Mike Pompeo‘s visit to Belarus, scheduled for February 1, will be the first time a U.S. Secretary of State comes to this Eastern European country since it became independent in 1990. The visit takes place amid a major crisis in relations between Belarus and Russia, in which Moscow insists on “deepening integration” within the “union state.”
Over the past year, two senior U.S. officials have already been to Belarus. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s trip in August was followed by Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale’s visit a month later.
When high-ranking officials come to a country, it sends a signal. Bolton and Hale’s trips last year demonstrated to Belarus and other countries in the region, including Russia, that Washington recognizes Belarus’ strategic importance and the necessity to work with Belarus as a sovereign and independent state.
Here are three reasons why Pompeo’s visit to Belarus deserves attention.
Changing US Approach to NATO’s Eastern Border
After the United States imposed sanctions on petrochemical companies in Belarus in 2008, the two countries recalled their ambassadors, and the diplomatic staff of the embassies in Washington and Minsk was reduced to five employees.
But Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine triggered regional geopolitical changes that affect Belarus as a country neighboring Ukraine and NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
The visits of the top American officials in 2019 and Pompeo’s upcoming visit present a historic moment in Belarusian-American relations. They also signal a change in Washington’s approach in the region, avoiding Belarus’ isolation by ending almost 12 years of frozen ties.
Recognizing that Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko remains at odds with the West over human rights and a crackdown on political dissent, Washington’s increased interest exposes a shift into a more grimy game of power politics.
Increased Security Concerns
After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Belarus emerged as a key strategic territory for security in Europe as a country bordering NATO allies. Pompeo’s visit demonstrates increased support of the country’s sovereignty and its strategic location in light of the ongoing negotiations between Moscow and Minsk on the creation of the union state.
The Belarusian army is formally aligned with the Russian, and most of the Belarusian officers receive training in Russia. The two countries regularly hold joint military drills, the most recent one in September. But Russian troops are not permanently stationed on Belarusian territory, and Belarus has been refusing to host a Russian military airbase.
Along with Tsentr 2019, Russia is also conducting the Union Shield 2019 exercise with Belarus' 19th Separate Mechanized Brigade at the Mulino Training Area in Nizhny Novgorod involving 12k troops, 950 pieces of military equipment, and 70 planes and helos.https://t.co/G1Bixsx5BA pic.twitter.com/JZF1KgztHK
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) September 19, 2019
The ability of Belarus to act as a sovereign and independent country without the permanent presence of Russian troops makes it a buffer state between Russia and NATO, helping to lower the temperature and anxiety of the NATO countries next to Belarus.
Strengthening Belarus’ Negotiating Position
Russia has been Belarus’ main supporter and ally, but over the past years, the two nations have been involved in the energy dispute in which Russia pressures Belarus for closer integration. In the past, Lukashenka has won concessions from Moscow by balancing with the West. Improvement of ties with the U.S provides Lukashenka with a chance to lengthen the leash on which the Kremlin is holding him.
Increased American attention to Belarus suggests that Washington wants to signal the credibility of its security promises by upholding its Budapest Memorandum security assurances to Belarus and demonstrate concern over Russia’s encroachment efforts on its neighboring states.
Under this 1994 framework, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States promised to not just threaten the territorial integrity of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan in exchange for giving up their nuclear weapons, but also to refrain from using economic pressure to influence the politics of the signatories abandoning their atomic arsenal.
Visits of high-ranking American officials to Belarus are significant, but should not be overstated. They demonstrate a certain willingness for conversation and provide only a little bit of support to Lukashenko, who has been ruling Belarus for the past 25 years, as he tries to manage the Russian threat.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.