Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 19, a conversation she described as very friendly and warm, and one that seemed to promise meaningful U.S. action on Belarus in the near future.
Blinken is the most senior U.S. government official to meet with Tsikhanouskaya. The meeting is the clearest signal of Washington’s support of her against Belarus’ authoritarian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is being propped up by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The support of Belarus’ opposition is just one manifestation of a changing strategic balance in Europe’s East.
Tsikhanouskaya is 38 years old, and Lukashenko has been in power for most of her life. After running against him in Belarus’ 2020 presidential elections, which she probably won, Tsikhanouskaya was forced into exile in Lithuania. Her meetings with Blinken and other officials take place at a time when Lukashenko is escalating attacks on Belarus’ independent media and human rights organizations. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, a blogger and pro-democracy activist, has been imprisoned since the beginning of her presidential run.
Lukashenko’s position was considerably weakened after the widespread mobilization of Belarusians seeking to oust him after nearly three decades in power. In reaction, Putin sent new diplomats to Belarus with close personal ties to himself. Putin also sent battalions of Russian tanks to the country’s border with Poland, raising an alarm from NATO.
Along with Tsikhanouskaya herself, the United States has come out in support of Belarusian civil society, which has become considerably more aligned with Western Europe since Lukashenko first came to power in 1994. Belarusians have started to distance themselves from their recent Soviet past. They are looking back across the centuries to periods in their history when they were not ruled by Russia, such as when they were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Tsikhanouskaya’s visit has facilitated the creation of the Friends of Belarus Caucus in the U.S. Congress. The caucus is comprised of a bipartisan group of representatives who are prioritizing economic assistance to the Belarusian people, as well as lobbying for new sanctions against the government in Minsk — Tsikhanouskaya has advocated for these sanctions. The newly formed caucus convened at the Embassy of Lithuania in Washington with Tsikhanouskaya present as a nod to Lithuania’s role in supporting her in exile.
It is unclear whether Tsikhanouskaya met with U.S. President Joe Biden during her visit to Washington, but she delivered a list of high-powered individuals allied with the Lukashenko regime, as well as industries such as oil, timber and steel, that would be prime targets for sanctioning.
If Washington decides to pursue action in the near future, it is almost certain to start with a new sanctions regime. Belarus had already been placed under sanctions as a result of Lukashenko’s theft of the 2020 election, but Tsikhanouskaya has stated that those sanctions “didn’t hit the regime,” and that Belarus “lost time” to oust him as a result of their ineffectiveness.
Tsikhanouskaya believes that economic stress from more severe sanctions in the short term is worth long-term gains for democracy. She asked the United States “not to hesitate” in imposing sanctions on Lukashenko’s government. "It can be painful in short-term perspective but people are suffering now because of the regime, not because of sanctions," she said.
Given that the support from the U.S. government for Belarusian opposition and civil society has now been broadcast to the rest of the world, it seems possible that the strategic balance to NATO’s east, near Poland and the Baltics, could change.
Repercussions on the part of Minsk have started already; Biden’s appointed ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, has been denied a visa by the Lukashenko government.
One thing that will not change, however, is the rate at which defenses are being built up in Eastern Europe to prepare for a conventional attack from Russia. NATO defenses in Eastern Europe are poised to be in better shape than in previous years. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and the latest troop buildup in Belarus have highlighted the true degree of vulnerability that frontline NATO states would have to face without acquiring the latest defense systems as a deterrent.
Stresses on NATO’s ability to counter a conventional attack from Russia have been significantly alleviated by the official announcement of Warsaw’s purchase of the Abrams tank from the United States. The new arsenal of 250 tanks is replacing half of Poland’s 500 obsolete Soviet-manufactured vehicles. Moreover, Poland is thought to be restarting its efforts to participate in France and Germany’s Main Battle Tank coalition, which it was previously excluded from as of 2020.
Poland has also acquired both the F-35 fighter and the Patriot air defense system from the United States. The former is considered essential to European defense due to its capacity to collect more intelligence than other tactical aircraft while remaining nearly invisible to Russian radar.
If the United States becomes more involved with the cause of democracy in Belarus, that will raise the question of whether there will be a response from either Minsk or Moscow that requires more than a sanctions regime. But regardless of whether shifts in diplomatic strategy translate to the defensive sphere, the U.S. and NATO will have to remain more prepared than ever for the Russian aggression that Moscow’s infiltration of Belarusian politics may enable.
Sarah White, M.A., is Senior Research Analyst at the Lexington Institute. the views expressed are the author's own.