Mushroom cloud

Image source: Stuff.co.nz


Events in Korea over the past year have set East Asia, and the whole world, on edge. North Korea has tested nuclear weapons. America, in league with China, has responded with a crippling sanction campaign. Undeterred, North Korea continues to fire missiles and now claims to have one that can reach America’s very faraway east coast. America has toyed with the prospect of a military strike.

To be fair, this situation should be familiar. Ever since the Koreas were divided by occupying Soviet and American armies in 1945, North Korea has been antagonistic. It tried to conquer South Korea in 1950 and almost succeeded. In the decades since, it has tried to assassinate a South Korean dictator, kidnapped Japanese and South Korean civilians, blown up a South Korean plane, torpedoed a South Korean ship, and shelled a South Korean island near the border. Since the ’90s, it has had a nuclear program; since 2006, it has had nuclear bombs. It has constantly issued overblown, melodramatic threats against its neighbor and its other 2 enemies, Japan and America. America usually takes a hard line and has imposed international sanctions against North Korea since 2006.

But even against this background of threats and hostility, the past year has been an escalation. Gim Jeong’eun, the North’s dictator, has ramped up the pace of his nuclear testing, with 3 since he took power in 2011 and more than 80 missile tests. (His predecessors had 2 and 31, respectively.) Chinese participation is significant because it is supposed to be the North’s ally and has resisted harsh measures against it at the UN before; most Northern exports have now been cut off completely. Donald Trump, America’s blowhard president, has adopted Gim’s hyperbole by threatening “fire and fury” and mulling an attack to give the North a “bloody nose.”

The stakes are high, and it should be obvious, but I’ll explain anyway just in case. Both North Korea and America have nukes, which could kill millions of people. Seoul, a giant city with over 10 million people, is near the border and could get pounded by Northern artillery fire. American troops are stationed in the South and would come to its defense, since it’s a treaty ally. China might intervene, since although it opposes the North’s nuclear antics, it still prefers its regime to the American-backed one in Seoul. South Korea is one of Asia’s economic hotspots and a technological hub for the whole world; a Second Korean War would have a global economic impact.

These considerations should rule out a military strike for any but the most insane, fanatical hawks. North Korea may be an obnoxious, untrustworthy, aggressive tyranny, but conditions must REALLY be intolerable before another Korean War is willingly unleashed. (The first one killed around 5 million people, more than almost any other war since World War II.) America itself would likely suffer consequences since it’s now within range (theoretically) of the North’s missiles. And talk of a “bloody nose” attack is reckless; how many people give up and just slink away when they’re punched in the face?

Given these conditions, previous presidents have resorted to a policy of sanctions and focusing on other problems, quietly hoping that something gives in the North and the regime collapses (or at least acts peacefully). Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, called this “strategic patience.” It frustrated a lot of his opponents, especially hawks, who pointed to it as yet another example of Obama’s cowardice and passivity — but it’s the better strategy.

Still, it’s hard to argue that the policy worked. Gim Jeong’eun has kept testing weapons and amassing an arsenal of as many as 60 bombs. The North’s propagandists talked about turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” and compared Obama to a monkey. Trump’s patience has clearly run out — as have many other Americans (and Japanese).

But… what can he do?

In the ’90s and early ’00s, the South tried to approach the North with what came to be known as the “sunshine policy,” offering business ventures, badly needed food aid, and high-level talks. America was always skeptical that the North was just gaming the South for emergency supplies and money (thanks to its own dysfunctional economy) and never intended to abandon its nuclear dream. Sure enough, when the North tested its first nuke in 2006, the policy unraveled, and it is now spoken of mainly with scorn.

Nevertheless, I think it’s time to revisit the policy. North Korea feels isolated and insecure; with a subsistence-level economy, no real allies, and an enemy known to overthrow dictators, it has good reason to. Gim is probably confident that no country would dare attack him with the prospect of nuclear retaliation dangling overhead, and again, he has good reason to be. North Koreans are underfed and lack the military technology and numbers of their neighbors. A nuclear deterrent is their best hope.

Given the forces arrayed against it — South Korea, Japan, and America — is it plausible that the North would launch an attack against them? Some worry about this, and it’s still a possibility, but it rests on the presumption that Gim Jeong’eun is some kind of madman who’s drunk on his own propaganda and completely oblivious to the outside world. I don’t buy into this theory — it is much more likely that he’s just acting that way to rattle his adversaries and impress (or intimidate) his own people. Why hasn’t North Korea started a war yet? It started the first one because it thought it had a chance to conquer the South. That chance is nonexistent now. South Korea alone is strong enough to beat the North at this point, leading some analysts to wonder if the alliance with America even makes sense anymore.

Therefore, I think the best strategy now is to hold high-level talks with North Korea, including a summit if possible, and drop the sanctions. Given the current balance of power, it is America in reality that is most threatening to Korean security. An American attack is the most likely flashpoint that would start another war. North (and South) Korea needs an assurance that America won’t start anything and has peaceful intentions.

In fact, I would argue that foreigners should go even further and try to trade with North Korea and loosen the barriers that isolate it. This won’t be easy, given Northern paranoia at subversion and contamination by liberal thought and capitalism, but it’s worth seeing how far it can go. The model should be the opening of China in the ’70s: even though China had been seen by America and its allies as a fanatical, ideological, implacable enemy, it turned out to be willing to reach an understanding and eventually to trade and open up to the outside world. With a growing North Korean middle class and a leader who might be more familiar with the world outside his borders, there might be an opportunity here too.

It’s not a perfect strategy. But none are. North Korea has been called “the land of lousy options.” America and its allies (especially Japan) are committed to halting nuclear proliferation, meaning keeping more countries from getting nukes. Their current strategy hinges on making North Korea give them up. But how would that work? Why would North Korea give up something it has worked so hard on for so long and at such a price? Iraq and Libya did it and were convulsed by invasion and civil war. Iran (apparently) has done it and Trump is talking about cracking down some more because the deal wasn’t harsh enough. Nukes are almost all North Korea has. There is a risk that South Korea and Japan would get nukes if North Korea never gives them up, something they could probably do quickly; North Korea’s precedent could encourage more and more countries to look into building nukes. But it’s a risk worth taking — after all, 9 countries now have nukes, and there hasn’t been a nuclear war yet.

Another problem is the sanctions regime. After 12 years of harsher and harsher sanctions, it would be impractical for America to suddenly back down without an excuse. This is a big problem, and it will probably keep a reconciliation policy from happening in the near future. But I’m not convinced that sanctions are working. It’s extremely hard to understand North Korea given its near-total isolation, but it’s lasted over 70 years and survived devastating war, horrible famine and punishing sanctions. North Koreans are used to hardship, and take pride in their stamina. The longer economic avenues are severed, the more likely they are to lash out and resort to criminal activity to get by.

There is the problem of rewarding bad behavior. It’s an understandable concern, but it’s not worth risking a nuclear holocaust over. In international relations, exceptions have to be made to avert tragedies or forestall problems from escalating. North Korean behavior might even improve if its enemies managed to convince it of their peaceful intentions. Human rights activists would object that a regime as brutal and totalitarian as Gim’s deserves no mercy, and frankly it doesn’t. But in reality lots of evil dictators get away with their crimes, and there’s no real way to hold Gim accountable.

A richer North Korea with trade and contact outside of its borders would also only happen if the elite that sustains the regime was kept secure and happy with lucrative contracts and dodgy kickbacks. The country would still be poor and isolated. Myanmar, which basically opened to foreign development 7 years ago, has headed in this direction. But it’s a common development, and this kind of system would be needed to ensure Gim’s cooperation and the elite’s support. Without it, North Korea would just stay angry and isolated.

America has a historic tendency to favor firepower, muscle and bullying because those are its strong suits. When you have the world’s biggest stick, you look for ways to swing it. Anytime a situation calls for diplomacy or patience, Americans tend to get nervous that they are looking weak. They need to relax and remember how scary they look to almost everyone else. Lengthy hostility didn’t prevent America from coming to terms with China, Cuba, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Finally, it is important to consider South Korea. South Koreans have longed for reunification the whole time, and tend to take a sanguine view of their northern siblings. They are used to belligerent warnings and over-the-top boasts and don’t take them seriously. The South’s current president, Mun Jaein, wants to return to the sunshine policy and has reacted warmly to the North’s recent overtures like the joint Korean Olympic team and the visit by Gim Jeong’eun’s sister. Reunification may not be very realistic, but otherwise America and Japan should respect the South’s wishes for reconciliation and peace. Without being naive about Northern intentions, they should welcome any efforts at lowering tensions and accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea.

Gim Jeong’eun’s new strategy seems to be to try to drive a wedge between the hawkish Trump and Shinzou Abe of Japan and the comparatively dovish Mun. Trump and Abe should avert this by aligning their policies more closely with Mun’s. North Korea might be the single worst country on Earth with no real friends and a population desperate to get out. But I was in Hawai’i this year during the missile scare, and I can safely say the specter of nuclear Armageddon should make everyone think twice about acting tough in these circumstances.



India Pakistan

Image source: The Quint

The relationship between India and Pakistan is one of the great rivalries in international relations. On one level, it’s a fun, competitive rivalry: Indian and Pakistani soldiers strive to outdo each other in high steps and dramatic flourishes at the border-closing ceremony between Lahore and Amritsr, the 2 cricket teams attract especially wild enthusiasm whenever they face off, and Indians and Pakistanis overseas tend to get along well, just with lots of teasing and bickering. Yet on another level, it’s a deadly serious hatred: Indian and Pakistani soldiers shoot each other, the 2 countries go to war and interfere in each others’ affairs, and Hindus and Muslims are viewed with suspicion and contempt in Pakistan and India, respectively.

How did this relationship begin, and where is the rivalry headed?

It is important to recognize that India and Pakistan were once one country. (I frequently hear or read things that don’t seem to understand this.) That country was simply known as India, and it was ruled by Britain with the help of dozens of mostly tiny “princely states.” Before this, India hadn’t really been a united country (although some empires came very close). It was carved up by numerous small or medium-sized princes, emperors, rajas, sultans, etc. who warred with each other and came and went over many centuries of convoluted history.

Significantly, though, there was a major religious divide. Beginning in the 1000s, India had been the victim of several Muslim invasions. The Muslims won the upper hand and dominated India for centuries, especially through the Dilli Sultanate and Mughal Empire. Yet they were always a minority — by the time of independence in 1947 they made up only about a quarter of India’s total population. They developed a rich, prosperous and artistically inspiring culture that blended their own Persian background with local Hindu influences (the hybrid religion of Sikhism is an example of this). They also tended to persecute their mostly Hindu subjects.

By the time of the colonial era, communal relations had become combustible. India’s major Muslim rulers were dispossessed and Muslims became just another religious community within India’s tapestry of them. They longed for the days when they lorded over most of the subcontinent. Hindus also longed for the days when they had neither Briton nor Muslim to hold them back. The British exacerbated this antagonism as part of the time-honored “divide and rule” strategy of colonialism, although which community they favored basically depends on whom you ask.

By the 1930s, the tension was affecting India’s independence movement. Muslims grew concerned that an independent, democratic India would take revenge against its Muslim population and discriminate against them. A political party called the All-India Muslim League sprang up to push for India to be split into 2 countries. The new one would be called Pakistan as an acronym for Punjab, Afghania (referring to the parts bordering Afghanistan), Kashmir and Balochistan, Muslim-majority regions in northwest India. The name also means “land of the pure.”

The new party wasn’t treated seriously at first, but it gained popularity among Muslims. Pro-Pakistan rallies were attacked by Hindu mobs furious at their betrayal of Indian nationalism, sparking communal riots and adding evidence to the Muslim League’s dire predictions of a future Hindu-ruled India. India’s founding father, Mohandas Gandhi, begged with Pakistan’s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, even offering him the post of prime minister. But Jinnah was unmoved, and the British were getting worried about India’s political stability, so the plan for partition was approved.


Image source: AP

The new India and Pakistan were born one day apart in August 1947. The colonial provinces of Sindh and East Bengal (confusingly located in east India far away from the rest of Pakistan) were transferred to Pakistan basically intact, but the big province of Punjab was split along religious lines. This did not go smoothly. Trainloads of migrants heading for the country matching their religion attacked each other. Columns of migrants heading on foot did the same. Minorities in Indian and Pakistani cities were sought out, harassed, raped and murdered. Looting, arson and kidnapping were rampant. Gandhi fasted in a bid to put an end to the violence, but only ended up shot by a Hindu extremist. (The movie Gandhi, by the way, is an epic and moving depiction of these events.)

