Belarus is preparing nasty surprises for its neighbours: representatives of Lithuania and Poland warn

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko RIA/Scanpix

Lithuania and Poland have been right for years in explaining to their Western partners the threat and intentions of Russia, say Lithuanian and Polish policy-makers gathered for an informal discussion in Vilnius. But, unfortunately, they said the scenarios that both countries feared have unfortunately come true. However, the current attitude of NATO allies and the West’s at least partial awakening to the “Russia question” is encouraging, Jūratė Važgauskaitė writing at news portal.

Policy-makers are convinced that for the last 15 or 20 years, both Lithuania and Poland have been right in explaining that Russia is preparing for war and will sooner or later launch an aggressive attack on yet another neighbour. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a very dramatic effect on Poland and Lithuania. Belarus, the neighbour of both countries, is also a cause for concern. It is believed that Lithuania and Poland will be subject to further provocations and unpleasant surprises, for which it is necessary to be prepared.

Lithuania and Poland have seen Russia’s intentions

Both countries, and NATO, need to adapt urgently to a changed and harsh security reality. Policy-makers say no Russian move can be ruled out, and it is, therefore, necessary to talk about and prepare for the future now. According to foreign policy experts, this will be the task of the NATO summit in Vilnius this summer.

According to one Polish policy maker, Poland will call for more combat-ready allied troops to be deployed on NATO’s eastern flank at the summit because although the number of allied troops has increased, more troops in the region make sense in view of what is happening in Ukraine. And the possibility of Belarus becoming actively involved in the war cannot be ruled out. 

The number of NATO troops, their capabilities and the places where they will be deployed must reflect the new strategic, military reality. An appropriate response is the only thing that Russia seems to value.

As far as Belarus is concerned, Minsk also played a significant role in the attack on Ukraine, which is an aggressor country under international law. Russia attacked Ukraine through Belarusian territory, and the hybrid attack on Lithuania and Poland should not be forgotten.

Lithuania and Poland believe that NATO should pay more attention to the potential threats emanating from Belarusian territory. Russia’s military presence in Belarus is becoming more permanent, posing a direct threat to NATO’s Eastern flank. 

According to policy-makers, defence finances are, of course, being increased throughout the Alliance. But Poland, for example, is expanding its defence spending at a very rapid pace, with a decision to spend more than 4% of GDP this year. It is fair to say both countries are convinced that it is not only on the financial shoulders of the US that NATO has to stand and that everybody must invest in defence. Lithuania, too, is doing this intensively. 

We need to talk openly with Ukraine

As regards Ukraine, it should be mentioned that Poland, the US, the UK and Lithuania are significant contributors to Ukraine. Still, it should also be the responsibility of other countries.

We cannot expect the biggest donors to remain the biggest donors all the time, the representatives of both countries believe. There are 30 countries in the Alliance, some of which are much more technologically advanced than Lithuania or Poland. They could donate more to Ukraine because foreign aid is vital.

Ukraine’s future, its aspirations to join NATO, must be clearly and openly communicated. Lithuanian and Polish policy-makers are convinced that Ukraine must be given an honest answer, whatever that answer may be. It is essential not to repeat the mistakes made in Budapest. When memorandums were signed, security was guaranteed, and then the agreements were simply broken. 

Russia is weaker now than it was before the start of the war in Ukraine, but that does not mean that it is not dangerous. It is, however, a weaker and less reliable partner for other countries in the region. This can be seen just by looking at what has happened on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Armenia. Russia’s border neighbours are testing the situation and, as it were, testing what Russia’s reaction will be. Will it? 

The relationship between NATO and Russia is such that the response to the Russian threat is now the Alliance’s primary task. This will obviously change NATO’s long-term policy towards Russia. There is unlikely to be a return to the previous model of relations. Naming Russia as an enemy at the Madrid NATO Summit was an accurate decision, even though it was seen as a partner only a decade ago. 

