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:
As in the Soviet times, price manipulations led to shortages. Earlier this week, Belarusian social networks avidly discussed the virtual disappearance of tomatoes in central Minsk, and a visit to three otherwise well-stocked supermarkets on Tuesday found no tomatoes whatsoever. “None for a few days at least, and no aubergines either,” said a shop attendant. “I’ve found tomatoes, will disclose the location for a modest donation to my Swiss bank account,” joked one Facebook user from Minsk. Economist Romanchuk expects the Belarusian ruble to follow suit as long as the Russian ruble continues its catastrophic slide, and the Lukashenko government’s clumsy anti-market policies are likely to make Belarus even more financially volatile than Russia. (Leonid Ragozin, January 21, Bloomberg Business News)
Earlier this month, Belarus appeared to be considering a change in direction. Motivated largely by the quickness with which the sanctions had impacted and devalued the Russian currency and the resulting impact that Russia’s eroding financial power had on trade with Belarus, policy makers in Minsk began looking westward and signaling, for the first time, a willingness to embrace the concept of European integration at the expense of the country’s relationship with Russia. Michael Lerner of Blouin Beat Business explains, in summarized form, why Belarus is suddenly glancing away from Russia:
When the West imposed sanctions on Russia in mid-2014 over its destabilizing of Ukraine, Russia responded with bans on many Western food imports. And after many attempts by Western suppliers to circumvent the ban with trucks from Belarus supposedly destined for Kazakhstan, Russia temporarily banned meat imports from Belarus, a move Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko called “stupid and brainless.” Belarus has since had to devalue its currency repeatedly, losing 25% of its value to the dollar since mid-December. At the end of December, Lukashenko said the main goals for Belarus in 2015 are to diversify exports and reduce economic dependence on Russia. He also ordered the government to trade with Russia only in dollars, since the Russian ruble is losing value so rapidly. (Michael Lerner, Blouin Beat Business, January 14)
Compounding the issue of the ongoing currency devaluation in Russia and the lowered cost of oil is the security environment resulting from the war in Eastern Ukraine. While Russia has ostensibly continued to support the Eastern Ukrainian rebel contingents as a way of both bleeding the government in Kiev and maintaining an overall instability in the country after it codified its pursuit of EU membership in the form of an Association Agreement this past June, Moscow’s elites have failed in their efforts to prevent the war from negatively impacting other aspects of Russian security strategy. Geographically, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova represent a line of demarcation against an expanding European community, represented by the EU and NATO.
Historically, Russian strategists have been preoccupied with ensuring standoff between the central government in Moscow and potential invaders, especially from Europe. The potential loss of Belarus to the European community would represent a significant threat to the future of Russian state security and would more than likely invite an almost immediate military response. Lukashenko himself is very aware of this possibility and for the first time Belarusian legislators followed their president’s lead in codifying their opposition to any Russian military aggression upon the country. It is difficult to overstate the impact of Belarusian lawmakers legislating defensive policy in anticipation of a potential Russian military threat given the context of the past two decades. However, that legislation has become a reality:
Belarus has adopted legislation under which the appearance of armed foreign forces on the country’s soil will be considered an act of aggression regardless of whether they are regular troops.
The amendments to the law on the state of war appear to be President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s latest warning to Russia not to have designs on Belarus. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 26)
Reinforcing that legislative action are statements by Lukashenko himself, a significant divergence from previous relations with the Putin regime and reflecting a sense of insecurity about both the intentions of his Russian neighbor and the impact that the war in Ukraine has had upon the security of Eastern Europe as a whole. The sharpness of Lukashenko’s language and its perceived targeting of the Kremlin reflects a motivation of the Belarusian leader to both gird his country for defense against aggression as well as warn the potential aggressor that Belarus should not be taken for granted as an unwilling combatant in defense of its territory. It is difficult to overstate the significance of Lukashenko’s sudden divergence from his pattern of acceding to Russian policy and demands:
“Culture is what makes a Belarusian person Belarusian,” Lukashenka said. “It is not only literature, music, and architecture, but also our language, which we must know; our history, which we must remember; and our values, which we must respect.”
The unexpected defense of the national identity — and particularly the Belarusian language — was one of many indications in recent months that the authoritarian Belarusian president has grown uncomfortable with his country’s current geopolitical position in the shadow of neighboring Russia.
