Russia’s tightening embrace of embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is raising concerns at NATO that the balance of military power in the alliance’s weak northeast corner could tip further in the Kremlin’s favor.
Western capitals have lambasted Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, for declaring himself the winner of a disputed election last month and cracking down on street protests. The U.S., U.K. and Canada are preparing sanctions. The European Union is debating similar moves.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is using Belarus’s crisis to press Mr. Lukashenko—who has long tried to use the EU as a hedge against Moscow’s overwhelming influence—to accede to Russian demands for greater sway, which have long included putting military bases on Belarusian territory.
That could position Russian forces as a pincer on either side of the 60-mile Polish-Lithuanian border, which is the only land route between the Baltic states and the rest of North Atlantic Treaty Organization territory. Dubbed the Suwalki Gap after the small Polish city in its middle, it is seen as the alliance’s weak point.
“Suwalki is much less of a concern if you don’t have Russian troops in Belarus,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe. “If you do, it’s a different calculation in terms of the time, speed and power they can bring.”