Belarus and Russia: Will Putin Back Lukashenko or Watch his Downfall?

Belarus and Russia: Will Putin Back Lukashenko or Watch his Downfall?

Belarus and Russia have been experiencing a deterioration in their relationship for years now. However, the current protests sweeping Belarus in light of the elections of August 2020, which controversially found President Lukashenko to have secured 80% of the vote, could prove to be a turning point for the already tenuous alliance between the two former Soviet states. President Putin has hitherto been cautiously supportive of Lukashenko to the extent that Moscow is still able to exercise flexibility of action. Examining current and previous developments between the two states in light of the crisis in Ukraine in 2014, the best option for Putin remains to refrain from interference for the time being. 

Lukashenko has been in power for over two decades, but he has previously never faced as large of a challenge to his authority in Belarus. Given that thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest to his rule despite wide-spread detentions, his political vulnerability has provided a window of opportunity for Russia to take action on the legitimacy of his regime.  

The Return of the Prodigal Son  

Issues between the two states began with Lukashenko’s refusal to support the Crimean annexation of 2014, which had a twofold impact on the Minsk-Moscow relationship. On one hand, Belarus became increasingly worried about its territorial sovereignty in regards to Russia. On the other hand, Russia became less willing to sell oil at reduced prices to Belarus due to the pressure of American sanctions. The deterioration of the Moscow-Minsk relationship culminated in 2019. The Kremlin began to leverage the premiums in oil prices Belarus benefited from for negotiating a deeper political integration between the two states in accordance with their 1999 agreement. This was arguably done to aid President Putin in maintaining executive power post-2024.

The Kremlin has since been exerting economic pressure on Belarus with a tax manoeuvre and a ceasing of oil deliveries between January and April of 2020. Renewed deliveries are at market-price value. Lukashenko has been securing new energy partnerships with Norway, Azerbaijan, and Saudi Arabia. This hence indicates an arguably anti-Russian stance, as US Secretary of State Pompeo indicated American willingness to supply 100% of oil to Belarus during his visit in February.  

All of this signifies that Lukashenko has now found himself with little to no sway in his relationship with Putin. Simultaneously, Moscow may perhaps not perceive Lukashenko as a valuable and loyal ally in need of protection anymore, given that the Belorussian President went as far as to threaten to steal Russian oil.  

Not Another Ukraine 

Thus far, it is clear that the Belorussian equation with Moscow cannot be compared to that of Ukraine six years ago.  Then-President Yanukovich had cemented his loyalty to Moscow by backtracking on the Associations Agreement with the EU, hence earning his political asylum later on. Moreover, the Belorussian opposition is not necessarily anti-Russian per se. An opposition leader who was arrested prior to participating in the August election, Viktor Babaryko, is the former owner of the Belgazprombank, a Gazprom subsidiary; making him perhaps an advantageous pro-Russian alternative.  

The problem in Belarus overall does not seem to be about being a pro- or anti-Russian state, but rather about being authoritarian or democratic. In this regard, a democratic Kremlin-friendly regime would be more politically beneficial for Moscow than an authoritarian ally that is frequently disloyal. A Belorussian democratic regime could also be less likely to approve oil deals with Saudi Arabia and might fall in line with the other democratic states of the region (such as the Baltic states) which are dependent on Russian oil. Russia’s ability to secure a Kremlin-friendly candidate in the post-Soviet sphere through media campaigns presents a beneficial option for maintaining influence. The costs of military intervention in Belarus in terms of both finances and Russia’s reputation internationally are too high.  

Putin’s Choice  

Thus, Putin’s choice appears to be a straightforward one – wait and watch. If Lukashenko prevails, the Kremlin could continue its attempts to pressure Belarus into further integration. However, if the opposition wins, Moscow could potentially secure better allies for its international reputation than Lukashenko, who has been dubbedEurope’s last dictator. However, Putin’s actions so far indicate a  careful balancing act, which maintains flexibility. Initially, given the discovered presence of the Wagner group in Belarus, we can infer a reaction similar to the events in Ukraine – the Kremlin has insisted on the alleged mercenaries’ passing through the territory rather than being stationed there.

Further, Putin’s statement to Chancellor Merkel that “any attempts to interfere in the domestic affairs of Belarus would be unacceptable” could be interpreted in two ways. Whilst he may not consider Russian interference as foreign due to the Union State agreement, the statement may also be viewed as him publicly expressing his unwillingness to interfere. Similarly, him stating that Russia is militarily prepared to intervene does necessarily mean it will, as this could be a way to maintain Russia’s image as the regional hegemon. Putin’s upcoming meeting with Lukashenko in Sochi will be decisive in terms of solidifying an approach. The Russian President will most likely calculate the extent of Lukashenko’s willingness to negotiate more seriously further integration in return for Russia’s possible economic and military help.  

However, a full-fledged intervention, even a successful one, is unlikely to be very favourable to the Kremlin. This would either prop up the regime of an untrustworthy ally or in the case of further integration, would lead the Russian economy into trouble. Such actions may not aid Putin’s popularity, adding to existing drop-in support due to an economic downturn.    

Categories: Europe, Security

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