March 19, 2019

Moscow’s Minsk Gambit: Can Russia Swallow Belarus?

AP/Scanpix
Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin meet in Sochi on 15 February 2019.
Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin meet in Sochi on 15 February 2019.

The Kremlin is trying to avoid mistakes made in Ukraine to get hold of Belarus.

Introduction: Pax Rossica and Putin’s ambitions

In the past decade, Vladimir Putin’s aggressive revanchist regime has expressed its desire to restore its power in the post-Soviet space. This is supported by Putin’s claim that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.1 Putin naturally dreams of the restoration of an empire like the Soviet Union to make Russia once again a superpower that would no longer be a regional power like Turkey or Iran. All the Kremlin’s efforts in recent years have been to “make Russia great again”, but it often fails to maintain power over the areas under its authority, which Moscow has for decades considered its immediate sphere of influence, i.e. its vassals. In Europe, the Kremlin considers Ukraine and Belarus to be of paramount strategic importance. For the past 27 years, it has tried to encroach on them and turn them into vassal states. The Kremlin wanted to make Ukraine and Belarus into buffer zones between NATO, the European Union and Russia.2

As Zbigniew Brzezinski aptly said, for Russia Ukraine is “an important space on the Eurasian chessboard”.3 The same can be said about Belarus, which has become increasingly significant to the Kremlin since the events of 2014, when Ukraine moved away from its sphere of influence. Just like Ukraine, Belarus is of great importance to Russia, including in political and economic respects, as its economy and foreign policy are closely tied to Russia. The country is also important from the perspective of Putin’s concept of Pax Rossica, in which Moscow proceeds from Russian imperialist fundamental ideological dogma (that probably emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries), which has been referred to as “the holy trinity of Russian civilisation” (о триединстве русского, беларуского и украинского народов4) since the 19th century. For instance, Putin believes that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation and should be part of the Russian World (Pax Rossica).5 Putin and his circle believe the same about Belarusians and want to integrate Belarus into Russia even more and on a deeper scale, which would essentially mean the loss of Belarus’ already fragile sovereignty. Many have recently been talking about the Kremlin’s attempts to “swallow” Belarus.6

Russia’s chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, has been trying to outline the country’s “new” ideological direction, recently claiming that “the state of Russia will continue to exist and will be a new type of country the likes of which we have never seen before”.7 There is indeed some novelty to this, but it lies in the fact that Russia is a hybrid country that produces and disseminates hybrid threats.8 Historically, this has indeed not happened before. Surkov also stresses that there are four main state models in Russia’s history, which he thinks can be named after their creators: the state of Ivan III (the 15th–17th century Grand Duchy of Moscow), the state of Peter the Great, i.e. the Russian Empire (18th–19th century), the state of Lenin, i.e. the Soviet Union (20th century) and the state of Putin (21st century).9 Surkov writes: “Putin’s huge political machine is only gaining momentum and configuring itself for a long, difficult and interesting task” and compares Putin’s Russia to Atatürk’s Turkey and de Gaulle’s France.10 It is clear that Surkov is trying to justify aggressive imperialist Putinism, emphasising that, for Russia, this is a long-term sustained opportunity and a major new development—in a way, a “new state”. Surkov believes that Putin’s state will last a long time.11 Similar appeals to ancient heads of state and their founders can also be found in earlier periods—e.g. from Nazi Germany, where Hitler was likened to Frederick the Great or some leader of the Holy Roman Empire and people talked about a thousand-year Reich.

Moscow’s manipulations in Ukraine following the Orange Revolution, the constant pressure on Kyiv and Ukrainians, the incompetent rule of the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and several other factors gave rise to the Maidan events at the end of 2013, as a result of which Moscow lost control over Ukraine.12 Putin’s regime subsequently annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in the spring of 201413 and tried to create the so-called Novorossiya—a body of terrorist states directly subject to the Kremlin—in eastern Ukraine, but this plan was largely unsuccessful.14 The Kremlin managed to establish only two smaller state-like terrorist formations: the so-called “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. With Ukraine having slipped from the Kremlin’s geopolitical grasp during the events of 2013–14, the Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus—onto which Moscow has latched like a leech—remain the Kremlin’s only access points to Polish territory and central Europe.

What Does Russia Fear and Expect Over Belarus?

