To some, Vladimir Putin is feeling triumphant; but if one really wants to know the way the world is turning, one would be hard pressed to find a better source than Alexander Lukashenko. After all, this wily and cynical survivor has been president of Belarus since 1994, when Putin was still just the bagman for the mayor of St Petersburg. And Lukashenko has definitely been signalling a sense of disillusionment with Moscow, and a belief that Minsk needs not be quite so deferential in its treatment of his mighty eastern brother.
Lukashenko has been a perennial irritant to Moscow, always eager to eke out what advantage he can. Originally, he was pushing for closer integration with Russia, believing he could parlay this into some kind of co-dominion. Later, he would accept a role as a close strategic partner in everything from air defence (which in the process meant he could shelter under the Russian umbrella) to economics (doing away with customs barriers along the shared border). There has always been an unabashed opportunism about his policies – even when the sanctions and counter-sanctions regime cut into Russian-European trade, Belarus eagerly engaged in smuggling luxury foodstuffs eastward, just as previously Belarusian banks had been conduits for capital flight west, especially into Latvia.
Since 2014, though, Lukashenko has appeared increasingly uncomfortable with his relationship with Putin. Indeed, this was most vividly illustrated when he was caught on mike giving heartfelt agreement to Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s complaints about Russian mendacity and perfidy.
Since then, he has carefully re-triangulated his position between Moscow and the West. In January, he announced visa-free travel for citizens from 80 countries – including the United States – which immediately raised an implicit challenge to the open border regime between Russia and Belarus. Moscow pointedly established frontier posts, before stepping back from reimposing full controls.
Lukashenko also dialled up his rhetoric, refusing to allow Russia to establish an air base at Bobruisk and accusing Moscow of grabbing Belarus “by the throat” with its threats of cutting oil and gas supplies. In a flourish worthy of Putin, he affirmed that “independence cannot be compared with oil” and that if need be his country could find other suppliers.
Even so, his bluster was calibrated with characteristic calculation. At the same time, Minsk has committed to fielding a squadron of Su-30SM multirole fighters, which not only will help bolster Belarus’s own security, but also help plug the very gap in the joint air defence system that prompted Moscow to push to field its forces in Bobruisk. Perhaps more importantly, Lukashenko explicitly reaffirmed his commitment to remaining within the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Putin’s pet security and economic structures respectively. It was, after all, the prospect of Ukraine withdrawing from the latter that sparked Russia’s disastrous “secret invasion” of the Donbas.
It is not that Lukashenko – a man who enjoys the epithet “batya,” or “daddy”, and who has also been called “the last dictator in Europe” – honestly wants or can make the leap from Russia’s orbit into the Western European community of nations. He is an authoritarian populist who presides over an essentially personalised regime that has made no more than token steps to address serious abuses of human rights. Even though the EU lifted remaining sanctions on Minsk in 2016, this does not herald any further rapprochement.
This is not a military issue
It is the essential incompatibility of Lukashenko’s system with the West and its dependence on Russian energy that sets the limits to Belarussian geopolitical autonomy. Although there are periodic claims that the Suwalki Gap, a stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border between Belarus and Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, represents some crucial battlefield of the ‘Third World War’, in fact there is no serious reason to believe Moscow is motivated by any plans to invade Nato.
What happened in Ukraine seems to have been something of a shock, throwing into question Lukashenko’s understanding of the limits of Russian behaviour. Indeed, as this year’s Zapad-2017 joint military exercise will see maybe up to 50,000 Russian troops deployed in Belarus, Kaliningrad and neighbouring Russia, there is an inevitable concern of Moscow’s intent, given that Minsk’s total armed forces number only some 48,000.
Lukashenko is showing what teeth he can, reassuring his people that “there will be no war… no one will occupy us, no one will send in troops”. February saw a mobilisation exercise calling on some of the quarter of a million reservists, and last year an amendment to the Law on War stipulated that the appearance of “little green men” such as those who seized Crimea would be considered an act of war, whether or not they were formally acknowledged by their home state.
Perhaps most important is that Belarus is not Crimea, and there is no constituency or rationale for rule from Moscow, nor any serious alternatives that could be installed by the Russians as anything more than the most obvious puppet-president. He – it is hard to imagine a she – would need to be maintained by a garrison force that Moscow can hardly afford to maintain.
This is “hybrid negotiation”
Instead, to a large extent even the discussions about the military threat are symbolic, postures of threat and defiance. Instead, this is a negotiation. After all, of late Russia has been a much less generous patron. Belarus’s economy has suffered – its GDP fell 3.9% in 2015, and 2.6% in 2016 – to a considerable extent because of Russia’s economic problems and consequently diminished subsidies and imports, as well as the knock-on effect of sanctions.
In particular, Moscow and Minsk are currently haggling over gas and oil deals, and the terms of further loans and subsidies. So far, after all, Minsk has received loans totalling $22bn through the Eurasian stabilisation and development fund and an additional $6bn in direct support loans. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich has especially drawn attention to Minsk’s outstanding debt for Russian gas that he said had reached $550mn by the end of January.
In that context, both sides are trying to leverage the other to be more amenable through military postures and political manoeuvres, what we could perhaps call “hybrid negotiation” given the current fad for the term.
But the key point is what this says about how Lukashenko views Putin’s position. However much the West may see the Kremlin on a roll, he clearly sees it as embattled. It is mired in the Donbas, a conflict which brings with it the need to divert regional support funds to the “invisible oblast” as the Russian-occupied area is essentially entirely dependent on Moscow’s funds. It is mired in Syria, having missed its opportunity to withdraw with honour. It is trying to signal to Astana that, as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev begins to restructure the government as part of his succession preparations, he needs to consider Russia’s interests, even though it knows Beijing will play a larger role in Kazakhstan’s future. It is nervously watching Washington, uncertain as to quite what Donald Trump’s presidency will mean as much as everyone else.
In those circumstances, “Batya” has obviously decided it is time for a bit of a shake-down, that Putin will huff and puff, but ultimately needs to have some allies, and will make a deal to buy one. Or at least rent one, as Lukashenko has made it clear he does not stay bought for long. If he gets away with it, this will be a useful indicator to just how confident the Russians really are behind their façade of cynical bombast.
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.