The bloodshed of ethnic cleansing eventually led to the bloodshed of war. India and Pakistan started off on bad terms, with India spitefully withholding the financial assets that had been earmarked for Pakistan. Indian leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel talked about strangling Pakistan in its infancy, convinced that the experiment was crazy and destined to fail. While the princely states were allowed to choose which country they could join, most of them ended up in India. While some of these would have been impractical any other way (for example, there was a Muslim-ruled state in southern India, Hyderabad, that would’ve been surrounded by India if it hadn’t joined it), the big sticking point was Kashmir. This was a big state at the northernmost part of India famous for its cool weather, spectacular mountain scenery, and multireligious population. It also sat on the border between the 2 countries, and both of them really wanted it. Kashmir’s maharaja preferred independence, but India pressured him to join instead in 1948. Outraged at yet another territory slipping away, Pakistan invaded Kashmir, using guerrilla warriors as a front. A short war raged, with the result that Kashmir was also partitioned between India and Pakistan — although the Vale of Kashmir, the state’s most important part, remained within India.

Kashmir map

Note: Kashmir also has large Hindu and Buddhist communities outside of the Valley proper. Image source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Despite these odious beginnings, Indo-Pakistani relations weren’t so terrible in the early years. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, opposed Partition and tried to maintain cordial relations with his neighbor. Travel across the border was common; many wealthy Muslims maintained houses in both countries for a while. A 1960 treaty arranged for the use of the waters of the Indus River, all-important for Pakistan even though its headwaters were in India and China.

But the Kashmir dispute festered. Kashmir’s population is mostly Muslim (hence the “K” in Pakistan), so Pakistanis were convinced that India had strongarmed them. For its part, India was eager to keep it, partly to taunt its neighbor but mostly to show that Pakistan was wrong and a Muslim-majority state could thrive in Hindu-majority India. In 1965, encouraged by India’s crushing defeat by China, Pakistan infiltrated Kashmir again. This provoked another war, leading to impressive tank battles in the Punjab but a tie with no territorial changes as the final result. Then another war broke out in 1971, when India intervened in a ferocious revolt in East Pakistan to beat the Pakistanis in 2 weeks and force them to surrender their eastern segment, which became independent as Bangladesh.

These disputes and wars obviously weren’t good for relations, and they have remained terrible ever since. Pakistan came to see India as a greedy state bent on subcontinental domination and itself as a heroic, virtuous bastion defending the faithful. Given India’s massive superiority in size and wealth, Pakistan had to compensate with a bigger, stronger military, and that meant fat budgets and military control of the government. Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq also pushed for a deeper Islamization of Pakistan in the ’80s, supporting madrassas (religious schools), aspects of sharia (Islamic law), and a narrow version of Pakistani identity. Pakistan’s few infidels felt themselves less and less welcome; the struggle against India took on the character of a jihad.

The Kashmir dispute continued to fester. Since it was obvious that Pakistan couldn’t defeat India in a conventional fight, it found ways of gaining leverage. Sponsoring an insurgency in Kashmir, which erupted again in 1990, was one way. Another was nuclear weapons, which were developed beginning in the ’70s (after India detonated a nuke of its own) and first tested in 1998. This locked the 2 brothers into a stalemate: outright war was out of the question, but Pakistan could still bleed India with its insurgency and needle it with terrorism (particularly in the ’00s), and its nuclear arsenal would keep India from doing much about it. It was a cheap, apparently effective way of keeping the conflict alive and India agitated, and later used to similar fashion in Afghanistan against the Western coalition there.

And so it has continued, more or less, to the present. Pakistanis have become stock villains in Indian films (and likewise Indians in Pakistan’s much less well-known films). Pakistani agitation reached the boiling point around the turn of the millennium, when an infiltration into the high mountains of Kashmir sparked a 4th war in 1999 (with no real lasting results) and a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacked India’s parliament in 2001. Another nerve-wracking episode occurred in 2008, when a group of members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist organization, attacked the Taj, Mumbai’s swankiest hotel, along with other parts of Mumbai. Lashkar-e-Taiba is also sponsored by Pakistan, leading to a brief war scare, although nothing happened in the end.

It can be hard to predict which government is more interested in reconciliation. Despite their military ties, Zia and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan both made moves toward normalization, and despite his Hindu nationalist background, India’s Atal Vajpeyi held talks with Musharraf before the Parliament attack scuttled them. Similarly, India’s current PM, Narendra Modi, surprised many observers by reaching out a hand to Pakistan despite his fiery Hindutva ideology — he invited Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration and visited him in Lahore in 2015.