Belarus will test the strength of its neighbours

As for Russia and Belarus, policy-makers say Lithuania and Poland need to prepare for creative hybrid threat scenarios. A few years ago, no one could have imagined that Aliaksandr Lukashenko would create the kind of crisis on NATO’s borders that we have seen recently. 

It could happen again because they are too weak to launch military action against one of the NATO countries. They do not want to test the operation of Article 5, but anything below that is fine with them so that we can expect constant testing of reactions. 

There are also likely to attempt to divide and antagonise neighbours and NATO allies. We can expect the most unexpected scenarios of a hybrid attack, with years of testing the West’s reactions, the public’s sentiments, and impact.

The Suwałki Corridor has been described as the most dangerous place in the world, and it may not be, but it is undoubtedly a place that needs a lot of attention. 

On the one hand, there is Kaliningrad, which is one large military base, and on the other hand, there is Belarus, where there are Russian troops, and they are there all the time. The gap is about a hundred kilometres, and if any military situation were to arise, the Suwałki Corridor would play a very large and vital role. That is why Poland was extremely worried when Lukashenko launched the hybrid operation of illegal migrants. The situation was developing quite dangerously in the area of the Suwałki Corridor. This raised a number of questions for Poland. 

This may have been a way of testing reactions and different scenarios in the Suwałki area. Such situations are also the reason why Poland and Lithuania have been calling on NATO allies to be present in the region since 2016.

According to policy-makers, it is not that Lithuania and Poland do not know their weaknesses. That is why, let’s say, Lithuania is not only actively looking at what Poland is doing and buying, which is impressive and sends a clear message to Russia, but it is also paying a lot of attention to defence and new purchases. 

The situation is somewhat complicated by Belarus, which is becoming Russia’s western military district rather than a sovereign state. Belarus is becoming even less predictable, and. In contrast, previously, it was subject to scenarios worthy of a short warning, it has now turned into a state that can be subject to a scenario with no warning (for us). 

That is why the decisions taken in Madrid, which say that there must be more allied troops in the Baltic States, in Poland and that they must be ready to react at a moment’s notice, are so important. So that we do not end up with the same scenario as in Buche because there will be nothing left to fight back from, only ashes and dead people. 

Both Polish and Lithuanian representatives agree that we must be prepared to defend ourselves and not wait for liberation. We must therefore invest in our capabilities. All this is so that everything goes quickly and smoothly, and the Allies do not have to analyse whether or not the red line has already been crossed. 

The scenario of Russia and Belarus launching an open war against NATO members does not seem very realistic at the moment. Still, we can certainly look forward to hybrid attacks, to attempts to see where the red line is, to provocations, to test the reaction. There is also likely to be a discussion among the allies about what this is, how to name it, and how to react.

It must be understood that Russia is quite a revisionist state, and they have said, jokingly but simultaneously seriously, that Russia’s borders will be wherever the West stops Russia. 

From the back bench to the front

A few years ago, the situation on NATO’s eastern flank was utterly different. Before 2016, Poland did not have as many allied forces, the strategic plans for the defence of the Eastern Flank were incomplete, and the region was considered a “second-class NATO member”. 

 According to the representatives, even the logistical lines were not ready, which is very important as the example of Ukraine shows. There was a naive assumption that Russia might be different from the West but that it should be traded with, not fought. However, all that has changed, Ukraine has shown that the world’s second-largest army is not as powerful as it seemed. Their weakness may have been a surprise to the Russians themselves. But that is how authoritarian regimes work, with all the generals reporting that everything is fine when it is not.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the mentality of the West has also changed, and it is no longer thought that Russia is an innocent, strange country that is good to trade with. Indeed, some truths have apparently not been fully grasped because defence spending has not necessarily increased everywhere.

Germany’s reactions (to the war) have not been what other countries expected. And it is bold but not necessarily convincing to say, according to policy-makers, that Germany has changed its policy towards Russia since the war began.

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