Lukashenko and Putin in Minsk, February 2016
Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

As political upheaval, a slow-burning war with Russia, and a general sense of chaos have engulfed Ukraine over the past six years, neighboring Belarus has come to seem like an oasis of stability: stagnant but calm. In recent weeks, that calm has been shattered by oil cutoffs, protests, government shuffles, snap military exercises, and sharp criticism of Russia by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus owes its stability in part to a closeness with Russia that it has never strongly resisted. But the equilibrium of that relationship has begun to change as Russia has stepped up efforts to yoke Belarus even more tightly to Moscow. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin began pushing to revive a half-forgotten agreement, the 1999 Union Treaty, which would allow the two countries to harmonize nearly every aspect of public policy. Some Kremlin officials have even implied that they would pursue political integration with Belarus, including a joint parliament and executive—steps that would effectively set the two states on a path toward unification. For added emphasis, Russia has threatened to stop furnishing its neighbor with cheap oil. 

Belarus, however, has offered no indication that it shares Russia’s enthusiasm for integration, and talks on the matter in December ended in failure. If Russia persists—as it most likely will in some form in the years ahead—its attempt to pull Belarus in may end up pushing it away. As it did in Ukraine, Moscow risks underestimating the willingness of Belarusians to stand up for their independence, an oversight that could lead it to stumble into an unanticipated crisis. Premature moves on the part of Russia to further subordinate its neighbor could destabilize Belarus and exacerbate the already tense standoff between Russia and the West. 

INDEPENDENT IN NAME ONLY?

Often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus has undergone scant reform since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike many of its neighboring states, which have sought greater independence from Russia by cultivating ties with the European Union and NATO, Belarus has mostly forgone political and economic integration with the West. Lukashenko’s Soviet-style welfare state depends instead on subsidized Russian oil and gas (some of which the government sells to Europe at market prices, pocketing the difference). Russia is also by far Belarus’s largest trading partner. As a result, the country’s ties to Russia remain particularly close.

The relationship with Belarus holds a special status for Russian policymakers because they view the two countries as sharing a cultural and a historical legacy. The Kremlin regards Ukraine similarly; its designs on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine were motivated in part by Putin’s claim that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” But in many ways, Belarus is even closer to Russia than Ukraine is. Most Belarusians speak Russian as their primary language, and the Belarusian Orthodox Church is a subsidiary of the Russian Orthodox Church, meaning that there is little in language or religion to separate Belarusians from their Russian counterparts. 

Belarus owes its stability in part to a closeness with Russia that it has never strongly resisted.

The fact that Belarus is a relatively young state has dampened the potential for nationalist fervor: unlike neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, Belarus has no recent history of pre-Soviet independence, apart from the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic, which existed under German protection from 1918 to 1919. Many Belarusians, especially those working in the state sector, tend to espouse an identity more Soviet than Belarusian. Lukashenko is himself a living artifact of Soviet antinationalism. Shortly after assuming power in 1994, he changed Belarus’s flag to one resembling the Soviet-era version, ditching a design associated with the post–World War I Belarusian People’s Republic. He has discouraged the use of the Belarusian language, and his government conducts its business mostly in Russian, which holds the same official status as Belarusian. 

For all these reasons, Belarus would seem an ideal candidate for gradual integration, and perhaps even unification, with a resurgent and assertive Russia. Minsk has, in fact, already taken steps in that direction. Back in 1999, Lukashenko and Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s president at the time, signed the Union Treaty, an ambitious agreement to harmonize taxation, trade, banking, energy regulations, and more between the two countries with a view toward a potential unified state. Lukashenko signed on in the apparent hope that he could one day replace Yeltsin and rule over both Belarus and Russia. The treaty was never fully implemented, but it remains on the books today. 

In the intervening decades, Belarus has joined Russian-dominated multilateral organizations, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s answer to NATO expansion. More recently, Belarusian forces have participated in Russian military exercises, including a 2017 operation testing the response of Russian forces to a potential conflict with NATO. 

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT

For all that the two countries have in common, plenty still keeps them apart. Although Lukashenko has accepted a significant degree of subordination to Russia, he is not disposed to relinquish Belarus’s sovereignty. Unlike many of his post-Soviet neighbors, he has prevented Russian oligarchs from establishing much influence over his country’s economy, and he has kept Russian troops from maintaining bases on Belarusian territory. That concern for Belarusian sovereignty is the main reason that the Union Treaty has remained a largely empty vessel and efforts to expand the roles of the EAEU and the CSTO have had little success. Lukashenko has openly ruled out the participation of Belarusian troops in CSTO operations outside the country. And he has gummed up the operations of the EAEU by raising disputes to the head-of-state level, where unanimity is required, so often that the tactic has become known inside the organization as the “Belarusian Elevator.” 

Belarus has been at best a reluctant participant in Russia’s confrontation with the West.