Having learned from the experience in Ukraine—where the Kremlin is waging a hybrid war,15 one dimension of which is extensive information warfare,16 and maintaining the frozen conflict in the Donbas—Putin has decided to integrate Belarus increasingly into his country and regime. Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ long-standing leader dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, objects to Belarus being “swallowed up”. Russia’s pressure on Belarus has increased in recent years along with information campaigns, trolling and economic and political pressure targeting Minsk. The situation worsened considerably in 2018. Recently, a lot has been said and written about Russia’s actions towards Belarus. It was feared that Russia would fail to withdraw its troops from Belarus following the countries’ joint military exercise Zapad 2017, but fortunately this did not happen.17

Moscow fears that if something happened to Lukashenko (who is 64), or if he is forced to stand down, a “colour revolution” might take place in Belarus18 and the country could follow Ukraine’s lead by turning towards Europe. In that case, the Kremlin would not only suffer in economic terms (Russia imports goods from Europe and exports its goods to Europe via Belarus as if they originated from that country). The political aspect is perhaps even more significant: this would mean a reduction in Moscow’s influence in Europe and in the Baltic region. It would also reduce Russia’s chances of pressuring Ukraine, and Minsk could no longer be used as a shock absorber—for instance, for conducting negotiations like those of the Minsk summit, if such a need should recur. In the military-political and strategic sense, Russia would lose Belarus as a military partner and Zapad exercises could no longer be held on Belarusian territory, causing military cooperation to decline or end altogether. After all, Belarus could end up in NATO’s sphere of interest, or at least this has not been ruled out, as this is what happened to Ukraine. In addition, this would mean that Russia would lose the Suwałki Corridor, which it can currently use against Poland and the Baltic states when necessary, threatening to close the gap. Putin’s regime also needs Belarus to ensure its sustainability for at least five to ten years; it needs to keep Belarus under its influence and closely integrated with Russia, so as to present it to the people later as a great geopolitical success and achievement, because the era of hysterical cries of “Крым наш” (the Crimea is ours—Tr.) that used to thrill the Russian population is long gone. The Kremlin’s efforts in Syria were not as successful as hoped, either. The popularity of Putin’s regime is in decline, along with Russians’ income and the economy. The general mood in the country is increasingly depressing.

The “Union State” Agreement Between Russia and Belarus

The Treaty on the Creation of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was signed in 1999 in Moscow by Lukashenko and the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin. The treaty, which consists of 71 articles, begins as follows:

The Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus, based on the will of the nations of Russia and Belarus to unite and relying on the historical commonality of their fates, having their citizens’ vital interests in mind; convinced that the establishment of a Union State allows efforts to be united in the interests of the socio-economic progress of both countries; based on the effort to continue the integration processes established with the Treaty on the Formation of the Community of Belarus and Russia of 2 April 1996, the Treaty on the Formation of the Union of Belarus and Russia of 2 April 1997 and the Statutes of the Union of Belarus and Russia of 23 May 1997, and by implementing the provisions of the Declaration on the Further Integration of Russia and Belarus of 25 December 1998; confirming their attachment to the principles of the Charter of the UN and wishing to live in peace and good neighbourly relations with other countries; acting in accordance with the generally recognised principles and standards of international law, have agreed on the following.19
Article 2 of the treaty explains the union’s objectives, some of the most important of which are:

… ensuring the peaceful and democratic development of the member nations of the sister states; strengthening of friendship, ensuring an increase in well-being and living standards; creating a shared economic space to ensure socio-economic development on the basis of the member states’ material and intellectual potential and market mechanisms required for the functioning of the economy.20

Some of these objectives have already been fulfilled—for instance, the creation of a shared economic space—but there are also unachieved goals and points of difference between Minsk and Moscow, such as the former not having recognised the Crimea as part of Russia.21 This shows that Belarus is still resisting the pressure applied by the Kremlin. But how strong will it be in the event of a possible hybrid conflict between Russia and Belarus? One can only guess.

