Proteste in Bielorussia (Getty)

The Geopolitical and Military Impact of Chaos in Belarus

The leader of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko is undergoing a lengthy series of protests by the people against what they see as a rigged election. Massive amounts of people gathered last week and at the time of this writing there appears to be no end in sight.

Lukashenko’s Loss of Legitimacy

Reports from analysts suggest he has lost legitimacy and will have a difficult time continuing to rule. Lukashenko has ruthlessly suppressed the revolts only to find that his brutality has inflamed the people.

The situation is so intense he may be deposed at any time. The impact of this political chaos has important military ramifications for Russia and Poland as well as NATO and the West.

Looking West

Looking to the west, Belarus is incredibly important. Geographically it flanks the Baltic states from the South and borders Poland from the east. There is a small bit of territory called the Sulwaki gap that separates Belarus and the heavily militarized, Russian-controlled Kaliningrad pocket.

If Belarus allowed the Russian military in their territory it would create a geographic situation like that faced by Poland before World War II. In that case Poland had a hopeless defensive position with attacks that could be launched from Germany, Prussian territory (that is now the Kaliningrad Pocket), or from the flank of newly acquired Czechoslovakian territory. They were further prostrated when Russia joined in the attack.

The new situation doesn’t include a potential attack from Germany, but the remaining threats are no less concerning. In the case of attack Poland and NATO will have to move forces to help the Baltic States. (Which according to war games, could fall within 48 to 60 hours.)  But they would face attack from the east through Belarus and from the northeast from the Kaliningrad Pocket.

Potential for Russian Aggression via Belarus

Modern arms and armament make Belarusian territory even more frightening if Russia can place assets there.  US and NATO forces would likely compensate for the lack of ground soldiers in the area by using air assets to interdict Russian forces and stall their tactical advances. For example, NATO practiced the forward deployment of its best asset, the A10 Warthog. They planned for a seizure of a key highway in Estonia that would allow NATO forces to use airfields in the area.

But this road is only 125 miles from the Russian border and is even closer to the Belarus border. In the event of conflict there would be enough offensive and defensive firepower to render it and all of Estonia off limits to NATO forces for the first days or even weeks of any conflict with Russia.

Troop Levels Should be Increased in Poland and the Baltic States

This is a large reason why I think there should be more and heavy forces stationed in Poland, but also the Baltic states. Current NATO doctrine dictates that use of a US Calvary squadron with Stryker combat vehicles, 150 British dragoons, plus a Polish tank division. According to current training, the force would move from from North Eastern Poland into Southern Lithuania to plug the vital Suwalki gap.

But moving those forces would require significant air cover to negate the Russian anti access area denial forces in Belarus. The air assets would also have to degrade anti air capability and gain mastery of the air before they can operate. And they would have to make tactical strikes against quickly advancing Russian forces.

That is a great deal to ask of the surprised local forces in Poland and Eastern NATO countries with a window of only 48 hours to stop a Russian attack. Making sure Belarus is more closely aligned with the Western camp would lessen this threat.

Looking East

Yet Russia can claim legitimate concerns as well. Russia has a long history of invasion from foreign and particularly Western powers. In describing the origins of the Cold War, diplomat George Kennan wrote in his famous long telegram about Russia’s “neurotic” view of world affairs:

“[Their] insecurity…trying to live on a vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added…fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies” to their West.

They faced invasion from Napoleon and Germany twice within 30 years. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, was the scene of a massive German encirclement in 1941. Russia lost half a million men in less than three weeks. Though we should point out that Russian defenses were weakened because they moved into territory seized from Poland instead of their fortified pre-1939 borders.

If Belarus moves towards the Western camp that could deny Moscow the strategic depth it instinctively seeks.  It would likely result in a similar situation to that in Eastern Ukraine where Russia meddles by supporting rebels and sending soldiers in an unofficial capacity to create a friendly separatist region on their border. Some credible analysts already worry that Russia will pursue a hybrid war in Belarus.

Concluding Thoughts

The political chaos in a far away region filled with hard to pronounce names may not seem like the biggest deal for some Western readers. But this political chaos has huge military ramifications. From squeezing Poland and the Baltic States between the Kaliningrad pocket and a friendly Belarus, or having Western friendly states on the doorstep of Moscow, we need to be aware of the major impact that this nation could have going forward.