Belarus has been at best a reluctant participant in Russia’s confrontation with the West. Notably, it refused to recognize the annexation of Crimea. Belarus has helped European manufacturers get around Russian countersanctions on Western goods by relabeling European products as “made in Belarus” before shipping them to Russia. When Lukashenko has felt Belarus’s independence under threat in the past, he has even made timid overtures to the West, participating in the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy and Eastern Partnership. But this approach is less viable now, at a time when tensions between Russia and the West are at an all-time high and the EU is distracted by more pressing concerns than Belarus. Lukashenko can point to the support of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on a recent visit offered to supply Belarus with American oil and gas, but that offer seems largely meaningless given the shipping costs involved.

Lukashenko is far from the only barrier keeping Belarus from becoming a Russian province: much of the country’s populace remains skeptical, too. November and December saw widespread demonstrations against Russian encroachment on Belarusian sovereignty—an unusual sight in a country with a low tolerance for public protests. Lukashenko and most of his country’s elites may be culturally Russified products of the Soviet system, but many young Belarusians have grown accustomed to living in an independent state and identifying as Belarusian. Some school teachers and civil society activists have taken to promoting the Belarusian language and culture as a form of resistance to Moscow’s pressure for integration. In polls, most Belarusians suggest that they prefer to maintain good relations with all their neighbors and that their support for integration with Russia is low.

NEW COUNTRY, OLD MISTAKES

Unfortunately for Belarus, Russia has indicated that it wants to pick up the pace of integration. The war in Ukraine and the resulting standoff with NATO have made Belarus all the more important to Russia geopolitically. By stationing troops in Belarus, Russia could place additional military pressure on Ukraine and make it harder for NATO to defend its eastern flank. Conversely, if Belarus were to pivot westward, Moscow would lose a potential military staging ground and risk seeing Western political and economic influence extend over a population that many Russians regard as part of their own nation. A popular uprising in Belarus, like the one that pushed out Ukraine’s pro-Russian government in 2014, would also be a nightmare scenario for Moscow, which fears that its own citizens might follow suit. 

Those fears, coupled with Russia’s perception that Belarus is a part of its historical patrimony and sphere of influence, suggest that Moscow would respond to any breakdown of state authority in Belarus in much the same way it did following the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. But even in the likely case that Lukashenko remains in power for the foreseeable future, Moscow has made clear that it is less and less willing to tolerate what it views as his attempt to play Russia and the EU against each other, including his efforts to evade Russia’s countersanctions. Before a meeting in Sochi in December 2019, Putin effectively demanded that Lukashenko accept greater political integration as the price for Russia’s continued subsidies for oil and gas, cheap credit, and other economic benefits. Lukashenko refused, and the summit ended in failure. Russia temporarily halted oil deliveries to Belarus at the start of January and has threatened to end subsidized oil sales altogether if Lukashenko continues to resist economic integration.

Some have also suggested that Putin’s demands reflect his ambition to eventually make himself the president of a unified Russo-Belarusian state and thus circumvent the term limits that bar him from seeking a third consecutive term in Russia. But recently announced changes to the Russian constitution suggest Putin will retain a leading political role inside Russia even after his current term ends in 2024. 

Nonetheless, Moscow’s sniping over subsidies indicates that it is intent on drawing Belarus closer, and at a time of growing hostility between the West and Russia, that determination may blind Moscow to the dangers of its strategy. Recall that the Ukraine crisis erupted when Yanukovych promised to sign a trade agreement with the EU, only to walk back his pledge under pressure from Moscow; his reversal prompted widespread protests and eventually, Russia’s land grabs in Crimea and the Donbas. Belarus, like the Donbas, is home to a Russian-speaking population mostly lacking in nationalist sentiment and an unreformed industrial economy deeply tied to Russia. These factors played into Moscow’s decision to invade the Donbas in early 2014, but if the Kremlin expected that locals would be inclined to welcome incorporation into Russia, it badly miscalculated. Local resistance soon overcame Russian-backed uprisings in several eastern cities, and Russia managed to secure its control of the Donbas only through direct military intervention.

An encroachment on Belarus would run into similar trouble. In Ukraine, Moscow could at least exploit internal tensions between Russian speakers in the east and Ukrainian speakers in the west. Belarus lacks any such geographical divide. What it does have is almost three decades of existence as an independent state that few Belarusians are willing to sacrifice, regardless of their ethnic or linguistic identity. An attempt to force the matter, with or without Lukashenko in control in Minsk, would be a catastrophic mistake. 

In the months and years to come, Russia’s approach bears watching. If Moscow follows through on its threat to end subsidized oil deliveries, Lukashenko may have to scrap parts of the welfare state that have helped reconcile many Belarusians to his autocratic rule. At a minimum, he may be cash-strapped enough to transfer pieces of critical infrastructure to Russian control. And if Belarus’s younger generation, which is at once more national-minded and more cosmopolitan than older Belarusians, comes to threaten Lukashenko’s rule, Moscow could attempt to force a Faustian bargain on Lukashenko, trading his political survival for integration with Russia.

For the West, neither outcome would be desirable. Although the authoritarian Lukashenko has often been a nuisance, his ability to keep Russian influence at bay has been an underappreciated gift to regional stability. Moscow’s push for political, economic, or military control over Belarus risks destabilizing that equilibrium.

  • JEFFREY MANKOFF is Deputy Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 
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