Russian and Belarusian dictatorial regimes form a dangerous asymmetric tandem
On 4 November, at a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka sealed the documents aimed at further integration of the Russian Federation and Belarus. Among them are “Main Areas for the Implementation of the Terms of the Treaty on the Creation of the Union State for 2021-2023,” which includes 28 sectoral programmes, as well as the Military Doctrine and the Concept of Migration Policy.
It seems very lofty and gives the impression of a great breakthrough to the union, much talked about, that ended in talks. It should be recalled that the first “Treaty on Establishing the Community of Belarus and Russia” was signed under Yeltsin in 1996. For a quarter of a century, participants have mimicked the progress of integration with occasional irritation eruptions, and Alexander Lukashenka has repeatedly expressed sharp dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s efforts to cut spending on the ally: Belarus’ economic prosperity depends on Russian oil and gas supplies at discounted prices.
At the same time, the Belarusian leader, for some time past, began to suspect that Russia sought to replace him with a more suitable figure. The 2020 presidential campaign in Belarus had anti-Russian rhetoric. The appearance of mercenaries from Russia’s private military company Wagner Group near Minsk on the eve of the election frightened and angered Lukashenka. “The attempt to arrange a massacre in the centre of Minsk is already obvious,” he said back then, noting that the Belarusian authorities had received a “very dangerous and strong signal.” Later, after reassuring actions from Moscow, the Belarusian leader lost steam: “As for the prospect that our relations with Russia have completely deteriorated, you are wrong. The President of Russia and I will make a decision, and no media outlets, Wagner PMC members, etc. will be able to influence it. This is the quintessence, the essence of our conversation with the President of Russia.”
This calmer reaction came on election day when it became clear that Belarusians had renounced their usual loyal position and suddenly gave high support to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a common housewife, who replaced her husband as he had been denied registration as a candidate and was taken to a pre-trial detention centre. Belarus has risen in mass protest, and in these circumstances, it was natural for Lukashenka to enlist the support of Putin, for whom the “orange threat” has been a nightmare since 2004. Since then, Putin’s Russia has been the only crutch for the Belarusian dictator, who lost his legitimacy in his failure to win the election, and anti-Russian démarches became a thing of the past.
On the other hand, although circumstances have brought the parties closer, neither Lukashenka nor Putin is interested in dissolving Belarus in the Russian Federation.
In the early 2000s, the Belarusian dictator was nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator,” and it took him a long time to neutralise a negative attitude toward himself in the West. His perception was significantly influenced by the events of 2014: the annexation of Crimea, which Alexander Lukashenka did not recognise, and the invasion of Donbas by Russian troops. The President of Belarus took the position of mediator and helped launch the “Minsk process.” The role of the “last dictator,” moreover, much more dangerous, passed to Vladimir Putin. But now, after a campaign of terror against its people, which denied Lukashenka the right to lead Belarus, the world has seen a close alliance of two dictators, one of whom is completely dependent on the other. In fact, this was the case before, but now the regimes have become more outspoken in their inhumane practices and anti-Western rhetoric, both under sanctions and isolated from the outside world. Of course, it makes them closer.
At the same time, it should be noted that the “historic” event of signing a large package of integration documents took place without much pathos and propaganda fuss. Indeed, the event had a somewhat symbolic character as it was held on the National Unity Day of Russia, and Putin was in Crimea, but the actual meeting of the Supreme State Council was held via video conferencing, and Lukashenka chaired it at the presidential palace in Minsk. Previous plans to hold the ceremony in the Belarusian capital were canceled, and the Belarusian partner was not invited to Crimea. Lukashenka even complained half-jokingly, “I want to complain to the members of the High Council. Ukraine closed the airspace for Belarus, and we cannot get to Crimea through Ukraine, although we have a property and there other problems. Vladimir [Putin] promised repeatedly that he would take me to Crimea with him, show what had been done there. But he left today and did not invite me to travel with him. So, I have such a complaint.”
This statement shows, among other things, that the Belarusian leader is almost ready to recognise the Russian status of Crimea. His appearance in the annexed territory, together with the President of Russia, would become a de facto recognition and to enshrine it in the law would be a mere formality. When Lukashenka was asked earlier about his stance on Crimea, he said it depended on Russia’s willingness to venture to fall under sanctions: “When will Belarus recognise Crimea? I answer openly: when the last oligarch in Russia recognises Crimea and starts supplying products there. I won’t leave it unanswered.” At the same time, it was accompanied by threats: “Do you see what Ukraine is up to? I have a free hand concerning Crimea and everything else. ”
Saying “what Ukraine is up to,” he meant Ukraine’s accession to the regime of sanctions imposed by European countries on Belarus, first for rigging the presidential election and human rights violations, and later for the forced landing of a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius in Minsk on 23 May 2021 to arrest an opposition activist on board. The deep differences in values between the Lukashenka regime and Kyiv’s pro-European policy cannot but affect the countries’ foreign policy steps.
But neither Putin nor the Belarusian dictator is interested in Russia’s political takeover of Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka has no intention of giving up power, and the Kremlin needs to have an experimental laboratory where the most brutal methods of destroying civil resistance are being worked out, which can later be applied to Russians. In addition, Lukashenka’s autonomy and public image of a “nutter” allow Russia to use him as a scarecrow for its neighbours in the west: the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine.
This usefulness of the Belarusian regime for the Russian regime in the new circumstances makes the Kremlin forget about trying to save on costs and openly feed Belarus. No one will impose market prices on oil and gas anymore. Under such a shield, Lukashenka will behave more and more impudently, and the tandem of dictatorial regimes will become more intolerable for citizens and even more problematic for neighbours. Europe has already faced this as Belarus tries to create a new, artificial, illegal migrant crisis, and Poland records violations of its borders by armed men in uniform. The “Union State” remains a phantom legal construction, but in security terms, one must take into account its specific reality.
The situation has changed significantly for both Europe and Ukraine. Our state has 1,084 km borders with Belarus, sheltered very conditionally: there was simply no need to impose a strict control regime before. It is not only about strengthening the border forces, but also about additional opportunities for military shield from the north; the distance between Kyiv and the Belarusian border is only 400 km.
Another problem that has arisen is the need to replace the negotiating platform for the Trilateral Contact Group on Donbas. Not only the suspension of flights with Minsk but also the loss of Belarus’ neutral status prompt us to look for new options. So far, meetings are held online amid the pandemic, but the problem remains urgent.
And yes, we should be prepared for the fact that Putin will take Lukashenka to Crimea, and the latter will recognise the Russian status of the peninsula, which will force Ukraine to reconsider drastically the relations with the northern neighbour with all the consequences. There is no indication that the authoritarian rulers of Russia and Belarus intend to weaken the regimes and gradually return to international, legal cooperation. Rather, on the contrary, there is a daily increase in the intensity of confrontation with both their population and the outside world. This is a fundamentally new situation for Ukraine, for Europe, and for the West as a whole. It is impossible and simply dangerous to ignore this circumstance.