U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, is due to visit the former Soviet republic of Belarus as soon as this week, according to current and former U.S government officials, on a trip that is likely to provoke the Kremlin’s ire.
Bolton’s planned visit is the latest sign of thawing relations with the country often described as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and comes as Trump himself seeks better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bolton’s trip will mark the highest-level U.S. government visit to Belarus this century. Moscow has also sought to deepen its own ties with Minsk amid speculation that a political union with Belarus could provide a way for Putin to dodge his constitutionally imposed term limit in 2024.
“Bolton well understands that Putin is pursuing an aggressive policy, and that Putin’s aggressive policy also may include some kind of designs on Belarus,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
The move is the latest manifestation of the continued disconnect between Trump’s apparent affinity for Russia—most recently advocating for the country’s return to the G-7—and his administration’s hard line when it comes to Moscow.
Frozen out by the West over human rights concerns, Minsk has long been dependent on Moscow for energy subsidies to prop up its ailing economy. For its part of the deal sometimes referred to as “oil for kisses,” Belarus has served as a loyal buffer between Russia and the European Union.
While the relationship has oscillated over the years, President Alexander Lukashenko has proved willing to flirt with the West to get his way with Russia. But Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 prompted the Belarusian president to seek closer ties with both China and the West as he rethinks his dependence on Moscow.
In an unambiguous message to Moscow, Belarus has for the first time begun looking to buy U.S. crude oil as it aims to diversify its energy supply away from Russia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on Thursday.
In 2015, Lukashenko released Belarus’s remaining political prisoners, prompting the United States and Europe to lift many of the sanctions on the country.
While there has been no meaningful political reform in Belarus, which has been ruled by Lukashenko since 1994, it provided an opening for gradual reengagement during former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, which began with the reciprocal accreditation of defense attaches and has since picked up pace during the Trump administration. Since 2017, Belarus has relaxed visa requirements for visitors from dozens of countries including EU member states and North American nations.
“Treating it as a black hole and ignoring it has been a failure. It hasn’t produced any forward movement on human rights,” said Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.
Further economic and diplomatic ties with Minsk would give Washington greater leverage over Belarus in the long run, he said. Carpenter said that he is confident that a union with Belarus is definitely a scenario under consideration in the Kremlin but that it remains to be seen if this is the one they will ultimately choose. “We should be doing what we can do to strengthen the sovereignty of Belarus,” he said.
Last October, Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, became the first senior U.S. diplomat to visit Belarus in over a decade. Earlier this year, when Minsk signaled that it would lift a longstanding cap on the number of diplomats allowed to serve at the U.S. Embassy, it was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough by U.S. officials.
The last U.S. ambassador to serve in the country was ejected along with 30 diplomats in 2008 after Washington imposed further sanctions on Belarus over worsening human rights abuses. Until recently, Minsk limited the number of U.S. diplomats permitted to serve in the embassy to five and later 10, according to diplomatic sources.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale is also expected to travel to Belarus next month to discuss the expanding U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, including potentially exchanging ambassadors with Minsk, according to sources familiar with the visit.
A spokesperson for the State Department said, “The United States is committed to supporting Belarus’s sovereignty and independence. We continue to work with the government and people of Belarus to strengthen democratic institutions and respect for fundamental freedoms.”
Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said that Bolton’s visit was significant, but he was careful not to overstate it.
“It’s not like we’re sending arms to Belarus, it’s not as if we’re endorsing Belarus to join various international organizations,” he said. “We’re just demonstrating a certain readiness to talk and to provide a bit—and a bit is a really accurate description—of support to Lukashenko as he tries to manage the Russian [threat].”
Over the past year, Russia’s leaders have taken a renewed interest in fulfilling a 20-year-old treaty with Belarus that many observers have interpreted as a sign that a union with Belarus could be one scenario to ensure Putin’s de facto rule of Russia continues once he reaches his term limit in 2024.
Beyond opening the borders and allowing for the free movement of labor, the treaty was never fully implemented. If it were, it would allow for a shared currency, legislature, and head of state—creating an elegant solution for Putin to retain power without having to ride roughshod over the constitution.
Experts have noted that this option would likely prove to be an expensive and unpopular move and that Lukashenko likely wouldn’t cede power without a fight. But given Moscow’s recent history of land grabs in the region, few have been willing to rule it out as an option entirely until another more feasible plan for Putin’s succession plan emerges.