Lukashenko’s Belarus in Russia’s embrace

In power since 1994, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko has proven to be the ultimate political survivor. Russia cannot afford to see Belarus collapse, while the EU remains reluctant to do what it takes to pry Minsk away from Moscow.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko attends Russian-Belarussian talks in Sochi, Russia, February 7, 2020
At a February 2020 meeting in Sochi, Moscow demanded a “road map” to secure greater control over the Belarusian economy, while Minsk insisted on buying gas at domestic Russian prices. The two sides could not strike a deal. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Alexander Lukashenko is the ultimate political survivor
  • Russia will help his regime get through the latest scandal
  • The EU’s response has played into the strategy of Moscow

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is nothing if not resourceful. In power since the office of the presidency was introduced in Belarus in July 1994, he has more seniority than even Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he has proven to be the ultimate political survivor, sailing through six presidential elections and routinely scoring landslide victories of 80 percent or more. He has altered the Constitution to remove term limits and weathered crises in his relations both with Russia and the European Union, always bouncing back to create new waves of speculation about what may be next.

The crisis triggered by his latest stunt, the grounding of a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnius, is the worst yet. Dispatching a fighter jet to force a civilian airliner to land to arrest opposition activist Roman Protasevich, who was on board the flight has been condemned as simply outrageous. There will be a price to be paid, but Mr. Lukashenko may be expected to take it in stride.

International pressure

This fresh incident recalls the crisis that erupted in the wake of the rigged election in August last year. With opposition figures defying the risk of arrest and torture, a massive wave of protests was at the time viewed as the beginning of the end for the regime. Even if the domestic revolt should fail, many held that the Kremlin had finally had enough and that a new man would be introduced to take over as president. Ten months later, the prisons and detention centers are brimming, stories of torture are legion – and Mr. Lukashenko is still in power.

The smart money is that he is still going to be there one year from now, perhaps having only just weathered yet another crisis, even more egregious than the last. There is a certain constancy to the machinations in and around Belarus: as long as neither Russia nor the West is ready to alter their strategies, little changes.

It is symptomatic that even rumor-mongering has assumed a ritual nature. When President Lukashenko travels to meet President Putin, there are inevitable predictions that he will sell out and allow Belarus to be absorbed into the Russian Federation. To date, this has not happened and is not likely to happen any time soon. Similarly, when Russian military forces are dispatched to Belarus for joint drills, rumors have it they will remain there in a permanent forward deployment. This, too, has not yet happened and is unlikely to. 

The key to understanding Belarus lies in the fact that the games played between Minsk and Brussels are a mere sideshow.

The main driving force in these games has been that of Minsk extracting concessions from Moscow by playing footsie with Brussels. If Moscow tightens the screws – say, by raising the price of gas – a signal will be sent to the EU that reforms are being considered. Lo and behold, the next incoming flight brings a delegation of eurocrats ready to sponsor and support the new reform initiative. Once that news has reached Moscow and concessions have been extorted, Minsk reverts to normalcy, and Brussels throws yet another temper tantrum, condemning Mr. Lukashenko as the last dictator in Europe and his country as a lost cause.

This time around, the stakes are higher than ever. It is striking how quickly the European Commission has decided to close its airspace to the Belarusian flag carrier Belavia, which has been forced to cancel 12 of its routes through October 30. The added call for European airlines to avoid crossing Belarusian airspace will result in millions of dollars lost in overflight fees. Further sanctions may yet be expected.

Kremlin dynamics

The comeback kid will again take it in stride, confident that Russia cannot afford to see Belarus collapse. During a meeting with President Putin in Sochi at the end of May, President Lukashenko secured the release of a second $500 million tranche of the $1.5 billion credit he was offered in the wake of last year’s protests. A first installment of $500 million was disbursed in October, and the second tranche is now to be released before the end of June. As a result, the costs of the EU sanctions will be passed on to Russia.

The key to understanding what is going on in and around Belarus lies in the fact that the games played between Minsk and Brussels are a mere sideshow. Their main function is to provide vital input into the contest that really matters: a peculiar dynamic of joint strategic interest between Minsk and Moscow, flavored by a profound mutual dislike between Presidents Putin and Lukashenko. It does not take much understanding of body language to conclude that the two have little sympathy for each other, but that is beside the point. They have sufficient mutual interest to make sure that personal animosities are set aside.

Crew members disembark from the Minsk large landing ship for a ceremony held in the town of Baltiysk to welcome back a naval force of the Russian Baltic Fleet
Military drills between Russia and Belarus are expected to gain in intensity, including September’s planned Zapad-2021. © Getty Images

Those who speculate that the Kremlin may be looking for ways to find a new man to take over in Minsk are buying into a Russian strategy of keeping Mr. Lukashenko on his toes, ensuring that he does not step too far out of bounds. What is really at stake in the relation between Russia and Belarus may be framed as the terms of trade. Each new crisis brings a realignment, as Russia adjusts its support level and Belarus adjusts the level of service it renders.

