The loss of legitimacy is throwing the Russian and Belarusian dictators into each other’s arms. This is an alarming circumstance for Ukraine.
The 22 February meeting of Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin in Sochi took place in the best traditions of post-Soviet hospitality and mutual understanding. They were skiing, having lunch, and smiling at the camera. This was very different from the previous fleeting meeting on 14 September, which lasted only four hours, after which Lukashenka returned to rebellious Minsk.
The long familiar colleagues were relaxed and calm. Just the day before, the leader of the Belarusian opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Le Temps the following: “I should admit that we have lost the street.” Supporters of Alexei Navalny, who protested against his imprisonment, also left the streets. Putin and Lukashenka can feel and behave like winners. The political crisis, evident in Belarus and potential in Russia, seems to be over. But it only seems so.
A few days before the presidential election, Lukashenka diligently emphasised his own independence from Russia, telling Putin that because of him “fraternal” relations between the countries turned into “partnership.” He interpreted the situation with the Wagner Group mercenaries detained near Minsk as a direct threat of Russian interference in the Belarusian elections. It is clear that this was primarily a pre-election trick aimed at strengthening the image of the six-time presidential candidate, but relations between the countries were not very good compared to recent times. The Kremlin began to put significant pressure on the President of Belarus, demanding that he move from words about the union state to concrete integration steps. In response, Lukashenka spoke of “a common house, but separate apartments.”
The situation changed rapidly after the outbreak of mass protests in Belarus caused by falsification of election results. In fright, the President grabbed a machine gun and even dressed his underage son Kolya in military uniform and gave him a weapon. The Russian authorities watched the bewilderment of “independent” Lukashenka with malice but dismay. After all, until recently, he was believed to completely control the situation in the country and have a high level of support. Suddenly, the ironclad stability disappeared. This meant, in particular, that Russia could not have guarantees against such a surprise. After a short but characteristic pause, the Kremlin promised the President of Belarus all possible assistance, up to the deployment of units of the Russian National Guard.
Belarusian protests were suppressed with unprecedented brutality. Driving protests from streets and squares, beating protesters, torturing detainees, putting demonstrative pressure on journalists who tried to cover events, clearing off the entire opposition field, and even persecuting lawyers who helped victims of the repressive machine – Lukashenka unleashed a real war against his own people. “Until the last riot policeman tells me ‘Go,’ I will stand shoulder to shoulder with you in this country,” he said at a meeting with riot police officers, who became a symbol of the crackdown on Belarusians who wanted freedom.
In parallel with the Belarusian events, a situation arose with Alexei Navalny. The poisoning of the Russian opposition leader took place in August, as did the presidential election in Belarus. The struggle for his life, the scandalously loud disclosure of attempted assassination and the perpetrators, the return of Navalny to his homeland and his imprisonment, which was accompanied by all-Russian protests and their suppression in exactly the same ways as in Belarus, along with the news from there. All this created the impression of a truly united state. The illusory “union state,” under the rhetoric of which the specific relations of the two dictators were hidden, suddenly became a reality more than ever, and it happened when the dictatorial nature of the regimes was indecently exposed and Putin and Lukashenka huddled together.
This is an alarming circumstance for Ukraine. An outspoken anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-Western alliance, created by the constant leaders under the pressure of internal challenges, is objectively hostile to Ukraine. It gives no reason to expect normalisation of relations in the north and the east. The neutral position of Belarus during the war helped not to divert resources to the northern border, and now it is no longer possible to expect that Ukraine is properly protected from that side.
The rulers of Russia and Belarus suddenly moved from the era of adoration by their nationals to the gloomy indifference and hatred of the people. Such a situation may last indefinitely, but it will require more and more effort to forcefully oppress the disaffected in the face of the final depletion of resources for development, a tendency towards self-isolation and the growth of hostility to the external environment. Thus, the problematic, to put it mildly, neighbourhood is becoming even more dangerous for Ukraine.
Ukraine is not an ideal outpost of Europe and the West as a whole, located far to the east, but it is the bearer of those values that are recognised as alien and unacceptable in today’s Russia and Belarus. Now, it requires serious strengthening, given the sharp rise in regime arbitrariness in the “union state.”