Modi Sharif

Modi (left) and Sharif (right). Image source: PIB

Nevertheless, the relationship seems fated to swivel automatically back to a state of contempt and bile. Usually Pakistan is the culprit; it has not abandoned its policy of supporting and encouraging infiltrators to attack Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir. One such attack in September 2016 on an army camp froze whatever progress had been made in recent talks. Although Pakistan has been under civilian rule since 2008, the army maintains a tight grip on society and is widely suspected of pulling the strings behind the scenes. Its intelligence service, the ISI, maintains links with a medley of terrorist and extreme Islamic groups, prompting unending unease in India.

Meanwhile, developments in India also make the outlook for peace look grim. While it may still be too soon to say how lasting these changes are, Indian society is moving rightward since Modi’s election in 2014. Hindutva ideology sees India as a fundamentally Hindu state, casting suspicion on Muslims and other minorities and associating Pakistan with those old Muslim overlords. The details are obviously murky, but Pakistan claims that India is fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s restive western desert as well; an Indian named Kulbhushan Jadhav was sentenced to death last year in Pakistan for this, although his sentence has been stayed. Kashmir remains a source of unrest and headaches for India; although it’s not quite clear that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Indian government there, leading to ongoing protests which are usually suppressed violently. This only feeds Pakistan’s narrative of India as diabolical, unscrupulous and bigoted.

The international situation unfortunately adds to the pessimism. While America was previously a major power broker between the 2 sides (especially after the Kargil War), it’s now soured on Pakistan and its unending duplicity and cut off military aid last month. Simultaneously, it’s tilted more toward India, which it recognizes as an enemy of its enemies (militant Islam and China). As for China, it wants to keep India weak and distracted, and fosters a very close relationship with Pakistan to enable it. Saudi Arabia also has a warm relationship with Pakistan and helps fund all those madrassas. And as Western power recedes in Afghanistan, Pakistani paranoia of a growth in Indian influence there only increases.

The sad thing is, in many respects, India and Pakistan are brothers (or sisters). The border cuts across ethnolinguistic lines; people on both sides of the border speak Punjabi, and Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, is very similar to Hindi, India’s main language. There are Hindu and Sikh sites in Pakistan and Muslim monuments in India. Indians for the most part recognize and enjoy Pakistani food. Indian movies have an avid audience in Pakistan (although they are often banned there). It would be hard to tell an average Indian and Pakistani apart. Domestic issues, like power and water shortages and a difficulty in building up an industrial base, are also shared. More trade would help economic growth in both countries. Despite the strong atmosphere of animosity, there are also big constituencies in both countries (especially India) that would support reconciliation. The Google India ad below, which shows an old Pakistani man reuniting with his childhood friend in India after 66 years, touched a nerve as Desis on both sides of the border remembered their old ties.

But hatred remains deep. As long as 64% of Indians have “very unfavorable” opinions of Pakistan, Indian politicians have more to gain by being tough on Pakistan than conciliatory. And as long as Pakistan remains wedded to its strategic conceptions of India as a threat to be undermined and pestered, conflict will continue and negotiations will stagnate. It may not be fair to lump the Indo-Pakistani conflict in the same category as bitter disputes like the Arabs vs. Israel, but a real breakthrough in bilateral relations remains almost as unlikely.



Image source: Imgur

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and hassling of eastern Ukraine, relations between Russia and the (rest of the) West have taken a nosedive. Mutual suspicions have poisoned diplomatic relations. Russian military maneuvers have unnerved Europe and prompted a redoubled defense effort, especially in the small Baltic countries bordering Russia. A debate rages within the West over how to respond to Russia, and whether bolstering Ukraine more would prompt Russia to back off or further inflame the situation.

One country that gets lost in these discussions is Belarus, a fairly large country in between Lithuania and Ukraine. But then again, Belarus usually gets left out of discussions. That’s partially because it’s only 27 years old.

If this section is too long and dull for you, maybe this Belarusian video is more interesting. Note: Medieval Lithuania is considered Belarusian in this version. (English subtitles available.)

Belarus may be only 27, but it exists at all because, well, the Belarusians have been around for a long time. How long exactly is a matter of debate. Their origin dates back to the Middle Ages, when the whole area around European Russia was referred to as “Rus” and was dominated by Kyiv (now in Ukraine). It was colonized by Vikings called “Varangians” and mostly developed along the long rivers that flow through this part of Europe. Given Belarusian’s close similarity with Russian and Ukrainian, it’s unlikely that the three different nationalities were well-distinguished back then; even when Kyivan Rus fragmented into minor principalities, it wasn’t really along ethnic lines.

