Letter From the Editors
Yeats’s verses may have come to mind for a number of commentators as Lukashenko loosed utter anarchy on the Belarussian-Polish border. “If the crisis at the EU’s border really was started by Lukashenko, and not orchestrated by Moscow, it means that the Kremlin can be played just like Merkel,” Kirill Martynov wrote in Novaya gazeta after Polish border guards used water cannons to disperse hundreds of attempts by migrants to break through. He went on to quote political analyst and former Belarussian political prisoner Vitaly Shklyarov: “Lukashenko can do whatever he wants, and the Kremlin is forced to cover for him. To do otherwise would mean to show weakness in front of ‘our Western partners.’ ”
US State Department representative Ned Price takes the opposite view, asserting that Lukashenko’s actions “sow division and aim to distract from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine.” The EU, rarely of one mind on affairs of state, is understandably taking a middle road, reserving its sternest rebukes for Lukashenko while observing that it is, in EC President Ursula von der Leyen’s words, “very important” for Putin to use his influence to resolve the crisis. To this end, it is important to note that while Merkel’s one phone call to Lukashenko garnered more attention, she consulted Putin twice on the issue in the same week.
Putin was probably relieved by this chance to engage in great power diplomacy; it’s the smaller countries that have been giving him headaches recently. Whether or not he has a hand in the Belarus-Poland border crisis, he has certainly wanted to avoid another conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Fighting over demarcation and road construction broke out in Syunik Province on Nov. 16, leaving at least 80 casualties on the Armenian side and an unknown number for Azerbaijan. Only an urgent call from Shoigu to his opposite numbers on either side stopped the fighting by nightfall.
There is a greater simplicity to superpower theatrics: Show the enemy that war would be futile, and they won’t fight. That was the logic behind Russia shooting down one of its obsolete satellites on Nov. 15. According to military expert Konstantin Sivkov, “Russia is developing the same weapons that the US has, especially given that the latter has superiority in space. So amid escalating military tensions, we must have methods of destroying enemy satellites and delivering missile strikes,”
So, the big nuclear powers establish their systems of deterrence, draw red lines for the others to avoid, and negotiate the terms of peaceful coexistence. That had been the gist of Russia’s largely successful (after some early humps) bilateral negotiations with the Biden administration this year. Xi Jinping seems to be expressing hopes for a similar arrangement with the US.
The problem, of course, is that big nuclear powers establish credibility by making commitments to smaller countries or nonstate allies, and sometimes nonnuclear countries can be so unpredictable. Those are the places where red lines intersect. Polina Khimshiashvili quotes Xi as telling Biden that “China will have to resort to ‘decisive measures’ if separatist forces supporting independence for Taiwan incite violence and cross a red line,” while military action in Taiwan would, in turn, cross US red lines and commitments.
For Kiev, the loss of central authority in the Donetsk Basin is a standing violation of its own red lines. And, as Felix Light notes, “With Zelensky’s approval ratings falling to record lows, some imagine that he might attempt to rally his base by fulfilling preelection promises to resolve the Donetsk Basin conflict ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 2024.” With the world panicking over an alleged Russian troop buildup, and Russians skittish that Zelensky, like a “Ukrainian Aliyev,” will try to retake the area by storm, the world faces a disastrous international chain reaction of broken red lines. Has that rough beast’s hour come round at last?