Shared Military Doctrine and Cooperation

Belarus and Russia have engaged in military cooperation for years, with the format taking many facets. One is the Zapad military exercises. Since 2009, Russia and Belarus have organised these every four years (to date in 2009, 2013 and autumn 2017).22,23 In the introduction to a special issue of the Estonian Journal of Military Studies dedicated to Zapad 2017, Andreas Ventsel and I wrote:

Zapad, the name of Russia and Belarus’ joint military exercise, is not chosen randomly and it has its own historical tradition: this was also the name of a military strategic operatiopnal exercise organised by the Soviet Union and member states of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War period in 1973, 1977, 1981, 1984 and 1985, which was in many ways similar to Zapad. Thus, Zapad was first held in 1973. In the 1970s and 1980s, Zapad also had a propaganda objective in addition to military-technical goals: Moscow wanted to demonstrate the military might of the Soviet Union as well as to use extensive and powerful exercises to intimidate Western and Central European countries who had not joined the Warsaw Pact. In this sense, Zapad-814, which was held from 4 to 12 September 1981 on the territory of the military districts of Belarus, the Baltic states and Kyiv, was particularly noteworthy. It was one of the largest military exercises in history, involving approximately 100,000 Soviet servicemen and a variety of military equipment. The collapse of the system in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries and the poor economic situation, however, forced the Kremlin to abandon several grandiose plans and ambitious projects in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among other things, Moscow had to cut down considerably on its ambitions in relation to Zapad.24
Joint military exercises and other forms of military cooperation between Russia and Belarus are also reflected in the planned military doctrine of the Union State, which Putin approved in late 2018.25

Intimidating Moscow

For decades, Russia has put pressure on Belarus and its leader, Lukashenko. To this end, the Kremlin has used both political and economic measures as well as information operations—for example, the “milk wars” initiated by Russia at the beginning of 2009, which created a lot of tension between Minsk and Moscow.26 As already mentioned, the latest Zapad exercise in particular prompted fears about Russia refusing to withdraw its troops and annexing Belarus (this was also feared in Ukraine, and elsewhere). Lukashenko probably had the same worry. The end of 2018 saw increased pressure applied by Moscow to make Belarus integrate further with Russia.

The economic pressure on Belarus is also considerable; among other things, Russia is threatening to raise the price of oil sold to Belarus to the world market price rather than 20% cheaper, as now.27 This tactical step by Russia over the oil taxes levied on Belarus causes great financial damage on the latter.28 One can only guess how this dispute will end.29 At the same time, the Belarusian president claimed at a meeting on 10 January 2019 that “it is not worth aggravating the problems related to Belarus’ budget losses that may be caused by Russia’s tax manoeuvre; however, there is a need to seek other resources that could compensate for them”. Lukashenko also stressed that this must not be viewed as a disaster. “If the Russian leadership chooses such a path—the loss of their only ally to the west—that is their choice. We cannot force them.”130 Thus, Lukashenko has taken into account the possibility of the further deterioration of the relationship with Russia, with Belarus ceasing to be its partner and ally. The Kremlin may not wish to make Belarus a Russian oblast (even though there are those in Russia who do want that), but there is no doubt that Moscow wants to gain full control over the country—to control its armed forces, economy, finances (so there would be a shared currency—the Russian rouble), and so on. Essentially, this would mean the end of Lukashenko’s rule and the loss of Belarus’ sovereignty.

Anne Applebaum writes:

But in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Lukashenko has sought to protect his independence and project a different image, occasionally defying Russian requests, pursuing a somewhat independent foreign policy and even, as a gesture toward the West, releasing his political opponents from jail …31

Lukashenko has openly shown that he will not give in to Moscow’s extortion.32 In mid-December 2018, he stated that:

It is no use blackmailing us, trying to make us toe the line or seizing us by the throat. We must pursue integration for the sake of the unity of our peoples. I cannot resort to plotting behind the scenes—the process should be open and transparent.

Lukashenko also stressed that Belarus would not become part of Russia and Moscow’s “deeper integration” would mean Belarus acceding to Russia. “I understand these hints: take our oil, but let’s destroy the country and join Russia,” said Lukashenko, stressing that the idea of “deeper integration” originated in Moscow and would essentially mean the end of Belarus. “Some people are already saying we are ready for you to become a part of the Russian Federation in the form of six oblasts,”33 said he added.

It is not known whether Lukashenko actually believes this and is sincere about it. Perhaps the long-standing Belarusian leader wants to save face in front of his voters and supporters, but this could also be his real position.34 Lukashenko understands that if this “deeper integration” with Russia comes into being, it would essentially mean the end of his rule35 and Belarusian sovereignty, which is probably why he wants to withstand the Kremlin’s pressure and refuses, for example, to become vice president of the Union State. The Belarusian dictator does not want to play second fiddle in his own country.