The Mongol invasion of 1237 wiped out most of these, but the Principality of Polotsk — most of what is now Belarus — survived. It was weak and vulnerable (Belarus is mostly just forests and fields), and in the 1300s it was conquered by its northern neighbor, Lithuania. Lithuania was Europe’s last pagan holdout and spoke a completely different language from the Slavic Belarusians, but they didn’t really care as long as their underlings paid their taxes. Over the ensuing centuries, a Slavic language called Ruthenian even became the lingua franca over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, since it was more widely understood than Lithuanian itself. (Lithuanian is a Baltic language pretty different from other European languages except Latvian.)

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania fused with its smaller western neighbor, Poland, in a dynastic union in 1386. At first it was mostly just a union of their rulers (although Lithuania converted to Catholicism), but in 1569 the union was bound into a tighter commonwealth. Lithuania and Poland became tangled together, with Belarusians still included within Lithuanian territory yet culturally closer to the Slavic Poles… except for their religion, which was Orthodox (a relic of the Kyivan Rus era). Polish became the common tongue, at least among the nobility. In addition, the whole commonwealth attracted a lot of Jews, and by the 1700s most of Belarus’s towns and cities were predominantly Jewish. They spoke either German, Yiddish (a German dialect) or Polish.

But Belarusians were coveted by Russia, which saw them as true Russians who adhered to a wayward form of Russian Orthodoxy (Greek Catholicism) under the influence of Catholic Poles.  They called the area “Belorussia,” or “White Russia,” for reasons which are much debated (there’s no consensus about this). Belorussia happens to lie between central Russia and Poland, with the result that it was overrun in a series of wars between the 2 powers in the 1600s, then suffered some more during the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden in the first decade of the 1700s. In the 1790s, as any proud Pole will tell you, Poland-Lithuania was smothered by partition among its more powerful neighbors: Prussia, Austria and Russia. Belorussia naturally, went to Russia, which organized it as a governorate based in Minsk, a town pretty much right in the middle of the country. Its strategic location right in between Warsaw and Moscow now worked to its benefit.

While Poles chafed under Russian rule and revolted a few times, Belarusians were mostly O.K. with it and carried on much as before (although the local church was merged into Russian Orthodoxy). This was mostly because there still wasn’t much distinguishing them from Russians. The beginnings of a Belarusian national movement stirred in the 1800s, but the language — and Belorussia’s cultural identity in general — blurred into Ukrainian, and they were collectively referred to back then as “Ruthenian.” (Meanwhile, Jews had a much different experience, as the Russian Empire took a dim view of them, encouraged public persecution of them, and restricted their movement and lifestyle.)

Belarus cartoon

Poland joins with the infant Soviet Union to tear Belarus apart. Great way to recover from a long partition! (Also, both trample Ukraine.)

Belorussia suffered as much from the turbulent early 1900s as any other part of Europe, and arguably most of all. Its westernmost corner was mauled during World War I. Russia’s humiliating surrender to Germany in 1918 led to Germany setting up a Belarusian puppet state as part of its effort to fragment and weaken Russia. It was wiped out after only a few months by a resurgent Russia, only to be taken by a revived and ambitious/greedy (depending on your interpretation) Poland in 1919. After a short but fierce war, the region was partitioned once again between Poland and Russia. After a relaxing peacetime marked by forced collectivization, famine, and Communist purges, Germany invaded again in 1941. After a sadistic war in which a quarter of Belorussia was killed (including most of its Jews) and Minsk was utterly destroyed, the Soviet Union was triumphant, and emerged from the war with all of historic Belorussia under its control.

Belorussia went on to enjoy one of the higher degrees of industrialization among the Soviet Union’s constituent republics. Since the USSR was divided along ethnic lines, Belarusian identity also experienced a revival (even if this involved a little ethnic cleansing to make the units tidier). Of course, it still languished under a dysfunctional economic system with rudimentary consumer goods and little knowledge of the outside world. Also, the infamous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl was just over the border from Belorussia and mostly affected Belarusians. In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and for the first time since 1918, Belarus was an independent country.

Like many newly independent countries, Belarus was fragile and hesitant. It wasn’t sure what sort of political or economic system to adopt or what sort of cultural orientation to take. Belarusian nationalism had never really taken off. Russian identity and culture had taken deep root in the country over the centuries, and most Belarusians still speak Russian instead of their “native” language.

