Investigate Belarus’ growing dependence on Russia

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus was the rare former Soviet state that remained strategically linked to the Russian Federation. In 1999, Russia and Belarus agreed to establish a “Union State” aimed at creating a federation similar to that of the USSR with a similar government, currency, flag and army. Over the past two decades, the Union state has primarily sought economic integration, including in the defense and intelligence sectors. This agreement is part of Moscow’s efforts to restore regional hegemony in the former Soviet space through the conclusion of new alliance agreements. Part of this strategy was the establishment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led intergovernmental military alliance organization of selected former Soviet states, which ensures the collective defense of its members. Minsk’s poor relations with the West in recent years, mainly due to human rights violations, have motivated a newfound closeness to Moscow. After the presidential elections in 2020, which were largely viewed as corrupt, the European Union imposed economic sanctions on Belarus, thereby cementing the end of the previously friendly political relations. The growing unity between Moscow and Minsk isolates Belarus from the countries of the West, leading to increased dependence and commitment to Russia’s strategic goals.

Since the election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in 1994, Russia’s economic importance has increased significantly. Cheap oil and gas exports exported from Russia account for 15% of Belarus’ gross domestic product (GDP), and Russia accounts for 41% of Belarusian exports. In times of escalating tensions between Russia and the West, Belarus has served as Russia’s “middleman” by importing goods from the European Union, labeling them as “Belarusian” and re-exporting them to Russia and vice versa. However, the relationship is not entirely symbiotic. Russia needs Belarus as an ally for energy trading, as the pipeline that runs through the country is one of the few reliable transporters of energy resources from Russia to Europe that Moscow can still use.

These seemingly good relationships have their share of tension: multiple disputes have resulted in both sides meddling in each other’s markets. After Belarus violated a pipeline agreement with Russia in the mid-2000s, Russia increased gas prices and reduced flow, which resulted in less gas being supplied at higher prices. In response, Belarus increased transit fees and produced gas for other countries. Russia then increased prices again and forced Belarus to sell 50% of the pipeline back to the Russian energy company Gazprom. Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia prevents it from drawing stronger borders with Moscow. Lukashenko’s previous policy has been to keep Russia at a distance while maintaining close ties.

The cordial relations between Belarus and the West to date have largely deteriorated due to Belarusian corruption and human rights violations. The fraudulent 2020 presidential election in Belarus sparked civil unrest and unlawful detention of protesters. Lukashenko’s regime has since cracked down on democracy movements, exiling hundreds and imprisoning thousands. He notoriously arrested journalists Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega after illegally landing a Ryanair flight in Minsk in May 2021. This led to a dispute with other countries when the plane landed for “safety reasons”. Both journalists were charged with violating Belarusian law, but it was unclear which law it was and no additional statements about their detention were published. The Belarusian government claimed this was a “preventive measure”, but its lack of transparency and respect for international norms angered Western observers. Tensions have also increased due to an immigration crisis over Lithuania and Poland caused by Belarus; Belarus has illegally pushed thousands of Iraqi migrants into both countries, leading them to declare a state of emergency. The Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared these actions “a diplomatic conflict” and “an attempt to violate the integrity of the Polish state, the sovereignty of our borders”.

In the face of deteriorating political relations, Belarus is now isolated from the West. This isolation has cornered Lukashenko, which makes him fully indulgent and ready to respond to Russia’s support needs. This situation motivated Lukashenko to repeal the neutrality clause in the Belarusian constitution in July 2021 and thus publicly express his full loyalty to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly supported the decision and confirmed that with the constitutional repeal, Belarus “publicly renounces all commitments to the West and demonstrates its full participation in Moscow’s strategic priorities”. On August 30, Putin declared that Russia “can always count on Belarus’s support”..“On September 13, the two presidents announced plans for deeper economic integration under the slogan“ two countries, one economy ”.

Despite the asymmetrical dynamics of power, Lukashenko has put Putin to the test by publicly speaking out against Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea. Lukashenko has called Russia’s annexation of Crimea “a bad precedent.” In the past, Lukashenko’s attempts to improve diplomatic relations with the West by releasing political prisoners, easing media restrictions, and inviting members of the North Atlantic Compact Organization (NATO) to discuss the war in Ukraine have angered the Kremlin. Despite this “rebellious” behavior, Belarus was not really punished by Russia because Moscow needed it as an ally. Russia’s deteriorating external relations are forcing the Kremlin to rely on Belarus as an ally. With the Zapad-2021 From military exercises it is clear that Russia’s goal is to gain more control over Belarus – and Belarus appears to be sticking to it.

the Zapad-2021 Exercises, joint military exercises between Belarus and Russia, which further support Russian integration plans. The exercises showed a scenario in which Russia defends Belarus against attacks by “Nyaris, Pomoria and the Polar Republic”, which are aliases for Lithuania, Poland and a Scandinavian country. In the exercises, Belarus “reacts” to Western-backed terrorists who are causing instability over Lukashenko’s previous claims that the protests against his election were pretexts for a planned NATO invasion of Belarus. The exercises took place in two phases, the first facilitating the diversion of a NATO intervention and the second facilitating the stabilization of a situation involving Western-backed terrorists. These exercises also included an integrated air and missile defense system in Grodno and the relocation of Belarusian soldiers to Russian districts at the suggestion of the Russian military commander Anatoly Sidorov. In addition, Russia has created a special unit that includes four Belarusian brigades. Russia not only wanted to prepare for aggression against the West, but also wanted to demonstrate its military skills together with Belarus.

Although Belarusians continue to protest the deepening military ties between Russia and Belarus, Russian armed forces expert Michael Kofman claims that “it is in Minsk’s best interests to invite a much larger Russian footprint as a sign of support for the regime.” Although there is not yet a permanent military base, Putin has been pushing Belarus for it since 2015. Lukashenko’s newfound dependence on Russia could lead to the establishment of a permanent military base, which Putin proposed in Babyrusk, designed to detain SU-27 fighters in jets. While integration is the ultimate goal, further instability in Belarus is viewed by Moscow as an uncomfortable inconvenience, as Lukashenko’s anger at his neighbors could accidentally flare up. While troops were stationed in Belarus, Zapad, a larger number stayed after the exercises. Now a larger Russian contingent remains in Belarus, and Russian troops are much closer than ever to the border with Poland, suggesting that this joint exercise could become more permanent than a military exercise. Belarusian independence has slowly declined with the expansion of the Russian military presence and could signal the end of the previously enjoyed sovereignty.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

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