Conclusion

Putin’s imperialist regime is doing everything in its power to swallow Belarus and further integrate it with Russia, attempting to bring about the final collapse of Belarusian sovereignty. However, Lukashenko opposes such developments and, despite Moscow’s increasing political blackmail, economic pressure and information campaigns, has shown perseverance in standing up to Putin’s aggressive and pushy intimidation, which has, in a sense, acquired the characteristics of hybrid warfare. It is difficult to predict how this resistance is going to end.

Moscow could easily overstretch itself in its efforts to swallow its vassal state Belarus and may lose it from its sphere of influence, just like Ukraine in 2013–14. However, things could go differently, because the Kremlin is now acting more carefully than it did in Ukraine and is doing everything it can not to let Minsk slip out of its grip.

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1 “Putin: NLi kokkuvarisemine oli 20. sajandi suurim katastroof”. Postimees, 25 April 2005, www.postimees.ee/1471945/putin-nli-kokkuvarisemine… (last accessed 4 February 2019).

2 J. Carik, A. Sivinckij, “Беларусь в контексте противостояния Россия–НАТО”. Minsk: Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, 2016.

3 Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York: Basic Books, 1997, p. 46.

4 Б. Флоря, “О некоторых особенностях развития этнического самосознания восточных славян в эпоху Средневековья — Раннего Нового времени”. Россия-Украина: история взаимоотношений, Отв. ред. А. И. Миллер, В. Ф. Репринцев, М., 1997, pp. 9–27, izbornyk.org.ua/vzaimo/vz02.htm (last accessed 4 February 2019).

5 “Путин: Я считаю, что русские и украинцы – это вообще один народ, разницы мы не делаем”. 112UA, 17 August 2015, 112.ua/politika/putin-ya-schitayu-chto-russkie-i-u… (last accessed 4 February 2019); “Путин назвал русских и украинцев единым народом”. Interfax, 17 August 2015, www.interfax.ru/russia/460776, (last accessed 1 February 2019).

6 See, for example, Charles Dyer, “Don’t stand so close to me! Belarus president fears Russia is trying to swallow up his nation as Putin urges greater political and economic union with three meetings in a month”. Mail Online, 29 January 2018, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6538055/Fears-Rus… (last accessed 1 February 2019).

7 B. Сурков, “Долгое государство Путина”. Незвисимая газета, 11 February 2019, www.ng.ru/ideas/2019-02-11/5_7503_surkov.html (last accessed 12 February 2019).

8 W. Nemeth, “Russia’s State-centric Hybrid Warfare”. Diplomaatia 140, 17 April 2015, icds.ee/russias-state-centric-hybrid-warfare/ (last accessed 14 March 2019).

9 B. Сурков, “Долгое государство Путина”. Незвисимая газета, 11 February 2019, www.ng.ru/ideas/2019-02-11/5_7503_surkov.html (last accessed 12 February 2019).

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 C. Кошкина, Майдан. Нерасказанная история. Киев: Брайт Стар Паблишинг, 2015.

13 H. Mölder, V. Sazonov, R. Värk, “Krimmi liitmise ajaloolised, poliitilised ja õiguslikud tagamaad. I osa”. Akadeemia 12/2014, pp. 2148–61; and “II osa”. Akadeemia 1/2015, pp. 1–28.

14 Д. Тымчук, Ю. Карин, K. Машовец, B. Гусаров, Вторжение в Украину: Хроника российской агрессии. Киев: Брайт Стар Паблишинг, 2016.

15 To read more about Russian hybrid warfare in Ukraine, see U. Franke, “War by non-military means: Understanding Russian information warfare”. Stockholm: Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, 2015; and J. Bērziņš, “Russian New Generation Warfare is not Hybrid Warfare”, in Artis Pabriks & Andis Kudors (eds.) The War in Ukraine: Lessons for Europe. Riga: Centre for East European Policy Studies, University of Latvia Press, 2015.

16 K. Müür, H. Mölder, V. Sazonov and P. Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, “Russian Information Operations against the Ukrainian State and Defence Forces: April–December 2014”. Journal of Baltic Security, 2(1), pp. 28–71; H. Mölder and V. Sazonov, “Information Warfare as the Hobbesian concept of Modern Times: Principles, Techniques and Tools of Russian Information Operations in Donbass”. Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 31(3), pp. 308−28.

