The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the nascent Russian Republic isolated from the rest of Europe and vulnerable to potential Western incursions. The loss of the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine was and continues to be a subject of great concern for Moscow, as these territories have historically served as a much-needed buffer between Russia and Western Europe.
In the past, these lands were crucial in delaying invasions from foes such as the Napoleonic Empire or Nazi Germany. Nowadays, Moscow intends to assert control over these regions for the same reason — in this case, to defend itself from NATO and the European Union.
Russia’s sole ally against the West has been Belarus, as the Baltics and Ukraine have all gravitated Westward over the past three decades. Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ sole leader since gaining independence, has maintained a strong grip over his country mirroring Putin’s style of dictatorial governance in Russia.
The similarity of Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin’s respective regimes and the close relations between Minsk and Moscow have led some to assume that Lukashenko is merely Putin’s pawn. Rising tensions between the formerly steadfast allies have brought that assumption into question, however.
The Belarusian economy is heavily dependent on its ties to Russia. Due to its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with Russia and several other former Soviet Republics, Belarus is able to import Russian crude oil duty-free and export refined gas at a profit.
Income from oil refining accounts for 20 percent of Belarus’ state budget, so continued access to Russian crude oil is hugely important for Lukashenko’s regime. This reliance on Russian crude oil grants Putin considerable leverage over his ally.
In August, Moscow took advantage of this leverage by ending duty-free delivery of crude oil with the intent of forcing Belarus to export its refined oil through Russian ports rather than through Baltic ones.
In recent months, a flurry of diplomatic exchanges between Moscow and Minsk has inspired speculation that Putin is planning on integrating Belarus into Russia officially and ending the derelict republic’s nearly 30-year experiment with independence.
Vexed by Belarus’ increasing resistance to Moscow and its recent attempts to rekindle relationships with the West, it is entirely possible that Putin has decided that Lukashenko’s usefulness as an ally and deterrent to NATO expansion has run its course. The fear of losing sovereignty is tangible in Belarus despite Lukashenko’s remarks that the idea of unification with Russia is “very stupid” and “far-fetched.”
Following a meeting between the two nations’ prime ministers in Belarus, Russia’s prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev issued an ultimatum, which demanded that Belarus enact measures that would further integrate them into Russia’s orbit, including adopting a common currency and joint customs.
In response, Lukashenko told press in December, “If someone wants to break [Belarus] into regions and force us to become a subject of Russia, that will never happen.”
But in reality, Belarus is essentially powerless to prevent Russia’s advances in the short term. While they have made steps toward improving relations with the West, these preliminary moves are too recent to provide Belarus with any reliable counterparts.
Lukashenko’s best bet to maintain his country’s independence, and his own rule, is to instill the idea that annexation of Belarus would bring Moscow more trouble than it’s worth.
Lukashenko attempted to do just this when he met with Putin on Dec. 29, granting his counterpart a Christmas gift of four sacks of potatoes and a tub of lard to symbolize that Belarus had nothing of value to provide Russia.
Indeed, it is dubious that the integration of Belarus into the Russian Federation would ameliorate any of Russia’s problems. Ekaterina Schulmann, a senior lecturer at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, made this point, explaining that “the land grab agenda has been totally exhausted by the Crimea-Ukraine adventures and their sad aftermath.”
She added that “at its best, Belarus is not Crimea, but, in an average Russian’s perception, is a poorer country to be fed and kept by Russia.”
Belarus’ unfortunate fate is a telling example of the dangers of over-reliance on a single ally. While it is probable that Lukashenko felt he had no choice but to ally with Putin in order to shore up his own legitimacy, that decision has come back to bite him. He has left his nation isolated from the West and defenseless in the face of Russian advances.