Russia, Belarus and the Empire Debate

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 2.085, July 1, 2021

SUMMARY: Belarus is becoming increasingly isolated and pushing itself more and more into Russia’s embrace. Moscow uses the opportunity to consolidate Belarus as a buffer state against the geopolitical influence of the West. But contrary to established analysis, unless there is a real chance of a pro-Western government in Minsk, Russia is unlikely to push for radical scenarios, including full integration.

After months of tensions between Belarus and the West, the forced grounding of a Ryanair plane in Minsk – an event that leaders called a “hijack” – pushed Belarus-West relations to a new low. The West is likely to take a tougher stance on Minsk, which will have geopolitical implications for Belarus-Russia relations.

The conditions for Russia are now ripe to take major steps on the Belarusian front. Moscow could pull Minsk very close by making economic concessions and push for a military presence on Belarusian soil. After all, President Alexander Lukashenko is isolated and is likely to remain so throughout his term in office. This state of affairs urges him to seek political and economic support from Moscow and makes him vulnerable to the will of the Russian leadership.

Surprisingly, however, Moscow has been relatively inactive on the Belarus issue since the crisis that erupted in that country following the presidential elections, which are widely viewed as rigged.

Whenever the Belarusian and Russian presidents talk, rumors circulate about possible progress on the Union State Project and the likelihood that Russia will establish a military presence in Belarus. But so far there have been no noteworthy changes. Lukashenko’s statement in April, shortly before a visit to Putin, that “one of my most important decisions” [over] Quarter-Century Presidency ”nearing the election sparked a flurry of comment and speculation that a merger between Belarus and Russia was imminent – but no such big announcement was made.

Lukashenko’s role in these delays should not be underestimated. Although he is geopolitically vulnerable, he has proven himself to be a tough negotiating partner. He has never positioned himself as weak at any point in his career, no matter how pressured by foreign actors or internal troubles.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a union state – a project that dates back to the 1990s – will not be announced in future Belarus-Russia talks. But we should not only rethink Lukashenko’s negotiating skills, but also fundamental aspects of our traditional understanding of Russian strategy in Belarus.

The established analytical consensus is that Moscow would use the difficulties in the neighboring country to pursue deeper military cooperation and institutional integration. This thinking should be revised. This does not mean that Russia is no longer interested in Belarus or that that interest has diminished. For Russia, Belarus will continue to play the role of an important buffer state vis-à-vis the West, be it the Western threat from the EU’s economic advance to the east or from NATO’s military expansion.

The idea of ​​the Slavic Brotherhood serves as a strong bond within Russia’s political elite, but the drive to integrate with Belarus reflects much more. It would mean a definitive break in the model of Russia’s relations with its immediate neighbors, especially those who are members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Furthermore, the union state would mean a return to something many Russians fear – an official empire. While it’s true that Russia has annexed and raided territories for the past three decades, and has constantly tried to influence Belarus, Ukraine, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, it still looked like a much more liberal empire than the Soviet one. Moscow largely avoided taking direct political control of non-Russian territories. The Crimea was an exception, but annexation was not only possible there because of the Russian military bases, but also because of the large Russian population of the peninsula. In other words, to the Russian political elite, annexing Crimea did not seem like conquering foreign territory or building an empire.

Contrary to what many in the West think, the Russian political elite has not clearly opted for a formal empire. Indeed, the integrationist vision of Belarus and its neighbors is likely to wane as the country moves towards the post-Putin era. Again, this does not mean that Moscow will dissolve the EEU or rethink its relations with smaller neighbors – simply that integration projects inspired by the Soviet era are relatively unlikely.

Striving for political and economic integration with Belarus would mean the realization of something that many Russians fear: spending Russian money on a neighbor whose industrial and economic base may not bring the desired benefits. In fact, the expenses could far outweigh the benefits. For Moscow, Belarus is not Ukraine; its economic weight is not worth direct and immediate merger. The country would serve as an effective buffer zone, but the Russian security and military elites understand (if quietly) that NATO enlargement is not as much of a threat as is often portrayed by the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, Moscow will continue to move closer to Minsk and monitor its deteriorating relations with the West. Moscow will use these divisions to advance some of its vital interests in Belarus, but will hesitate to take a final step. Perhaps the most likely scenario in which Russia would directly project its military might and advance the integration project would be when a popular revolution is raging in Belarus and an openly pro-Western or reformist government comes to power.

Negotiations on sensitive issues (a single currency, a single tax law, etc.) continue, but in the same vein as in previous years, if not decades. Sensational breakthroughs are unlikely. Lukashenko will not make any concessions, while Moscow remains undecided whether to take a hard “imperial” path.

The existing hybrid option of slowly increasing Russia’s economic and political influence in Belarus is likely to continue for the time being. Much will depend on the discontent of the people in the country. Should pre-revolutionary conditions arise, Moscow’s response could evolve from a hybrid to a military or more inclusive option.

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Emil Avdaliani teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University. He has worked for various international consulting firms and currently publishes articles on military and political developments in the former Soviet space.

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