconsistencies could be much better exploited in U.S. policy.
Regarding the Black Sea region and the recent crisis in which Moscow’s troop movements seemed to signal an invasion of Ukraine, how would you assess Biden’s administration response?
It is hard to decipher what the Biden administration intends toward Ukraine. At least rhetorically, it continues the established policy lines of supporting Ukrainian independence and self-defense. Yet the administration’s response to the Russian military build-up was to offer a meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents. In the period leading up to that meeting, administration officials, including the President himself, seemed to cast shade on Ukraine’s prospects for NATO membership. It appears that the United States was responsible for blocking the meeting of Ukraine’s president on the sidelines of the NATO leaders’ meeting. It is not insignificant, in this context, that the notification to Congress of the annual military aid package to Ukraine was delayed and did not include Javelin missiles. Together with the Nord Stream decision, these details suggest that a shift is underway in U.S. policy that has potentially serious implications for Ukraine and eastern NATO states like Poland and Romania. The administration has not explained these permutations in a way that would allay their concerns.
What help should Ukraine expect from the United States in a war scenario with Russia?
In such an eventuality, Ukraine would possess the materiel (lethal and non-lethal) that America has, to date, provided for its self-defense. But it is important to state clearly and plainly that Ukraine is not an Article Five NATO ally. It should not expect the United States to act in its defense in the event of war.
What are the actions that NATO should take to reinforce the Black Sea region in face of the threat posed by Moscow in particular and the whole Eastern Flank of the Alliance, in general?
It is important that the United States not rethink the increased U.S. military commitments that the Trump administration made in Central and Eastern Europe. As outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, we need a glacis of intertwined U.S. and local forces to shift the escalatory burden to Moscow in the event of a crisis. Most of the responsibility must lie with frontline NATO states themselves. But it is Germany that uniquely has the ability to change the military balance of power in our favor in this region. It so far refuses to discharge this responsibility in the form of higher defense spending. This is not a trivial or academic thing. Unless Germany accepts this responsibility, it is questionable, under current or foreseeable spending levels, that the United States would have the military ability to handle major crises in the European and Asian theaters simultaneously.
Should the EU go forward with more integration to solve its problems in the East or is this a trap that could remind us of the Habsburg Empire and the centrifugal forces that eventually destroyed it, at a great cost?
The most dangerous thing for the EU would be to attempt greater centralization in the belief that technocracy and one-size-fits-all solutions can solve its problems. Europe is full of particularisms—seemingly small but politically and culturally important differences. These should be preserved and seen as the taproot of legitimacy and resilience, not as obstacles to be overcome on the path to “ever closer union.”
The Habsburgs found cohesion amidst such variety because, in their wiser moments, they resisted the siren song of centralism and created natural outlets for political pluralism. They understood the practical value of what Catholics call “subsidiarity” (reserving decisions for the lowest possible level of authority) for holding together a polyglot political construction. EU leaders would do well to learn from their methods.