Belarus Wants Out

One of Russia's Closest European Allies Begins to Play the Field

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, December 14, 2007. Courtesy Reuters

There is a bitter irony at the heart of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Putin’s short-term victory is already coming at the expense of his most cherished long-term strategy -- the creation of a Eurasian Union, a trade union linking Russia and its closest neighbors. In other words, as the invasion expands Russian territory, it will diminish Russian influence in the very places he’d like to increase it. One need only look to Belarus, which is already beginning to hedge against its alliance with Moscow, to see why.

Fanciful as it might sound, the Eurasian Union was never idle talk for Putin. It was meant to serve as a genuine alternative to the West for the countries bordering Russia, including those on Europe’s eastern frontier. For now, only Belarus and Kazakhstan have volunteered to be part of the formal January 2015 launch. But Putin has been closely eyeing other countries in the region, particularly those that have been targeted by the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, which was designed to foster closer ties between the EU and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the strategic ambiguity of Putin’s project. Russia liked to emphasize that the Eurasian Union would serve as an equal partnership among its member states and a vehicle for each to better pursue its political and economic interests. But Moscow’s interests suddenly seem much more expansive than they did just a few months ago. Putin has justified his Crimean gambit with a vast but vaguely defined “responsibility to protect” doctrine. No one knows whether Putin now intends to back up the doctrine with military force, or even whom he aims to protect: ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, or any people at all that Russia thinks might need help.

Russia’s partners are understandably spooked. Early in the Ukraine crisis, when pro-Western protesters were camping out in Kiev, Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’ president, seemed happy to see

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