Examining Belarus’ Growing Dependence on Russia
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus was the rare ex-Soviet state to remain strategically aligned with the Russian Federation. In 1999, Russia and Belarus reached an agreement to become a “State of Union”, which aimed to create a USSR-like federation with a similar government, currency, flag and army. Over the past two decades, the Unionist state has mainly aimed at economic integration, with efforts also in the defense and intelligence sectors. This agreement is part of Moscow’s efforts to re-establish regional hegemony in the former Soviet space by concluding new alliance agreements. The formation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSC), a Russian-led intergovernmental military alliance organization of certain states of the former Soviet Union that provides collective defense for its members, was also part of this process. strategy. Minsk’s poor relations with the West in recent years, mainly due to human rights violations, have motivated a new proximity to Moscow. The European Union imposed economic sanctions on Belarus following the 2020 presidential election which was widely viewed as corrupt, solidifying the end of previously friendly political relations. The growing unity between Moscow and Minsk isolates Belarus from Western countries, resulting in increased dependence and commitment to Russia’s strategic goals.
Since the election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in 1994, the importance of Russia in the country’s economy has increased significantly. Cheap oil and gas exported from Russia accounts for 15% of Belarusian gross domestic product (GDP), and Russia accounts for 41% of Belarusian exports. During times of escalating tensions between Russia and the West, Belarus acted as Russia’s “middleman” by importing goods from the European Union, labeling them as “Belarusian” and re-exporting them to Russia. Russia, and vice versa. The relationship, however, is not completely symbiotic. Russia needs Belarus as an ally for energy trade, as the pipeline through the country is one of the only reliable carriers of energy resources from Russia to Europe left for Moscow to use.
These apparently good relations came with their share of tension: multiple disputes led the two parties to meddle in each other’s markets. After Belarus violated a pipeline deal with Russia in the mid-2000s, Russia raised gas prices and reduced throughput, producing less gas for higher prices. In response, Belarus has increased transit charges and extracted gas destined for other countries. Russia then raised prices again, forcing Belarus to sell 50% of the pipeline back to Russian energy company Gazprom. Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia prevents it from setting tighter borders with Moscow. Lukashenko’s previous policy was to keep Russia at bay while maintaining close ties.
Previous cordial relations between Belarus and the West have largely deteriorated due to Belarusian corruption and human rights violations. The fraudulent 2020 presidential election in Belarus prompted riots and the illegal imprisonment of protesters. The Lukashenko regime has since cracked down on democracy movements, sending hundreds into exile and putting thousands in prison. He sadly detained journalists Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega after illegally landing a Ryanair flight in Minsk in May 2021. This sparked conflict with other countries as the plane landed for “safety reasons”. The two journalists were charged with breaking Belarusian law, but it was not known which law, and no further explanation was released for their detention. The Belarusian government claimed it was a “preventive measure”, but its lack of transparency and respect for international standards angered Western observers. Tensions have also increased due to an immigration crisis provoked by Belarus and imposed on Lithuania and Poland; Belarus illegally pushed thousands of Iraqi migrants into the two countries, forcing them to declare a state of emergency. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared these actions “a diplomatic conflict” and “an attempt to violate the integrity of the Polish state, the sovereignty of our borders”.
Given the deterioration of political relations, Belarus is now isolated from the West. This isolation forced Lukashenko to end up in a corner, making him fully compliant and willing to respond to Russia’s support needs. This situation prompted Lukashenko to remove the neutrality clause from the Belarusian constitution in July 2021, publicly displaying his full allegiance to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly supported the decision, saying the constitutional impeachment was Belarus “publicly renouncing any obligation to the West and demonstrating its full involvement in Moscow’s strategic priorities.” On August 30, Putin declared that Russia can “always count on the support of Belarus.On September 13, the two presidents announced plans for further economic integration under the slogan “two countries, one economy.”
Despite the asymmetric power dynamic, Lukashenko put Putin to the test by publicly opposing Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea. Lukashenko called Russia’s annexation of Crimea “a bad precedent in the making”. In the past, Lukashenko’s attempts to improve diplomatic relations with the West by freeing political prisoners, easing restrictions on the media, and welcoming members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to discuss the Ukrainian war angered the Kremlin. Despite this “rebellious” behavior, Belarus received no real punishment from Russia because of the need for Moscow to make it an ally. Russia’s deteriorating foreign relations force the Kremlin to depend on Belarus as an ally. With the Zapad-2021 military exercises, it is clear that Russia’s goal is to exercise greater control over Belarus, and Belarus appears to be complying with it.
The Zapad-2021 Joint military exercises between Belarus and Russia, further support Russia’s integration plans. The exercises presented a scenario in which Russia defends Belarus against attacks from “Nyaris, Pomoria and the Polar Republic”, which are aliases for Lithuania, Poland and a Scandinavian country. In the exercises, Belarus “responds” to Western-backed terrorists causing instability linked to Lukashenko’s previous claims that protests against his election are pretexts for a planned NATO invasion of Belarus. The exercises took place in two phases, the first to divert NATO intervention and the second to stabilize a situation involving terrorists supported by the West. These exercises also included an integrated air and missile defense system in Grodno and a reassignment of Belarusian soldiers to Russian districts at the suggestion of Russian military commander Anatoly Sidorov. In addition, Russia has created a special forces unit that includes four Belarusian brigades. Russia not only wanted to prepare for aggression against the West, but also wanted to demonstrate its military prowess in collaboration with Belarus.
Although Belarusians have continued to protest against the deepening of Russian-Belarusian military ties, Russian Armed Forces expert Michael Kofman says “it is in Minsk’s interest to invite a much broader Russian footprint into sign of support for the regime ”. Although there is no permanent military base yet, Putin has been lobbying Belarus since 2015. Lukashenko’s new dependence on Russia could lead to the creation of a permanent military base, proposed by Putin, which should be detained in Babyrusk and contain an SU-27 fighter. jets. While integration is the ultimate goal, continued instability in Belarus is seen as an unwelcome inconvenience by Moscow, as Lukashenko’s anger towards his neighbors could lead to an accidental explosion. While troops were stationed in Belarus before Zapad, more remained after the exercises. Now, a larger Russian contingent remains in Belarus, and Russian troops are much closer to the border with Poland than ever before, indicating that this joint exercise could become more permanent than a military exercise. Belarus’ independence has slowly waned as Russia’s military presence expands and could mark the end of sovereignty previously enjoyed.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish reasoned and policy-oriented articles on US foreign policy and security. national. priorities.