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What Russia Stands To Gain By Backing Belarus

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko has drawn attention from European leaders and Russia's President Vladimir Putin after his government arrested a journalist flying over the country on a commercial plane.
Maxim Guchek
Getty Images
Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko has drawn attention from European leaders and Russia's President Vladimir Putin after his government arrested a journalist flying over the country on a commercial plane.

Updated May 26, 2021 at 6:14 PM ET

A growing number of European countries are blocking access to Belarusian airlines. The response comes after Belarus intercepted a commercial flight and removed and arrested Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist who was on board.

Speaking to NPR's Here & Now on Wednesday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Grabrielius Landsbergis, whose country borders Belarus, expressed his support of the sanctions.

"I think this is one of the ways to show that these lack of action of piracy — or as we call it, state-sponsored terrorism — has a price tag," he said. "That it's absolutely not okay to hijack a plane, kidnap more than hundreds of passengers on it, keep them under lock and key in the airport."

While Western democracies try to sanction Belarus, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, seems to support Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Fiona Hill is an expert on Russia who has worked at senior levels in the White House and the State Department; she's now with the Brookings Institution. She spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about how this incident fits into the larger tensions over democracy in Europe, what Russia stands to gain from a good relationship with Belarus and the way Alexander Lukashenko's fate may presage that of Vladimir Putin. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for a transcript of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ari Shapiro: In the last week, as we have seen countries try to isolate Belarus from Western Europe to the United States, what has Russia been doing?

Fiona Hill: Well, Russia initially was watching what was going on in terms of the response. Obviously, Russia was supportive of the idea of the plane being diverted with the example of a bomb threat counterterrorist operation.

Which we now know to have been false.

Which we now know was not the truth at all. And now, Russia has basically backed up Lukashenko on the actions that he's taken, but not in an overwhelmingly positive way from Lukashenko's perspective. I mean, they've been supportive of him and the importance of interdicting potential terrorists — because that's now what he's calling the opposition figure, Protasevich. But they haven't been overwhelming in their support for Lukashenko. They've been watching very closely to see how everyone else reacts.

Why? What's in it for Russia? Why support this guy?

Because Lukashenko is now extraordinarily dependent on Russia. And Russia wants to keep Belarus very close. In many respects, Russia's probably quite glad that the ties between Europe and Belarus have now been severed — and Belarus in the United States — because this means that Lukashenko and Belarus are entirely dependent on Russia.

At the same time, Lukashenko has been a very difficult ally. He has often tried to kind of, in many respects, distance himself from Putin as much as possible. He's tried to play Russia off against the West when it suited him. He's tried to basically chart his own course. And he's quite willing to spend Moscow's money when it suits him, but not necessarily give something back again when the Russians want it.

So this is obviously a complicated and nuanced situation. And it would be an oversimplification to call it just a microcosm of the tensions between the Democratic West and the sort of Russian strongman model. But to some extent, is that what we're seeing here, that this large geopolitical dynamic is playing out in this one situation in Belarus?

Yes, we are. This is really the geopolitics at play. It's an artifact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's the weather we've seen in many of the former Soviet republics and parts of Eastern Europe [that] are kind of backsliding in the direction of a more authoritarian system.

But this is also a larger tale of a particular person and a very small group around him who want to stay in power no matter what. And of course, we see that playing out in politics everywhere, including here in the United States, where people basically put an emphasis on their own self-preservation rather than on the interests of the country.

So we have to separate out here Lukashenko himself, Alexander Lukashenko, from the people of Belarus, who clearly want something different. And none of this is very popular in Belarus of itself: either keeping Lukashenko in power or having even a closer relationship with Vladimir Putin and with Russia.

So as Western Europe tries to isolate and punish Belarus, is Russia likely to try to water down those actions and undermine Western Europe's efforts to impose accountability?

Well, it is likely to do that. And the other reason is because this leaves Lukashenko with nothing other than Russia to prop him up. And although the Russians were always a bit irritated by Lukashenko trying to play off Europe against Russia, seeking European investment, flirting with the idea of closer diplomatic relations with the European Union — the United States as well — they don't want to foot the bill for Belarus. There's all kinds of escapades that the Russians have been up to recently that are not super costly, but when you start to add them together, that increases the bill. And if now Belarus becomes financially dependent, and Lukashenko, on Russia, that's also extraordinarily awkward for Vladimir Putin who has himself said that he wants to stay in power somewhat indefinitely. But if Lukashenko goes [out of office] as a result of a populist uprising, that's pretty bad for Putin.

If Russia is already overextended. Is there a chance that Putin might say, "Look, this is not worth the hassle," and encourage Lukashenko to respond to the EU's demands and become less of an international pariah?

It's possible it depends on whether they see a greater upside than a downside because, again, Putin will not want to see Lukashenko ousted from power as a result of a grassroots opposition movement. Now, if Lukashenko then becomes dependent on Russia and Russia helps orchestrate his removal — or at least, manages to get him completely subservient to them — then that is a different matter. But right now, I think it's unclear. So the Russians are watching to see how everyone responds. And of course, what Lukashenko has done is put the whole world on notice. Because if we let Lukashenko get away with this, we can be pretty sure — in the context of the rest of the world, not just in Europe — that others will attempt this, too.

I know you've been speaking with Belarusians in exile. How do they view this week's events?

Well, they're completely shocked, as are many of the citizens of neighboring countries and political activists from the Baltic states, Poland, you name it. You have to also bear in mind that there are large Belarusian diasporas outside of Belarus. So there's a lot of countries with a stake in what happens in the future of Belarus. People are very worried about the collapse of the country, a strong reaction to Lukashenko, people fleeing across the borders, and, of course, there's a great concern about the potential absorption of Belarus by Russia as well. And so there's an awful lot at stake here and people are extraordinarily worried about the European Union, the United States and others not having a sufficiently robust response that puts Belarus on notice and anybody else who might be thinking of doing something similar.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.