Once again, the United States must confront the challenges posed by Russian aggression, this time in Belarus.
On August 9, President Lukashenko of Belarus claimed he had won re-election by what is widely regarded by international observers and experts as an impossible 80 percent margin. Following this sham election, the Belarusian people took to the streets to peacefully protest the results and to call for an official recount. Instead of heeding the calls of the people, President Lukashenko deployed his State Security Forces to violently suppress the protests. Images taken of those recently detained by the security services show clear evidence of severe beatings and human rights violations. Despite the danger, the Belarusian people have continued to protest peacefully, proving that they are unafraid to stand up for their democracy and call for freedom in the face of tyranny.
The United States unequivocally stands with the Belarusian people and their calls for a free and fair election. Unfortunately, our adversaries do not share this sentiment. According to numerous military analysts and regional experts, Russia may be preparing to intervene to help prop up Lukashenko through violent means. As co-Chair of the Senate’s Ukraine Caucus, I am all too familiar with the Russian playbook used against Ukraine in response to the Revolution of Dignity. Russia’s tactics are clear, starting with sowing disinformation using false narratives to weaken trust in established democratic institutions. They infiltrate special forces forward, as they did in Crimea in 2014. They use threats and outright acts of violence to gain control over strategic communications and key means of transportations. Unlike during the illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014, when these “grey zone” tactics were not well-understood, we now have a much clearer vision of Russia’s strategy.
The United States and its European and other allies are better positioned to expose this aggression thanks to lessons learned since Russia illegally invaded Crimea in 2014. In 2016, I worked with Senator Chris Murphy to establish the Global Engagement Center (GEC) at the Department of State with the mission set of countering foreign disinformation to susceptible audiences abroad. That investment has since more than paid its fair share in dividends, as the United States now has a better rapid response capability to counter disinformation efforts, including providing grants to NGOs and the coordination of interagency efforts to ensure a whole-of-government approach.
In July, the Senate passed its annual National Defense Authorization Act, which includes several measures to counter Russian aggression. First, it expresses America’s steadfast support for Europe and Ukraine. The European Defense Initiative Fund, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and our strategic positioning of forces serve as a credible deterrent to Russia and could provide a blueprint of support to countries like Belarus in the future.
In a bipartisan fashion, the U.S. Senate also approved $250 million in security assistance to Ukraine, with $125 million designated for lethal aid – an increase from $75 million in years past. This record level of lethal assistance includes state-of-the-art conventional weaponry, such as Javelin missiles. The Senate also included a defense capability report on the Ukrainian military to better tailor American support to Ukraine’s defense needs in the future. Regarding the Administration’s proposed redeployment of troops out of Germany, I am pleased that the U.S. Army’s V Corps will be deployed to Poland, which borders both Belarus and Ukraine, and will provide enhanced deterrence against further Russian aggression.
While America stands in a better position today to counter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe than it did in 2014, there is much more work ahead. As it looks to the West for leadership, the United States must work with our partners in Europe to craft a clear path for Belarus so that it has an alternative to Russian dominance in its affairs. Such a strategy would include visa-free travel, free trade, and an association agreement with the EU. Belarus would also need sustained financial assistance from the IMF to encourage reforms and prevent backsliding. Otherwise, their dependence on Russian energy prices and market access could prove too powerful to overcome.
While the EU has prepared financial sanctions and renewed calls for a free and fair election, now is the time for the United States to demonstrate leadership and make clear to the Belarusian people that there is an alternative to Russian influence.
The United States and its European allies accomplished this in Ukraine. Just this year, Ukraine joined Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden as a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner. Such a path for Belarus won’t be easy, but I believe the people will demand it if the option is there.
The people of Belarus have spoken—they desire freedom, democracy, and the ability to determine their destiny. We must support their cause and be prepared to expose Russian interference if or when it occurs.
Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Committee on Foreign Relations, and the Joint Economic Committee. He is also Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.