17 To read more about the Zapad exercise, see A. Ventsel, V. Sazonov, A. Saumets (eds.), “Zapad 2017 infosõja kontekstis”. Sõjateadlane 8 (2018), Estonian National Defence College.

18 A. Cordesman, “Russia and the ‘Color Revolution’”. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 28 May 2014, www.csis.org/analysis/russia-and-%E2%80%9Ccolor-re… (last accessed 28 January 2019).

19 “ДОГОВОР О СОЗДАНИИ СОЮЗНОГО ГОСУДАРСТВА”, www.soyuz.by/about/docs/dogovor5/ (last accessed 4 February 2019).

20 Ibid.

21 E. Толкачева, “Единая Конституция, валюта, суд». Что из Договора о Союзном государстве так и осталось на бумаге”. TUT.BY, 15 December 2018, news.tut.by/economics/619244.html?crnd=6850 (last accessed 1 February 2019).

22 R. McDermott, “Zapad 2009 Rehearses Countering a NATO Attack on Belarus”. Eurasia Daily Monitor 6(179) (September 2009), jamestown.org/program/zapad-2009-rehearses-counter… (last accessed 1 February 2019).

23 S. Sukhankin, “Zapad-2017:What Did These Military Exercises Reveal?”. Diplomaatia 170, 24 October 2017, icds.ee/zapad-2017-what-did-these-military-exercis… (last accessed 14 March 2019); A. Wilk, “The Zapad-2017 Exercises: The Information War (for Now)”. Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), 4 September 2017. www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/ 2017-09-04/zapad-2017-exercises-information-war-now (last accessed 1 February 2019).

24 V. Sazonov, A. Ventsel, “Sõna saateks. Sõjaväeõppus Zapad 2017 Venemaa infosõja kontekstis”. Sõjateadlane 8, pp. 7–8.

25 “Распоряжение президента Российской Федерации о военной доктрине Союзного государства”, 19 December 2018, publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/00012018121… (last accessed 1 February 2019).

26 Wikipedia. “2009 Russian ban on Belarusian dairy products”. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Russian_ban_on_Belarusi… (last accessed 14 March 2019).

27 A. Шрайбман, “Шрайбман назвал самый вероятный сценарий конфликта Минска и Москвы”. Gazeta.by, 21 February 2019, gazetaby.com/post/shrajbman-nazval-samyj-veroyatny… (last accessed 4 February 2019); A. Класковский, “Класковский: Интеграция – конец для Лукашенко. Он будет упираться рогом…”. Белорусский партизан, 11 January 2019, belaruspartisan.by/politic/451245/ (last accessed 4 February 2019).

28 A. Шрайбман, “Шрайбман назвал самый вероятный сценарий конфликта Минска и Москвы”. Gazeta.by, 21 January 2019, gazetaby.com/post/shrajbman-nazval-samyj-veroyatny… (last accessed 4 February 2019).

29 Д. Заяц, “Чем закончится нефтяной спор с Россией”. Naviny.by, 20 August 2018, naviny.by/article/20180820/1534739667-chem-zakonch… (last accessed 1 February 2019); T. Маненок, “Россия свернет «неограниченную» поддержку Беларуси”. Белрынок, 12 July 2018, www.belrynok.by/2018/07/12/rossiya-svernet-neogran… (last accessed 4 February 2019).

30 “Если Россия не заплатит компенсацию — это путь к потере единственного союзника в западном направлении”. Лукашенко. Белрынок, 10 January 2019, www.belrynok.by/2019/01/10/esli-rossiya-ne-zaplati… (last accessed 29 January 2019).

31 A. Applebaum, “Why the world should be paying attention to Putin’s plans for Belarus”. Washington Post, 4 January 2019, www.anneapplebaum.com/2019/01/04/why-the-world-sho… (last accessed 14 March 2019).

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 “Президент — о словах Медведева об «углубленной интеграции»: Шантажировать нас бесполезно”. TUT.BY, 14 December 2018, news.tut.by/economics/619170.html (last accessed 6 February 2019).

35 A. Класковский, “Класковский: Интеграция – конец для Лукашенко. Он будет упираться рогом…” Белорусский партизан, 11 January 2019 belaruspartisan.by/politic/451245/ (last accessed 4 February 2019).

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