“No matter who comes to the Belarusian land, I will fight,” Lukashenka said in an interview with Russia’s independent Dozhd television last May. “Even if it is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.” (Robert Coalson, Rikard Jozwiak, RFE/RL, January 27)
Likely increasing the tension between Belarus and Russia and most certainly intensifying Minsk’s insecurity with regard to its suddenly aggressive neighbor in Moscow is news of an influential Russian think tank’s proposal that the Kremlin seek to overthrow the government of Lukashenko. Analysts at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI) have previously been noted for their support of aggressive Russian foreign policy, the most notable of which is their support for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, asserted that the removal of Lukashenko should be an objective of the Putin government. Paul Goble, writing for The Jamestown Foundation this week, noted that the history of RISI contains the measurement of their influence, a robust think tank with connections to the Russian intelligence services:
Until 2009, RISI was officially connected to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and currently serves as an advisor to the Kremlin. Now, according to Aleksandr Sytin—who recently left the Institute because of its increasingly Orthodox and imperialist line—a group of analysts at RISI are proposing that Russia replace President Lukashenka with someone more willing to toe the Moscow line and then move to restore the Russian Empire within its pre-1914 borders. (Paul Goble, January 27, The Jamestown Foundation)
Goble’s analysis of the likelihood that Moscow would heed the advice of RISI and its analysts in pursuit of a military option in Belarus is solid. Goble lists three “compelling reasons” that Sytin’s guidance and warning should be assessed with high value:
1. RISI is a creature of the SVR and, thus, closer to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin than many of the other think tanks and analytical centers that are often seen as playing a greater role in the development of his thinking.
2. Putin appears to be attracted by grandiose plans—by a picture of the world in which he plays a central and transforming role.
3. RISI and Reshetnikov clearly advocated the exact course Putin subsequently undertook in Ukraine.
What has been established therefore is that RISI is an extraordinarily influential institution with long reach into Putin’s inner circle. Consequently, RISI and its policy proposals are likely to have great impact upon the strategic policy decisions of the Putin regime. However one assesses the likelihood that Russia could move militarily (overtly or covertly) to remove Lukashenko or foment an uprising that would serve to replace him as president of Belarus, it is fairly obvious that those with influence in the Kremlin are, at the very least, seriously considering courses of action that would involve interfering in the government of a country that suddenly appears to be swaying from Moscow’s orbit. In a grander sense, such a move would have far-reaching ramifications with reverberations felt as far as Georgia and possibly Kazakhstan.
The tension rising between Minsk and Moscow, unanticipated by many but welcome in a security environment that would see a significant advantage for the EU with the distancing of Belarus from Russia’s sphere of influence, is reflecting a growing fissure between the two countries. While the personal relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Lukashenko has never been described as good, the recent events and fallout of the sanctions have further exacerbated the problem for Russian strategists. For Russia’s strategic outlook, it is important in terms of economics, geopolitics, and security that Belarus remain solidly within the sphere of influence of the Russian state.
However, as sanctions continue to devalue the Russian currency and oil prices reflect no sign of rising anywhere near the $100/barrel cost needed to begin reversing the damage the past six months of economic fallout has caused the Russian economy, Belarusian leaders may be doing their first real cost benefit analysis of further engagement with Europe at the expense of the country’s relationship with Russia. As those leaders assess the potential risks and costs and weigh them against the prospective gains of integration with the EU, they will also be wargaming the possibility of Russian interference, popular upheaval, and even the possibility of a Russian military invasion. What appeared unthinkable as the EEU planned to launch this past January 1 is now well within the realm of possibility: Belarusian leaders are signaling that they are willing to listen to Western offers of rapprochement and integration.
At this point, it is relatively safe to assume that relations between Belarus and Russia appear to be well on their way to crisis if they are not already defined as such. As legislation has been passed and rhetoric from Lukashenko has sharply diverged from previous patterns, it has become obvious that a standoff is developing. Whether the West has an overt role to play in either exacerbating that tension for strategic gain or covertly supporting Lukashenko’s willingness to disengage from the Moscow orbit and embrace the European community is up for debate. The likelihood that the European community and the United States will have to decide upon whether to support Lukashenko’s government, whether diplomatically or militarily, is increasing daily.