Belarus unwilling to be part of NATO-Russia conflict – Pentagon ex-rep (interview)

In an interview with Belsat TV, Michael Carpenter*, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control, said that backing the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbouring states is vital to America’s security interests and the Europe Whole Free and At Peace concept. Alina Koushyk, a host of the news show World and Us (Prasviet), interviewed the top US diplomat at the Warsaw Security Forum on October, 3.

A.K.: Mr Carpenter, it is very nice to speak to you at Warsaw Security Forum.

M.C.: It is great to be here!

What is the role of Belarus in the U.S. foreign policy? What is the stance on Minsk and bilateral relations?

Well, it’s an excellent question, because the role of Belarus is shifting right now. Whereas in the past, Belarus has almost been completely forgotten by American foreign policy establishment, to include the State Department and sort of outside government think tanks. Now Belarus is receiving a lot more attention, because it is seen as a vital region within the heart of Europe between Russia and NATO space. And so, I think we are seeing warming ties, I would say, increased communication between Minsk and Washington which I think is very positive. I think having democracy and human rights as part of the dialogue is absolutely crucial for Washington, but now I think the relationship is a little bit more multidimensional. Security issues are being talked about more openly, as well as economic issues. It is a broader dialogue and certainly much deeper and intense dialogue than it was even three or four years ago.

What has made this possible? What changes happened?

The number one thing that changed is Russian agression in Ukraine. A lot of American foreign policy pundits, but also foreign policy makers, underscore that supporting the sovereignty of the countries on Russia’s periphery is vital to U.S. national security interests and the idea of Europe Whole Free and At Peace. And the questions about Belarus’ sovereignty are at the heart of this new effort to expand diplomatic relations.

U.S. Ambassador is going back to Minsk. Do you know his/her name?

It’s far too premature. There are no names even in the pipeline at this stage. When I was at the Pentagon, I presided over the accreditation of defense attaches between Washington and Minsk, which was the first step in the process and soon – hopefully – we will have ambassadors in place. But I think it is to early for any names to even be considered at this stage. Hopefully, within a year it will happen, but not yet.

What should become the ‘first step’ in these closer relations?

I think having a multidimensional conversation about all the different elements of the relationship is crucial. Greater economic ties, provided, of course, if Belarus is able to guarantee that investments will have actual property rights protected, that the business climate appropriate for foreign investment to be secured and so forth. Rights need to be respected for foreign investors to even consider Belarus as destination. On the security side, there is a lot of potential for increasing our communication: trainings, courses – say, cybersecurity, border security. I think those areas would be the natural field between the US and Belarus. Nothing that would, of course, be seen by our friends in Moscow as provocative, but small steps to establish at least a greater interpersonal rapport between the Pentagon and the Belarusian Ministry of Defense.

And then finally, human rights and democracy, especially space for civil society – I think it is crucial. We want to push for absolute respect for human rights and civil liberties as a first step and then I think eventual expanding the space of political opposition will come naturally as the next step after that. But I think expanding that dialogue to those other dimensions will actually enable us to have more leverage to push for improvements in human rights and civil society dimensions. And one thing I should mention on civil society – each time I go to Belarus, I am impressed: there are a lot of civil society groups operating within certain strict boundaries. You know, they do not want to necessarily get entangled in politics. I understand that it is dangerous, but nevertheless, they are able to do some very important work within their assigned areas of responsibility, and that is a real boon for Belarus going forward, because it strengthens society’s activism. And that will also improve Belarus’ sovereignty over the long run.

But still, they need more space to work…

Yes, they need. I think if the US and our European partners like Poland, where we are sitting today, engage Belarus more, there is also more scope for pushing for more space for Belarusian civil society. Ideally, there will come a time when president Lukashenka will see civil society as an ally making efforts to strengthen the country’s sovereignty. Obviously, in political terms, the opposition is not seen as ally for obvious reasons. In fact, it is seen as an adversary, but hopefully, there will be greater space for civil society engaging other projects and that will lead to more space for the political opposition.

How do you see the possibility of defense cooperation between the US and Belarus?

Look, the Belarusian military is formally aligned with the Russian military; most of the officer core receive the training in Russia and so, there is very close alignment of interests there. But the US can engage more with Belarus on issues like peacekeeping. For example, military medicine, cybersecurity, border security – these are areas where our cooperation would be relatively non-controversial. It is not threatening to Moscow – it should not be, but we can provide some capabilities that might interest the Belarusian military and we might learn something from them. From Belarus’ national interest perspective, what Belarus wants is not to be part of a conflict between East and West. I think that is the number one interest of the Belarusian military. In other words, they do not want to bee too much either on one side or the other. They want to be in a sort of a safe space in the middle.

You have been to Belarus several times and met with many officials Are they ready for changes in politics?

That’s a good question. I think it depends on whom you talk to. The system in Belarus is a dictatorship and there is not in interest amongst government officials to have a political opening. Let’s just be frank about it, that is the reality, but if you look at we might call it the government nomenclature, the bureaucracy, there is a portion of the bureaucracy that is really struggling and striving to assert greater sovereignty over their affairs. They provide sort of a natural partner for US efforts to help them strengthen their sovereignty. That’s different from saying they are open to political opposition, I am not saying that. But the partnership can be leveraged by the US. If done in a smart way, of course.

Do you think Belarusian authorities can make a step towards Washington? What should they do to show they have political will to cooperate?

The number one thing they could is opening space for civil society. If they demonstrate they can do that, that they are moving in positive direction, it may unlock other potential, especially in terms of economic investment. Investors do not like to invest in societies where is a dictatorship in place and where there is uncertanty about the rules and procedures by which they can recoup the profits. There has to be a very clear rule of law, there has to be open competition more transparency. All of that is crucial. But if Belarus wants Western investors – I think they do – this provides a platform for showing that there are open for business.

Thank you vеry much.

Thank you!

*Dr. Michael Carpenter is Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He also serves on the Jamestown Foundation board of directors.

In March 2016, Michael Carpenter visited Belarus and met with president Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The interview was part of Belsat TV news show World and Us (Prasviet), 04.10.2019