Again like many newly independent countries, Belarus soon fell back into dictatorship. The winner of its only competitive presidential election, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has ruled with an iron fist ever since 1994. Political opponents are barred from the legislature, independent media outlets have been hounded into submission, and protesters are beaten and jailed. Lukashenko enjoys a Soviet-style personality cult with fawning songs and a nationalist youth union. The KGB, the Soviet Union’s infamous secret police, survive here. The Soviet state-run economy has been preserved as much as possible — 75% of it remains under state control, and farms are still collectively managed.

None of this really endeared Belarus to the EU. After a policy of patient disapproval and stern lecturing went nowhere, the EU slapped sanctions on the Belarusian leadership in 2006. Ties with the countries to its west are strained — tourists rarely visit, even from Poland, and Belarus is a nonentity in European affairs. Its frustrating and complex bureaucracy stifles most business ventures. Few Belarusians speak a language other than Russian or Belarusian. Sources about the country are scarce, except in Russian.


Minsk today. Image source: Sergey Nik-Menik via Pikabu

As a result, Belarus has been pushed into the arms of Mother Russia. As mentioned before, Russian is still widely used, even when ethnic minorities who don’t understand Belarusian are scarce. Society is still cast along the old Soviet model, and Belarus’s experience with many of the same disasters as Russia have given it the same sense of victimhood and unfair treatment that shape Russian nationalism. Lukashenko gets along well with Vladimir Putin, a fellow dictator with similarly earthy tastes, conservative mindsets, and an economic model of domination by a few companies with close ties to the state (meaning himself, basically) — a model usually called “oligarchy,” somewhat inappropriately, in the West. Belarus gets subsidized oil and gas from its petrostate neighbor. Belarus and Russia are so chummy, they formed a “Union State” in 1998, with the aim of a currency union and some kind of governmental fusion in the future.

So it may seem like Russia and Belarus are best buds joined at the hip with no meaningful distinctions… but in reality, it’s more complicated than that. The past decade has made it very clear that Russia sees the former Soviet republics (a region now called “Eurasia,” also somewhat inaccurately) as its rightful sphere of influence, with Putin as the modern czar of “all the Russias.” That’s a little too close for comfort for Lukashenko. Making your political opponents disappear might be fine, but when someone else does it and acts like your boss, it’s a lot less fun. Neither the Union State nor the currency union proposal have gone anywhere. Russia’s attacks on Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) rattled Belarus, and Belarus sheltered Kyrgyzstan’s renegade president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, when he fled in 2010. This has led to a few spats with Russia, including threats to cut off Belarus’s critical gas supply and a refusal to host a Russian air base.

This has led Western observers to come to the opposite conclusion on occasion and predict a falling-out, or even an imminent Russian intervention. The EU has softened its tone since the upheaval in Ukraine, seeing Belarus as the lesser of 2 evils and a possible wild card in its ongoing geopolitical game with Russia. But Belarus remains aloof and unpredictable. Landlocked, comparatively poor and weak, with a hazy sense of national identity to draw on, it is frankly unlikely to burn its many bridges with Russia anytime soon. (Moscow is only 300 miles away — very close by Russian standards.) For instance, it holds regular vast war games called Zapad (West) with Russia that react against a simulated EU-backed uprising in its western region bordering Poland. Relations with Lithuania are dismal due to a nuclear power plant built (again!) right by the Lithuanian border. Lukashenko sneers at the West’s high-handedness, capitalism, and tolerance for homosexuality. Memories of the Soviet Union are not nearly as bad as they are in its neighboring former Soviet republics — the Baltics were annexed unwillingly during World War II, while Ukraine was basically punished through famine in the 1930s.

So Belarus continues its delicate dance with its neighbors to the West. The EU and America were encouraged by a slight thaw in political repression and (probably more so) by Belarus hosting peace negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU in 2015. As a result, most of the sanctions against Belarusian leaders and companies have been lifted. But the thaw seems to have been an illusion, and protesters are still treated like armed gangsters by the KGB. It remains hard to imagine that Lukashenko would suddenly change his mind after all these years and democratize with the Russian military breathing down his neck. Belarusians still have much in common with Russians, from a love of borscht and vodka to a cynical sense of humor and suspicion of outsiders. But the experience of Ukraine isn’t lost on Belarusians either, and Russia isn’t exactly a trustworthy ally. It may not make the dramatic headlines that its neighbors often do, but Belarus is a country that deserves more attention, and could play a more critical geopolitical role that its location and history entitle it to.