November 13, 2020

From defensive outpost to springboard?

AP/Scanpix
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talk during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talk during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.

The consequences for the Intermarium region of Russia’s (hypothetical) absorption of Belarus.

Introduction

The highly contested results of the presidential elections in Belarus led to yet another “re-election” of incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko (in power since 1994), sparking peaceful mass public protests that were dealt with severely by local police. These developments clearly demonstrated three important issues. First, Lukashenko has lost the lion’s share of his previous popular support, which, it seems, will be difficult to regain. Second, Lukashenko’s fate is now, in many ways, in the hands of the Kremlin, which—even though clearly disgruntled with him—is, for now, not interested in his departure from the scene. This is clear from rhetoric and the actual (financial) support that Moscow has pledged to provide.1 Third, Moscow is probably determined to finalise the absorption of Belarus—in one way or another—until the end of Putin’s current presidential term, which will be used by the Kremlin for both domestic and external purposes. This article speculates on the potential consequences of Russia’s hypothetical absorption of Belarus, concentrating primarily on, among other elements, geo-economic/political and military-strategic repercussions for countries located between the Black and the Baltic seas—the so-called “Intermarium”—the three Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine.

Russia and Belarus Since 1991: A Controversial Friendship

Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, between 1996 and 1998 Russia and Belarus took a number of steps aimed at greater cooperation and collaboration in various spheres, resulting in the emergence of an unusual structure called the Union State in 1999. Being mostly symbolic, given the general direction of Russian foreign policy at the time and domestic havoc, these initiatives had very little practical impact. The gamechanger arrived with the advent and rapid elevation of Vladimir Putin, resulting in Russia increasing its pressure on Belarus in search of greater integration, which in turn led to multiple bilateral quarrels. The first serious misunderstanding occurred in 2002, when Putin reportedly suggested that Belarus could be integrated into Russia in the form of six oblasts.2 Understanding Russia’s ultimate goal, Lukashenko argued in 2007, in a typically emotional statement, that “[T]hey are demanding us to become a part of Russia … I will not bury the sovereignty and independence of my Belarus.”3

However, despite frequent rhetorical outbursts and ostensibly assertive behaviour—including refusal in September 2015 to open a new airbase at Baranavichy and his demarche prior to the Zapad-2017 strategic exercises—Belarus with its Soviet-style economic model remained closely attached to Russia. In 2019—long before the current public protests broke out—Putin made it abundantly clear that the “economic part of integration” had to be finalised by 2021, which led some analysts to argue that “[a]t the level of national economies a de facto confederative state was to emerge in 2022”.4 Although Putin did not explicitly corroborate this, arguing that “[f]or now we are not talking about the creation of a unified state”, he nevertheless stated that what had been done up to that point in terms of integration processes was by and large inadequate, and “[w]e can and must do much more”.5

At this point most foreign experts and commentators tacitly agreed that in its actions Russia would probably choose the so-called “soft annexation” model “[g]radually, starting with economic integration and a common currency, followed by political integration through a common foreign and defense policy, and culminating in a full-fledged Union State that would mean the de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia.”6 In its official comment, the Belarusian side hoped that further integration would follow the “two countries, one market” formula.7 Meanwhile, a very interesting comment came from a former Lithuanian defence minister, Rasa Juknevičienė, who forecast Russia’s inevitable absorption of Belarus following the Soviet model during the Cold War, when the USSR “[o]ccupied Eastern Europe and reduced the sovereignty of the countries in its bloc to the point that it could use them for various purposes”.8

In many ways all these scenarios were “corrected” by what ensued after the results of the fraudulent presidential elections became known and public protests began to spread through major Belarusian cities.

The View from Moscow: Why Belarus Matters

Russia’s change of heart in terms of pressing forward with further integration with Belarus—practically invisible prior to the mid-2000s—was only a matter of time. As noted by the president of the Jamestown Foundation, Glen Howard, for Russia “[l]osing Belarus as a strategic ally … would be a major blow to Moscow at a time when Russia has fewer allies to rely upon among its neighbors”.9 Belarus benefits from a strategic geopolitical location, and “[n]o country better stands to transform the strategic military balance in the Baltic Sea Region than Belarus”. Occupying an important part of the North European Plain—a historical “invasion corridor” used by Russia’s adversaries ranging from Napoleon to Hitler to attack its territory—Belarus sits at the heart of the so-called Smolensk Gates (the land between the Western Dvina and Dnieper rivers) and occupies a strategic position at the Suwałki Gap, a stretch of border between Poland and Lithuania that separates Belarus from Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast, physically detached from the rest of Russia.

