NATO is a bulwark against tyranny

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attend a news briefing in Minsk, Belarus, on May 24. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attend a news briefing in Minsk, Belarus, on May 24. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Reuters)

Upon signing the North Atlantic Treaty, U.S. President Harry S. Truman declared, “We believe that it is possible for nations to achieve unity on the great principles of human freedom and justice”. Seventy-five years later, as the NATO summit convenes in D.C., the NATO alliance continues to stand as a bulwark against tyranny.

Unfortunately, tyranny is on the march in Eastern Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of conquest in democratic Ukraine is emblematic of this sad trend. The mass terror and repression in neighboring Belarus, wrought by “Europe’s last dictator”, Alexander Lukashenko, is less frequently reported on.

Lukashenko is known to be Putin’s closest ally. He has put Belarus at the center of the Ukraine crisis by allowing Putin to stage troops and station nuclear weapons within its borders. He is content to allow Putin to wield influence and control over Belarus so long as it helps him keep his grip on power.

In Belarus itself, nearly everyone lives in fear of a knock on the door. Almost any form of suspected disloyalty or dissent to Lukashenko’s regime can be punished by death. KGB agents force confessions from innocent people and post them on the internet to spread fear.

But the people of Belarus nevertheless resist Lukashenko’s tyranny. In 2020, voters bravely rejected dictatorship and voted for democracy in overwhelming numbers. But Lukashenko (with Putin’s assistance) stole the election from the Belarusian people, dismantled free and fair elections and unlawfully clung to power.

We don’t know the total number of political prisoners enduring harsh treatment in Belarus. But we know many of their names. In the 2020 election, Sergei Tikhanovsky was Lukashenko’s primary political opponent. He was arrested and removed from the race. (He is also the husband of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, one of the authors of this piece, who took up the mantle of leading the opposition after his jailing.) For more than 400 days, Sergei has been held incommunicado. Not even his family has heard from him.

And he is not the only one. Several top opposition figures have also not been heard from in more than a year, including Maria Kolesnikova, Mikalai Statkevich and Maxim Znak. And there are concerning reports about the health of Ales Bialiatski, Nobel Peace laureate, held by Lukashenko’s cronies in inhumane conditions.

As the NATO summit begins, our allies and partners should take steps to support the pro-democracy movement on the ground in Belarus while increasing pressure on Putin’s crony Lukashenko — and, by extension, Putin himself.

First, we must ensure a haven for Belarusian pro-democracy activists who need to seek asylum. And we must aid those who have successfully fled into exile. We must provide comprehensive assistance to the Belarusian pro-freedom movement, including independent media, civil society groups, human rights defenders and the repressed.

Second, we must enforce strong sanctions on Russia for its antidemocratic activities, isolating Putin and his economy from the democratic world.

Third, both Putin’s and Lukashenko’s regimes need to be designated “state sponsors of terrorism”. In 2023, Russia was designated as a “country of particular concern” because of Putin’s ongoing campaign of cruelty and oppression. It is past time to go further.

Make no mistake: Putin and Lukashenko are as much a danger to the global order as Adolf Hitler was in his time. History warns us that we must never be afraid to confront repressive dictatorships bent on snuffing out democracy. The Belarusian opposition and Ukrainian freedom fighters share a kinship. As they labor for their own liberation, they are beacons of freedom for Europe — and for the world. We must be there for them until democracy prevails.

Three-quarters of a century since the ink dried on the North Atlantic Treaty, and thanks to the leadership of President Biden, the West’s “unity on the great principles of human freedom and justice” remains in place. But unity of purpose must be matched by action. Let us carry on the fight for freedom and justice together — for the people of Belarus, for the people of Ukraine and for all mankind.

Nancy Pelosi is a Democrat from California and speaker emerita of the House of Representatives. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is the leader of the democratic opposition of Belarus.

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