The overall framework is the long-standing project of creating a Union State of Russia and Belarus that was hammered out in steps during the latter part of the 1990s. Although a treaty was signed in 1999, to be quickly ratified by both sides, little has happened on the ground. The reason is that both sides feel they have ample reason not to consummate the relationship. Otherwise, Mr. Lukashenko would find his room for maneuver drastically curtailed, while Mr. Putin would not be too pleased with having him inside the tent.

That said, both sides do have a serious interest in maintaining working relations. While Belarus has long been critically dependent on economic assistance – and will be even more so following the recent upheavals – Russia has strategic interests to protect. These include maintaining access to Belarus’ air space and military bases, the use of its radars for joint air defense, and retaining control over the oil and gas pipelines crossing Belarus to export markets in Europe. There is also a risk that a turn to democracy in Belarus might spread to Russia, a danger that featured prominently in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Russian oil

One case that shines a light on the nature of the bargaining relationship played out in the early months of last year. The background was that Russia had allowed Belarus to purchase oil at a hefty discount; that oil was reexported at world market prices, and the difference went into the Belarusian treasury. It was reminiscent of how the Soviet Union used to subsidize Cuba.

At the end of 2019, Russia announced it was revamping its pricing regime, meaning it would no longer allow Belarus to profit from cheap oil. Absent an agreement on a new pricing regime at the outset of 2020, the Russian Druzhba pipeline stopped pumping oil to Belarusian refineries. The Kremlin had decided to play hardball.

During a February 2020 meeting in Sochi, Russia demanded a “road map” that would allow it greater control over the economy of Belarus. For its part, Belarus insisted that as a member of an economic union with Russia, it should be able to buy gas at Russian domestic prices, using the neighboring Russian province Smolensk as a benchmark. As the two sides failed to agree on a new deal, Belarus rolled out a response in two stages.

Any move to replace Mr. Lukashenko with a less dysfunctional regime could coincide with the upcoming military drills.

The first was diversification. Only days before the Sochi meeting, then-United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had paid a visit to Minsk, during which he offered to provide Belarus with all the oil it needed, at competitive prices: “We’re the biggest energy producer in the world, and all you have to do is call us,” Mr. Pompeo declared at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. Belarus already had a track record of buying crude from both Venezuela and Iran. In January 2020, it purchased 80,000 tons from Norway, with shipments from Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia to follow. The Kremlin was put on notice.

The second stage came in the wake of the rigged August election. In the run-up to the event, Belarusian media had waged a distinctly anti-Russian campaign, painting a picture of mounting Russian aggression against the country’s sovereignty. As street protests erupted, the violence was presented to the Kremlin as strongly pro-Western and thus as essentially anti-Russian. By immediately coming out in support of the protests, the West played right into President Lukashenko’s hands, confirming the Kremlin’s fear of losing a key ally against NATO.

Then came the scandal surrounding the downing of the Ryanair flight. In its wake, what is likely to follow is a substantial realignment of the terms of trade – this time, in the Kremlin’s favor. Western sanctions will help Russia strengthen its grip. Belarusian exports are being rerouted via Russian ports, and Kremlin-backed oligarchs are moving to gain control over the crown jewels of the Belarusian economy, like the fertilizer company Hrodna Azot and the potash producer Belaruskali. 

To this may be added an increased intensity of joint military drills and a rotation of Russian forces that approximates permanent basing. The Zapad-2021 exercise in Russia and Belarus in September will allow the pattern to culminate in a spectacular show of joint force. But it will stop far short of merging the armed forces of the two Union partners. 



What makes this baseline scenario so likely is that the alternatives are so far-fetched. One possibility is that the European Union finally decides to combine its moral grandstanding with serious measures to achieve change. The other is that Russia finally decides that it has had enough and that Mr. Lukashenko needs to go.

The presumption in the former scenario is that a substantial part of the political and security elites in Belarus would be ready to join with the opposition in a bid for a pro-Western turn. For them to be convinced to take the plunge, the EU would need to provide billions of dollars in financial enticement and stand ready to face Russian wrath. This represents precisely what would have made a difference in Ukraine, and it did not happen there. Nor is it likely to occur in Belarus. 

The role of the EU in the latest rounds of the game has been predictable. First, it played into the hands of Mr. Lukashenko by supporting his bid to present the anti-regime protests as anti-Russian. Then, it played into the hands of President Putin, as sanctions will support his bid to take greater control over the Belarusian economy. All this illustrates the total absence of anything even resembling a European strategy on relations with Russia. 

The presumption under the alternative scenario, in which the Kremlin decides to seek a new leader in Minsk, is that Russia views a pending collapse of the Belarusian economy as a distinct threat to its own security. A move to replace Mr. Lukashenko with a less dysfunctional regime could coincide with the upcoming Zapad-2021 military war games. The Kremlin could stage a coup by “little green men" and allow its troops to remain on station. As an added benefit, it could force Minsk to finally agree to a permanent Russian air force base in Belarus, a development that would be a significant setback for NATO.

 The main reason why this is not a likely course of events is that Kremlin so obviously views Belarus as a toxic asset. Rather than absorb the failing enterprise as a whole, it is preferable to inject cash on an ad hoc basis. This is what will ensure Mr. Lukashenko’s continued hold on power, albeit at the cost of a considerably more accommodating stance in relations with Russia.

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