The importance of Belarus is reflected in two additional aspects. First, since 2016, both countries have been using a joint anti-aircraft missile system, which has increased Russia’s capabilities in this dimension by a factor of 1.7.10 Second, Belarus plays an important part in Russia’s military procurement. For example, Belarus-based corporations produce essential parts for Russian-produced weaponry such as the RT-2PM2 Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile, the Bal (coastal defence), Bastion (anti-tank), Tor and Buk (surface-to-air) and S-400 (anti-aircraft) missile systems, and many other types of armament and munitions. Beyond this, it can be reasonably said that the importance of Belarus to Russia is premised on a number of interdependent factors.

Geo-economic and Strategic Implications

Were Belarus integrated into Russia, Moscow’s likeliest first step would be an attempt to use it and its geographical location to reduce the flow of goods and freight via the Baltic states (Lithuania and Latvia in particular) to damage their economies. In fact, Moscow has been seriously considering this since at least 2017, when Putin openly asked Belarus to start using the transit capabilities of ports in Russia’s north-western region, thereby damaging the Baltic states economically.11 Russia tacitly launched this strategy in 2016–17, when the transportation of Russian oil-related products via the Baltic states’ ports was discontinued.12 The problem was, however, that—despite the Kremlin’s rhetoric, promises and multiple threats—Minsk refused to play along and continued to use Lithuanian and Latvian facilities, angering Moscow. Moreover, the local authorities in Kaliningrad have, since at least 2004, also been urging the Belarusian authorities to use its facilities; but Minsk acted evasively, saying it would follow the previous, much more lucrative, strategy, albeit promising changes.

Now, however, the situation might really see some changes. Lukashenko has—in response to sanctions imposed on him and his associates by the Baltic states—declared his readiness to redirect transportation flows from Klaipėda—30% of whose total freight traffic in 2019 was based on Belarus—to Russian ports.13 What might make matters even more complicated is the position of China, whose interests in Belarus were first made public in 2015. In fact, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, once called Belarus the “pearl” of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).14 It needs to be acknowledged that in Moscow these sentiments did not generate a lot of enthusiasm, since the inclusion of Belarus in the BRI would give it more leverage and would render Russian ports on the Baltic superfluous. Nevertheless, if Belarus is absorbed by Russia, or at least fully integrated economically, this situation might actually play in Russia’s favour.

That said, one should not overestimate the gravity of the potential impact. Were this scenario to materialise, the immediate outcome for Latvia and Lithuania could indeed be quite painful—an abrupt drop in cargo traffic would have a serious impact—but not unmanageable. First, if the EU (and the US) imposed new economic sanctions against Russia, Belarus might become less attractive to the Chinese, becoming a dead end rather than a transportation hub. Second, with economic support from the EU, whose economic capabilities are incomparable with Russia’s, Lithuania and Latvia are likely to cope with any potential crisis and its consequences.

Military-political Implications

The military-political domain constitutes, even now, the central pillar of bilateral relations, and the challenges posed by a change in the status of Belarus could have implications here too. The key aspect here is premised on a change of status of the Belarusian army and, more importantly, Russia’s ability to use the country’s territory whenever and for whatever purpose it deems necessary. Specifically, the following key points can be identified. First, the Kaliningrad factor. Russia’s tiny oblast located on the shores of the Baltic Sea has lost a major part of its pre-1991 military potential. Despite some steps aimed at its remilitarisation, Russia primarily sees it in defensive terms. If Russian troops were deployed in Belarus, Kaliningrad’s counter-offensive capabilities—especially when it comes to the already mentioned Suwałki Gap—will become more visible. Second, Ukraine, which borders Belarus, might gain an additional 1,084 kilometres of problematic boundary. Since 2014, Lukashenko has made it abundantly clear that he would not allow Belarus to be converted into a springboard for action against Ukraine. At a time when relations between Minsk and Kyiv are worsening rapidly15—and might not yet be at their lowest point—such a prospect does not seem as implausible as it used to be. Third, Russia will be able to restore (in full) the strategic depth it lost after 1991, and secure its permanent military control over a strategically important area on the North European Plain. Aside from resolving a major part of its west-facing security-related concerns (real and imaginary), Russia would be able to deploy, and fully control, the most up-to-date means of communication, navigation and electronic warfare (EW), posing a challenge to countries on NATO’s eastern flank and Ukraine. Fourth, the absorption of Belarus would be hailed as yet another triumph for Putin’s Russia, and would be used both domestically (as a means of popular consolidation and propaganda) and internationally. The next most likely targets for “deeper integration” could become Moldova and (partly) Ukraine. At the same time, Russia’s actions towards/against the three Baltic states heavily populated by Russophones are likely to be intensified. On top of this, another wave of pro-Russian sentiment, stemming from Russia’s foreign-policy successes (actual and inflated), might arise in some parts of the Balkans, where support for Russia has historically been quite strong and the milieu rather unstable.

