The EU has economic and diplomatic leverage over the regime.
“We, the West, must prepare for the collapse of the Lukashenka regime,” said the American general who visited Belarus in 2018. How has his attitude to the situation in our country changed? What worries the Pentagon in Belarus and what scenarios should the West prepare for? Here is Belsat с Беном Ходжесом interview with Ben Hodges, retired US Army Lieutenant General. The former commander of United States forces in Europe is now one of the key security experts at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
- A question about the border crisis. How do you assess the situation on the border of Belarus with the European Union in line with the migration crisis, which lasts for several months?
- This migration crisis adds skepticism to the regime in Minsk, which is harshly using people as weapons to destabilize the European Union, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Latvia. These are not isolated events but part of a general scenario. Lukashenka would not have done this without the permission of the Kremlin. After all, nothing will fly through Belarus without the knowledge and permission of the Kremlin. Given that the air defense of Belarus is integrated with the air defense of Russia, this could not have happened at least without the covert support of the Kremlin. I believe that we in the West now better understand the brutality of the regime.
- What to do? What advice would you give to the European Union?
- The European Union has economic and diplomatic leverage if it rallies all of its member states to tell the Kremlin that Russia should make Lukashenka stop. But this is not happening. Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia defend the sovereign border of the European Union. I got the impression that they remain face to face, disregarding certain statements from Brussels, as there were no strong signals. Some people in Poland and elsewhere complain that the Polish Armed Forces are reacting harshly, but that's not the point. Naturally, they are trying to stop the source of this process in Iraq. The European Union has the diplomatic and economic strength to achieve this. But for the previous several months, the countries of Eastern Europe were left alone with this problem.
- Does this crisis, as Lukashenka's hybrid actions are officially called, has the potential to turn into something more dangerous - dangerous enough to disturb the Pentagon?
- Note that the use of refugees as weapons occurs simultaneously with the current exercises West-2021. This is no coincidence. These are all elements of a new generation of the Russian war. Some people call it a hybrid, others say that it is a gray area or actions below the line. This is a demonstration that Russians are always at war. Not only in the traditional, kinetic sense, but in the mental sense, all the time at war. We are not, because we do not think in this way, and, therefore, it is difficult for us to understand such cruelty. But they do it without any problem. We must understand that this is not a joke, not a competition. They are trying to destabilize and undermine all of our structures. Divide allies to create problems for them. This is war. We must realize this. Therefore, yes, the Pentagon is concerned about it.
- There are now thousands of US Army soldiers in Poland. Do you think this crisis could escalate into something more serious? Perhaps not in a full-scale war but an armed incident or a provocation with shooting? Could the American contingent be involved in this? It sounds incredible, but unexpected things have happened in history.
- I have not met anyone who predicted that Russia would attack Georgia and Crimea. I live in Germany, and people there are constantly wondering why Russia is doing this because they don't see any sense in it. Naturally, it doesn't make sense in my mind either. But in the minds of Russians, this is a natural thing - constant threats, ongoing destabilization, the use of weapons, gas, threats to use nuclear weapons to intimidate people around their borders. They consider Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia as their own, as they say. Too many people in Western Europe do not want to believe this, so it was unexpected for us.
Do I think this could lead to a full-blown kinetic conflict? No. But we would like to keep it unlikely. For this, we need the unity of NATO countries so that there are no doubts about our mutual responsibilities, so that civilian leaders show that we are prepared for whatever is needed. We must fight in the information space, in the diplomatic and legal spheres. Fight is the appropriate word. Otherwise, there is a chance that the Kremlin could miscalculate badly.
- My question concerns Lukashenka and Putin, integration of Russia and Belarus. What do you think of it? How do you rate the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko now, after the unsuccessful Belarusian revolution? Does Washington consider the permanent military presence of Russia on the territory of Belarus in the near future as a serious possibility?
- This has always been the subject of my concern: that Russia can deploy its troops in Belarus on a permanent basis. This increases the risks for the allies, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine too. This is troubling. I have always been convinced that the Lukashenka regime is capable of containing a permanent Russian military presence outside Belarus. I am less sure that he is capable of this in the future. Lukashenka has visited Russia six times this year, of which twice in the last month alone. He has no choice. Obviously, he lacks other options. I believe that we, the West, must prepare for the collapse of the Lukashenka regime, although I am not sure if this will happen. East Berlin fell, it was a surprise for everyone. Many places have collapsed.
The migration crisis was also a surprise.
Do we think about what will happen to Russia as a result of the Anschluss of Belarus? What if the regime collapses in the event of treason and the departure of defining statesmen or a coup? Are we ready for this? Or it will be a mass uprising of the citizens of Belarus, or the deployment of Russian troops, or another incident - for example, with the nuclear power plant in Astravets. Obviously, the Lithuanian authorities are extremely concerned about the nuclear power plant. We have many scenarios to consider, for which we need to prepare.
- I think the last 15-20 years have shown that Putin acts wherever he has support for his own actions - in South Ossetia, Crimea, in eastern Ukraine, in Transnistria. I am sure that the Kremlin is aware of the low level of support for integration with Russia in the Belarusian society. The last elections proved it. Therefore, they will strive for soft penetration, step by step.
- I agree. And here it is not a matter of pulling Belarus to the West but a matter of protecting citizens of European countries, safety, health, and freedom of people. We must be ready to help - without provoking anything.