Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, opposition leader of Belarus, stands during a meeting with Minister of State for Culture Grütters on the Berlinale film festival grounds on Museum Island, in Berlin, Germany, Friday, June 11, 2021. (Christoph Soeder/DPA via AP, Pool)

Vladimir Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine continues in the nation’s eastern Donbas region, threatening to spread south and west through Moldova into the pro-Russian breakaway state of Transnistria. Moscow’s forces are consolidating their military efforts along the Black Sea, with no credible peace talks on the horizon.

Amid this slog, Kyiv’s friends can do more than supply arms, intelligence, and prayers. America and her allies should open an aggressive diplomatic front on Russia’s isolated flank by recognizing a Belarus government in exile led by the dissident Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Challenging the legitimacy of Moscow’s client in Minsk will not only undermine the legitimacy of Russian troops occupying Belarus but will also buoy opponents of Putin’s ally, Alexander Lukashenko, who has allowed his nation to be drawn into the war on Ukraine.

For 28 years, Lukashenko has run Belarus like a mob boss. The mustachioed apparatchik has held on to power longer than any leader of a former Soviet republic by fixing elections, arresting opponents, jailing journalists, threatening neighbors, and exiling dissidents. The 39-year-old English teacher Tikhanovskaya is one of those exiles. Her improbable 2020 presidential bid gave her a platform for dissent, and she would have won had the election been conducted fairly. Living in exile in Lithuania, the self-declared Republic of Belarus leader has named a cabinet and says Lukashenko betrayed Belarussian security by collaborating with Putin’s Ukraine invasion, an act she calls “treason.”

Recognizing Tikhanovskaya’s government in exile would force Russia to worry about its western flank as it attacks eastern Ukraine. Telegenic and married to a fellow Belarussian dissident, Tikhanovskaya has been nominated twice for a Nobel Peace Prize and has the kind of political savvy that shows she’s ready for office. Her most recent visit to Washington was for Madeleine Albright’s memorial and to do the rounds with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. She has asked that Belarus have its international reserves frozen and its IMF loans curtailed.

The U.S. should help her through diplomatic recognition, a time-tested approach that both Republican and Democratic administrations have leveraged.

President Donald Trump wielded it to undermine the legitimacy of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, recognizing the National Assembly leader Juan Guiadó instead as interim president. The Trump administration successfully built Guiadó’s legitimacy via diplomatic recognition by nearly 60 other nations, further isolating Maduro.

Over the years, the United States has recognized multiple governments in exile, including Panama in the 1980s and Kuwait and Haiti in the 1990s. Diplomatic recognition is a powerful tool, but it is not always wisely deployed. Since 1959, the U.S. has refused to recognize the Tibetan government in exile led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama because Washington fears angering Beijing. The U.S. has also bestowed legitimacy by recognizing unsavory military coups in countries from Chile to Iran to Greece.

Xi Jinping understands the power of recognition. The Chinese leader has leaned on Caribbean, Latin American, and Pacific nations to shutter their Taiwan embassies in favor of the People’s Republic of China. Xi’s most recent diplomatic success is causing Indo-Pacific security challenges as the strategically important Marshall Islands government shuns Taipei and expands its military and economic cooperation with Beijing.

Recognition can be an essential bargaining chip in negotiations as wide-ranging as arms control and trade. Full diplomatic recognition and normalization of relations were the primary drivers for the United Arab Emirates entering into the Abraham Accords with Israel.

But recognizing Tikhanovskaya’s leadership should make up half the diplomatic efforts to isolate Putin. The other half should be to designate Russia a state sponsor of terror (SST), which I first proposed in 2014 and which this magazine has been promoting. Russia has been a prime candidate for SST designation since it invaded Crimea, started a war fought by “little green men” in eastern Ukraine, poisoned citizens in foreign lands, and shot down a commercial airliner. It should be so recognized.

Any democratic legitimacy Putin claims is undermined by the disappearance and dispatching to prison or heaven of credible opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny. Russia’s size across 11 time zones, the appearance of a democratic election process, and its historic presence on the UN Security Council make it difficult, if not unwise, for Western allies to take away diplomatic recognition even if it is tarred with SST status.

Not so Belarus. Under Lukashenko, Belarus is a Russian vassal beholden to Putin’s diktat. Following the sham 2020 election, citizens demonstrated, catalyzing a violent reaction by Lukashenko loyalists that landed opponents either in the hospital or in jail. Lukashenko, also known as “Europe’s last dictator,” called on Putin’s forces to enter Belarus to crack heads and cage kids to maintain his grip on power. Lukashenko, already an ally, has become Putin’s handmaiden.

Lukashenko repaid Russia’s support lavishly by providing a platform for the war in Ukraine and intercepting commercial flights to target a Russian journalist. The 67-year-old Belarus leader turned his country into a clearinghouse for Middle East refugees escaping Syrian horrors and Taliban threats, flying them into Minsk before busing them to the Polish and Baltic borders to destabilize his democratic neighbors. 

A Soviet throwback like Putin, Lukashenko is now threatening even greater European instability. May 4 marked the start of massive military training exercises aimed at Ukraine and NATO. The development of a new joint missile system with Russia similar to the short-range Iskander system that can deliver bunker-buster and nuclear warheads is cause for new escalation concerns.

But Lukashenko may be straying ever so slightly from Putin’s script. In an interview with the Associated Press last month, Lukashenko admitted that he was surprised to see the Ukraine invasion “drag on” so long, even using the term “war,” which the Kremlin forbids. The Minsk strongman said he opposed the use of nuclear weapons in the neighboring former Soviet republic. But all this appears to be a too-little-too-late attempt to avoid international isolation and sanctions.

Recognizing the exiled democratic government of Belarus punishes Putin and pushes Belarus closer to real democracy. It is within America’s power to give the nearly 10 million Belarussians their voice by affirming what everyone already sees—a state that has been captured, capitulated, and ruined by the Lukashenko-Putin alliance.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).