Executive Summary: A Russia-controlled dictatorship in Belarus is a clear and present danger to the security of the United States and its transatlantic allies and partners. In 2020, Belarusians made a clear choice for democracy and independence. Instead, the Belarusian people had the last vestiges of political rights and civil liberties taken away, the Lukashenka regime facilitated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and signed the nuclear weapons deployment deal in 2023, dragging Belarus toward gradual annexation by Russia. The Russian assault on Kyiv via Belarus in February 2022 demonstrated the strategic importance of Belarus for European security. The U.S. government should take concrete steps to safeguard independence of Belarus, to help Belarusians in forced exile build the expertise and recognition needed for a peaceful transition of power to a democratically elected government, and to ensure accountability for human rights violations and war crimes committed by Lukashenka and Putin regimes.
Strategic Goals of Democratic Belarus
Supporting a plan for an independent democratic Belarus and helping Belarusians determine their form of government for themselves is a necessary step to eliminate the threat of a Russia-controlled dictatorship bulging into a free, democratic Europe. The escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022 has made this task more urgent than ever.
Belarusians have clearly stated their strategic goals since 2020. The galvanizing of society for the 2020 presidential election and the subsequent protest against the falsification of the election results demonstrated the aspiration of the Belarusian people to democratic forms of governance and their decision to part with the authoritarian rule of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The Belarusian democracy movement, forced to operate in exile due to brutal political repressions in Belarus, has been mobilizing the diasporas and organizing and preparing for the next window of opportunity for a peaceful and democratic transition of power in Belarus.
Belarusians aim to build a democratic state with free and fair elections and respect for universal human rights. Belarusians strive for a free sovereign Belarus with an independent foreign policy agenda and nuclear-weapons-free status. Such a Belarus will contribute to peace and prosperity in Eastern and Central Europe. The strategic goals of the Belarusian people fully align with the security strategy of the United States and its transatlantic allies and partners, which aims to strengthen democracy around the world and build a security system through partnerships and alliances, respecting self-determination, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
It is imperative that the U.S. foreign policy prioritizes support for the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people and develops a clear, actionable plan to safeguard Belarusian efforts to build a free, democratic, independent, and sovereign Belarus.
Recent Events and Current Situation in Belarus
The brutal crackdown on the August 2020 Belarusian Presidential election protests, the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the continuing incorporation of Belarus into the Union State with Russia have temporarily suppressed the movement toward democracy inside the country. Belarusian people have become a hostage of Lukashenka’s thirst for power and Russia’s imperial agenda toward Belarus and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Lukashenka has accelerated the integration of Belarus within the Union State with Russia and turned Belarus into a launching pad for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Siding with Russia, the Lukashenka regime has put the country under Russia’s increasing political, economic, and military control and entered a state of war with Ukraine. The increased integration between Belarus and Russia displays all characteristics of hybrid occupation and gradual annexation of Belarus by Russia.
Russia’s strategy for wielding control over Belarus has been less overt than the invasion of Ukraine but with the same overall goal to satisfy its imperial ambitions. That strategy includes propaganda based on false historical narratives; the Russification of the Belarusian people to eradicate Belarusian nationhood and cultural identity; and the exploitation of Belarusian territory for projecting threats to neighboring countries, including NATO states.
The nuclear weapons deployment deal between Putin and Lukashenka further expands Russia’s grip on the Belarusian military and puts U.S. allies on the Eastern flank of NATO under threat.
Belarus as a Critical Crossroads in Europe
Belarus is a European country of often overlooked importance. Its geographic position makes Belarus a crossroads between many countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Historically, Belarus has been a key battleground of every major conflict throughout the history of medieval and modern Europe, from the Crusades to the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like independent Ukraine, an independent Belarus is an obstacle to the cultural myth that underpins the Russian Empire. Like Ukraine, Belarus was always coveted not only for the local resources but also for the access that it opens to the neighboring lands. The Russian assault on Kyiv via Belarus in February 2022 is a fresh reminder that control of Belarus by belligerent dictators poses a direct threat to NATO allies on its border. Authoritarian Belarus in a union with authoritarian Russia creates the real possibility of military escalation that can spill over to the entire Europe.
Authoritarian Threat to Global Security
The Lukashenka regime has always been a global security risk and a threat to U.S. national security, its role in the ongoing unraveling of the global rules-based order made it easier than ever to see why.