Conclusion

Russia’s hypothetical absorption of Belarus would certainly result in a number of challenges to countries located between the Baltic and the Black Sea. Those implications could conditionally be broken down into two large groups—geo-economic and military-political—with the second element containing far more serious ramifications in the longer run. Perhaps the main change that should be anticipated with any absorption of Belarus is its prospective transformation from current “defensive outpost” into a “springboard”, which would dramatically increase Russia’s offensive capabilities westwards. Finally, it must be recognised that a Russian military presence in Belarus would make it much easier for Moscow to launch and successfully conduct information-psychological operations (including blackmail, provocation and disinformation) against the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine.

 

Comments

The Consequences for the Intermarium Region of Russia’s (Hypothetical) Absorption of Belarus

Raivo Vare, Observer

Sergey Sukhankin is absolutely right in claiming that Russia will try to incorporate Belarus one way or another before Vladimir Putin leaves office, and he considers absorption as the most probable course of action. Leaving aside speculation on the form this might take, let us concede that Alexander Lukashenko has no alternatives, since his political fate is in the hands of the Kremlin to a greater extent than ever before.

Russia’s foreign policy is conducted like passing down orders from a General Staff—i.e. it proceeds more from military, strategic and wider geopolitical interests than any other considerations—and Belarus’s position is vital for Russia in the context of these deliberations. Thus, no matter what form a potential political incorporation takes, Russia’s military contingent in Belarus—currently limited to two permanent small teams, a technical base and a series of joint exercises organised in rotation—will balloon into a full permanent military presence in the near future. The aim is undoubtedly to change the military and strategic make-up of the region to the Kremlin’s advantage—for defence purposes, but even more in terms of attack capabilities. Moreover, Russia is interested in better exploiting Belarus for economic purposes. All of this has a negative effect on the neighbouring Intermarium states. In military terms, this concerns all of them, but from the economic standpoint Lithuania and, to a certain extent, Latvia, will suffer most.

 

The Baltic States’ Military Situation Would Be More Complicated

Martin Hurt, ICDS research fellow

It is difficult not to agree with Sergey Sukhankin: the economic, military and political consequences he describes are very logical.

If Belarus were to be consumed, the Baltic states would be in an even more complicated position militarily. Today, Belarus is often considered to be a buffer state between the West and Russia, although Russian and Belarusian air defence systems are already integrated. NATO proceeds from the presumption that Belarusian armed forces would fight together with those of Russia in the event of war. At the same time, there are no significant Russian forces in Belarus.

Integrating Belarus with Russia would mean that the two countries’ forces would be under a single command hierarchy, increasing the threat to the Baltic states. This raises the question of how NATO would react to this. The Alliance’s deterrence and defence stance was strengthened following the occupation of the Crimea, while it follows the principle that units of symbolic size are deployed to NATO border states and reinforced swiftly with rapid response forces when necessary. Unfortunately, modernising and enhancing the readiness of allied forces is a time-consuming process. Border-crossing procedures, infrastructure and military leadership structures must improve drastically so that reinforcements can be moved quickly to the Baltic states. Integrating Belarus with Russia would thus bring about an increase in NATO’s military presence in the Baltic Sea region.

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1 www.rosbalt.ru/russia/2020/09/16/1863784.html

2 news.tut.by/society/33190.html

3 russian-rt.com/articles/815-neft-v-obmen-na-beloru…

4 www.kommersant.ru/doc/4154335?from=main_1

5 eurasia.expert/putin-ob-obedinenii-rossii-i-belaru…

6 www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2020-09-08/…

7 naviny.by/article/20190916/1568631120-rossiya-nade…

8 naviny.belsat.eu/ru/news/eks-ministr-oborony-litvy…

9 jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Howard-Wh…

10 eurasia.expert/zachem-belarusi-i-rossii-edinaya-si…

11 eurasia.expert/postavki-nefti-v-belarus-nado-uvyaz…

12 eurasia.expert/moskva-predlagaet-minsku-ostavit-pr…

13 www.interfax.ru/world/727285

14 thediplomat.com/2020/08/why-china-will-support-rus…

15 interfax.com.ua/news/political/688796.html

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