The ongoing crisis in Belarus was barely mentioned at the eagerly anticipated summit between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Geneva last week. While Belarus was reportedly on the American leader’s agenda for the talks, it appears that the Russian side was not interested in debating the issue.
This apparent reluctance reflects Putin’s view that Belarus belongs exclusively to the Kremlin’s area of interest. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the June 16 summit, there had been considerable speculation that the Russian head of state might actually be prepared to sacrifice Lukashenka in return for concessions from the West.
Under this scenario, Putin would agree to the removal of Lukashenka, but would try to install a Kremlin-friendly replacement from the ranks of the Belarusian opposition. This maneuver would keep Minsk firmly in Russian orbit while responding to Western demands for the normalization of the situation in Belarus, including the release of political prisoners and the scheduling of new presidential elections.
It’s not difficult to see why a move like this could appeal to Putin. It would allow him to show goodwill on the global stage and play the flattering role of mediator as a statesman. The purpose of this would be to divert international attention away from Russia’s aggressiveness and towards positive change in Belarus.
Technically speaking, orchestrating a favorable transfer of power in Minsk would cause relatively few problems for Russia. Moscow already has significant leverage over every aspect of the Belarusian state apparatus and has taken steps in recent months to establish Kremlin-controlled political parties in Belarus that could facilitate an appropriate transition.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka could expect to receive a special pension package in Russia reserved for longtime Kremlin loyalists like exiled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. There would of course be no question of international justice or embarrassing trials in The Hague.
While this scenario may have a lot to recommend it, Putin appears to have moved in the opposite direction. Instead of using the Belarus crisis to reduce tensions with the West, he decided to support Lukashenka. This uncompromising stance is perhaps most directly evident in Putin’s resolute defense of Lukashenka’s latest act of air piracy.
The decision of the Minsk Strongman to crash an EU plane crossing Belarusian airspace in order to detain a breakaway Belarusian journalist has sparked international outrage and sparked a new wave of sanctions. Putin unwaveringly supported Lukashenka’s actions in public and even went so far as to temporarily ban a number of EU airlines from Russian airspace in obvious retaliation for the measures imposed on Minsk.
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Ultimately, Putin probably decided that removing Lukashenka was simply too risky. The Russian ruler is haunted by the Soviet collapse and fears a repetition of the pro-democratic uprisings that swept across Central Europe in the late 1980s and ushered in the fall of the USSR. This explains Putin’s 2014 decision to invade Ukraine after the Euromaidan revolution and also forms the basis of his opposition to the ongoing protests against the regime in Belarus.
Putin recognizes that the collapse of the neighboring Lukashenka regime would have direct and potentially catastrophic consequences for his own future in Russia. It could serve as a source of inspiration for Russian opposition forces who would inevitably wonder whether they could repeat the success of the protest movement in Belarus and overthrow their own dictator. Given the Russian Duma elections scheduled for September, Putin has no desire for such challenges.
The survival of his own regime is not the only strategic interest that shapes Putin’s attitude towards Belarus. The Kremlin must maintain its dominant position over the country in order to secure Russia’s western borders and expand the encirclement of Ukraine. Russia’s growing military presence in Belarus also enables Moscow to threaten nearby NATO member states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
From a Russian perspective, one of the biggest downsides to keeping Lukashenka in power is the damage it has done to the intricate architecture of the Minsk peace process. For almost seven years, ongoing negotiations in the Belarusian capital have helped Russia to maintain its fictitious observer status in the Ukraine conflict. However, Lukashenka’s increasingly obvious dependence on Moscow has led Ukraine in recent months to declare Minsk no longer an appropriately neutral place for peace talks.
Before the current crisis broke out in Belarus last summer, Lukashenka had done a lot to maintain the image of an internationally acceptable host for the peace process in Ukraine. He maintained friendly relations with Ukraine and firmly refused to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea.
This attitude has changed significantly since August 2020 when Lukashenka accuses Ukraine of supporting a “color revolution” in Belarus. Most recently, he allowed representatives of Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine to interrogate the Belarusian dissident Raman Pratasevich in Minsk.
The final hint of Lukashenka’s eagerness to please the Kremlin was the announcement of one new national holiday with connections to the NS-Soviet Pact and the outbreak of the Second World War. Starting this year, Belarus will celebrate National Unity Day on September 17th, the day the Soviet Union joined Hitler’s Germany in the invasion of Poland in 1939. In recent years, Putin has vigorously defended Soviet cooperation with Nazi Germany and angrily denied claims that the USSR was partly responsible for starting World War II.
This year’s National Unity Day celebrations are scheduled to take place during the joint military exercise Zapad 2021, during which numerous Russian and Belarusian troops will be stationed near the border with Poland. Is this just Putin and Lukashenka’s idea of geopolitical trolling or is something more sinister planned?
Whatever they have in mind, both rulers seem to appreciate that their fates are now inextricably linked. Lukashenka’s dependence on Russia has been clear for some time, but Putin is in many ways a hostage to his Belarusian counterpart as well. The last two dictators in Europe know that the other will find himself in a dangerous position should one fall. They may not necessarily like it, but Putin and Lukashenka are now trapped in an authoritarian alliance.
Jan Pieklo is an author, an expert on Eastern European and Western Balkan issues and a former Polish ambassador to Ukraine.
The views expressed on UkraineAlert are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its employees, or its supporters.
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