Since the beginning of his presidency, the Lukashenka regime has been dismantling democratic institutions, building its power on gross human rights abuse, propaganda, intimidation, and a powerful security apparatus. In 2020, the Lukashenka regime unleashed ruthless mass political repressions on the Belarusian people. In 2021, Lukashenka extended the crisis into the international sphere by hijacking a Ryanair airliner and instigating a migrant trafficking crisis on the borders of the European Union. The same year the regime initiated anti-Ukrainian propaganda in Belarus. Since then, Lukashenka has authorized the use of Belarusian territory for the invasion of Ukraine and allowed the stationing, supplying, and training of the Russian military in Belarus. Lukashenka also opened Belarusian territory for Russia’s genocidal practice of kidnapping and forced reeducation of Ukrainian children.
Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime has become an agent of Putin’s expansionist agenda and an imminent threat to the Belarusian people, allies of the United States in Europe, and U.S. national security. Lasting security in Eastern, Central, and Northern Europe is unattainable without a democratic Belarus integrated into economic and military infrastructure shared with its neighbors from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine.
Policy to Support Democracy in Belarus
Create the legal basis for safeguarding the independence of Belarus and for a peaceful transition of power to a democratically elected government.
- Appoint a Special Envoy for Belarusian Affairs to demonstrate the U.S. priority and engagement in promoting and developing democracy and freedom in Belarus.
- Declare the Lukashenka regime as a puppet government of Russia and designate Belarus as illegally occupied by Russia.
- Declare non-recognition of the Union State of Belarus and Russia and any other government established in Belarus under Russian occupation.
- Adopt a policy modeled on the Welles Declaration, which created the basis for the non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of Baltic States in 1940 and the Crimea Annexation Non-recognition Act of 2019 to formalize U.S. recognition of an independent and democratic Belarusian state.
- Adopt a policy of non-recognition of international treaties and agreements signed by regimes and governments that undermine the sovereignty of Belarus in any way; preemptively recognize repudiation by a future democratically elected Belarusian government of debts incurred after Lukashenka’s illegal inauguration on September 23, 2020, by the Lukashenka regime and its successors.
- Consistently recognize the legitimate mandate of Belarusian democratic institutions such as the Coordination Council endorsed by the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
- Recognize Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the legitimate president-elect of Belarus, the United Transitional Cabinet as an interim executive body representing Belarus in international organizations and treaties, and the Coordinational Council as a representative body of Belarus.
- Commit to an economic recovery plan for Belarus modeled on the Marshall Plan to ensure economic stability, democratic development, and integration with the European Union economies.
Protect Belarusians in forced exile and help them develop expertise and institutions for democratic self-governance, build recognition and an international network of contacts to make the most of the next opportunity for a transition to democracy that presents itself, and maintain distinct Belarusian culture.
- Designate Belarus for Temporary Protected Status and authorize Special Student Rights for Belarusian nationals residing in the U.S.
- Add Belarusian nationals to the list of Homeless nationalities, enabling them to apply for visas in the countries of their residence.
- Support Belarusian NGOs in the U.S., Lithuania, Poland, and elsewhere to aid the Belarusian diaspora, build the Belarusian democratic community, and establish strong international democracy networks.
- Direct the Department of State Advisory Committee for the Study of Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union to prioritize Belarusian studies.
- Create demand for specialists in Belarusian studies by making direct first-party engagement with Belarusian democratic institutions a priority in U.S. public policy and diplomacy.
- Support Belarusian independent media and Belarusian programming in existing media organizations.
Increase pressure on the Lukashenka and Putin regimes by ensuring accountability for their human rights violations and war crimes.
- Adopt a policy that requires a clear distinction between Belarusians, who need the protection and support of the U.S., and the Lukashenka regime that illegally usurped power in Belarus after losing the 2020 presidential elections and committed numerous violations of human rights and international laws.
- Recognize Lukashenka as an active party in the war against Ukraine, and investigate the complicity of the Lukashenka regime in war crimes, from supplying weapons and ammunition for strikes against civilian infrastructure to the abduction of Ukrainian children.
- In recognition of criminal collusion between the Lukashenka and Putin regimes and the ongoing military occupation of Belarus by Russia, establish a policy of consistent application of personal and economic sanctions against both regimes.
- Work with allies and partners to continue expanding personal and economic sanctions for human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Lukashenka and Putin regimes in Belarus and Ukraine.
- Expand budget and remit of OFAC and other U.S. government agencies responsible for sanctions enforcement to enable consistent and pro-active investigation of sanctions violations, money laundering, and other corrupt activities by agents of Lukashenka and Putin regimes in the U.S.
- Initiate an investigation of human rights violations and cases of deaths in Belarusian penal colonies and police custody.
The emergence of a democratic Belarus integrated into the European economic and security systems fully aligns with the security strategy of the United States and is essential for protecting human rights in Belarus and guaranteeing the safety, security, and prosperity of U.S. allies in Eastern, Central, and Northern Europe. There are concrete steps the U.S. government can take today to support the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people.