As the security landscape continues to change throughout Europe and Central Asia, policy makers in Europe, the United States, and Russia have scrambled to keep pace. Strategists on both sides have been compelled to re-assess the consequences of the dynamic Eurasian security environment on respective national interests. Events such as the protracted war in Ukraine, the resulting European and American sanctions on Russia, and the European Union Association Agreements signed this past summer by former Soviet republics Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have had great impact upon national strategies in the U.S., Russia, and especially the collective nations of the European Union (EU).

As the conflict in Ukraine has dragged on and the stalemate continues to cost lives, the resources drained from the governments in Kiev and Moscow are beginning to alter strategy and affect relations between states. The protracted nature of the war in Donbass has affected security postures and strategies throughout the wider region of Eastern Europe and, as a result, has begun to shape a number of new relationships between states and has altered the security environment. Following a short negotiated ceasefire, the war in Eastern Ukraine has again reignited in recent weeks and has begun to have a measurable effect upon other former Soviet republics, the most notable of which is now Belarus.

Since gaining its independence with the dissolution and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus has been among Russia’s more dependable allies. President Alexander Lukashenko has led the country since mid-1994, remaining in office and gaining a reputation as “Europe’s last dictator” in the process. Lukashenko has ruled from the capital in Minsk with an iron fist reminiscent of former Soviet leaders and with much of the same constructed support base and support of national elites as pre-Organge Revolution Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma. While Belarus witnessed a similar uprising in 2005 (colloquially referred to as the “Jeans Revolution”) and multiple smaller protests, Lukashenko has been able to maintain his hold on power through several presidential terms. This is a testament not only to his authoritarian rule but also his management of an elite social network that underwrites his position as the country’s leader and ensures the marginalization of any opposition group which would even appear to galvanize support among any segment of the Belarusian population eager to democratize.

For Russia, Belarus represents one of the last buffer states in between itself and the EU. Following the integration of former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004, Russian strategists began to look at ways to both mitigate the damage done to Russian security policy on its western flank as well as assess the likely damage that the erosion of that security would have and the disadvantage it placed Moscow under in the near and long term future. For Belarus, distancing itself from Russia never seemed to be a serious possibility. Due largely to economic and security interdependence with its large neighbor, Belarusian leaders never signaled a willingness to disengage from the embrace of Moscow even as the EU dangled carrots for Belarus’s cooperation on potential integration.

Under the leadership of Lukashenko, Belarus has resisted efforts by EU leaders to pursue integration into the 28-member supranational structure. For Belarus, strategic necessity was a close relationship with Russia and a tacit guarantee of its security against any encroachment by Western militaries. However, that relationship with Moscow has come at great cost, more so recently as the devaluation of the Russian currency and a sharp reduction in oil prices has dragged Belarus’s economy into an unstable period. Complicating the devaluation of the Ruble has been the rocky launch of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a sort of balancer to the EU dominated by Russia and of which Belarus and fellow former Soviet republic Kazakhstan are original members.

Further complicating the economic problems faced by Belarus is Russia’s decision to ban meat imports from Belarus last autumn impacted the Belarusian economy in a large way and dented much of the good will that was to be generated with the launch of the EEU on January 1. Recently the economic consequences of EU sanctions on Russia (implemented in earnest after the downing of Malaysian Flight 17 in July) and retaliatory Russian sanctions on Western countries’ exports have elicited greater impact on relations between Minsk and Moscow with the Kremlin alleging circumvention by the Lukashenko government:

From Russia’s perspective, aid-thirsty Belarus has ungratefully sought to turn the ban to its advantage. Last week, Russia’s food safety watchdog said it had stopped 77 tons of plums and apples at Russia’s border because they arrived with sanitation clearance documents indicating that the fruit came from Chile while in reality the documents originated in sanctioned Holland. (Alexander Panin, The Moscow Times, December 11, 2014)

The impact of the Western sanctions on Russia and, consequently, upon the Belarusian economy has affected Belarusian security strategy and policy. This is reflected in the diplomatic posture of Minsk in the aftermath of recent statements by Kremlin officials that many believe to be indicative of a pending re-escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Belarusian officials had previously walked the Russian line on anti-Western rhetoric but that subsided once the tangible effects of the sanctions impacted Minsk. The effects of the sanctions on the Russian economy have been enormous and the devaluation of the Ruble, combined with the continued decline in oil prices and an adjusted Russian GDP outlook for this coming year has impacted Belarusian willingness to remain committed to the Kremlin line on conflict in Ukraine. Belarus has now observed the results of Russian economic upheaval directly: