A wake-up call for the West: When Joe Biden meets Vladimir Putin, don’t ignore Belarus

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On May 23, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko ordered one of his fighter jets to force a civilian commercial aircraft to divert from its flight path and land in Minsk so he could arrest a journalist he did not like – risking the lives of the 132 other people on the plane. We also have reason to suspect that Russian President Vladimir Putin might have given the OK needed to carry out this dangerous and reckless act.

A swift response from the international community followed, including my visit to the Lithuanian capital earlier this month on behalf of the United States, accompanied by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to meet with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who leads in exile the democratic opposition to Lukashenko’s dictatorship.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in June 2021.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in June 2021.

Her story is inspiring and tragic. Trained as a school teacher, she was thrust into the limelight when her husband was arrested for having the audacity to challenge Lukashenko for the presidency.

Tsikhanouskaya then ran for president herself in 2020. The U.S. government said it was concerned about the conduct of the election being neither free nor fair. But Lukashenko and his cronies cracked down and declared victory for themselves. They then put Tsikhanouskaya and her children under immense pressure, forcing her across the border into Lithuania.

Putin’s expanding influence

Despite real democratic opposition, Lukashenko survived – due in large part to the material support of his fellow kleptocrat, Vladimir Putin. Why would a dictator as wily as Putin choose to support an old-school strongman like Lukashenko? Because reestablishing the Kremlin’s control over Minsk is part of Putin’s plans to establish outposts on Russia’s periphery to sow chaos and subvert democracies in the region.

This must be a wake-up call for the West.

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Putin’s ambition to unite Belarus and Russia into a single state and expand his authoritarian reach cannot be ignored. Beyond the dismissal of the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people, it would also give Putin another regional tool in order to ratchet up his intimidation of Kyiv, Ukraine.

When I visited Ukraine this month, government officials voiced concerns of Russian incursions and gray-zone warfare tactics, which would only worsen if Putin could intimidate and – in the worst case scenario – attack from the Belarusian border. Russia already leases two military bases in Belarus and is eyeing a third, and it continues to support Russia-friendly separatists and occupy large swathes of Ukraine with Russian soldiers.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, front, in Kyiv, Ukraine, in June 2021.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, front, in Kyiv, Ukraine, in June 2021.

Russian activity in the Black Sea is particularly worrying and could suggest more Russian action against Ukraine this fall, when Europe is on vacation and Germany is distracted by its own elections.

Belarus is on the forefront of our minds, and Ukraine still retains broad bipartisan support in Washington. But it’s worth noting that Russia’s first play to subvert democracy in Eastern Europe started with the Republic of Georgia, where I also visited. I saw the “administrative boundary line” demarcating part of the 20% of Georgia occupied by Russia and its local proxies. Here, Russian forces try to intimidate Georgians by occasionally moving the fence marking the line and hindering movement of Georgian citizens across the line, preventing access to essential services.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's group visits the “administrative boundary line” in Georgia in June 2021.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's group visits the “administrative boundary line” in Georgia in June 2021.

The Russians also hinder the activities of the European Union’s monitoring mission, and engage in disinformation campaigns designed to disrupt Georgia’s democracy in ways Americans know all too well from our elections.

Rein in Russia

Russia’s malign behavior extends beyond Eastern Europe. Putin’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline would link Russia directly with Germany via the Baltic Sea. This project would allow Russia to end the transit of gas through Ukraine, depriving Kyiv of crucial revenue. The Ukrainians, along with the Poles and Baltic countries, have protested loudly to their fellow Europeans to try to stop the pipeline, but construction continues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi, Russia, in February 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi, Russia, in February 2021.

So, while recent actions in Belarus are concerning in their own right, the broader pattern of Putin’s behavior must be confronted before Belarus is swallowed into his orbit.

First, we need to seriously consider NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, or at least provide a clear path for entry. Both want to join, which would be devastating for Putin’s plans. Since its inception, NATO has been open to countries who make the sovereign decision to join, and approved unanimously, and it should not be any different now. Reforms are required to ensure the alliance would be gaining strong allies, but failure to act would deliver a victory for Putin.

Moscow's most meddlesome man: Biden needs to get tough with Putin and inflict a higher cost on Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in December 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in December 2020.

Second, we need to stop Nord Stream 2. This is a purely geopolitical project, and it will serve nobody’s interests but Putin’s. The Biden administration needs to work with our Western European partners to protect our equally important Eastern European allies. Using the sanctions tools that Congress has provided, both the completion and operationalization of the project can be averted.

Third, we need to enhance our military and diplomatic presence in the region. We need a qualified ambassador in Kyiv as soon as possible. Promoting business and investment ties with Ukraine and Georgia would benefit both our countries, as well.

Finally, we need to ensure that the transatlantic community remains united. We cannot allow Putin’s attempts to divide us succeed. President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe, preceded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s previous trips, have reignited the energy of our bilateral relationship. And Putin’s plans cannot succeed against a West that stands together.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is a Democrat representing New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate and is co-chair of the Senate NATO Observer Group. She is also the only woman and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Follow her on Twitter: @SenatorShaheen

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden-Putin meeting: Russia's expanding influence must be checked

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