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Michał Potocki  21 czerwca 2021

Is Russia’s annexation of Belarus imminent? Lukashenko in the arms of Putin

Michał Potocki  21 czerwca 2021
przeczytanie zajmie 8 min
Is Russia’s annexation of Belarus imminent? Lukashenko in the arms of Putin Wikimedia Commons

Since the outbreak of the post-election protests in August 2020, Alexander Lukashenko has acted as if he wanted to disillusion all those who thought that Minsk under his rule would at least consider keeping an equal distance from the West and Moscow. Lukashenko had never considered it, and now that he was faced with the threat of losing power, he has even stopped nurturing such illusions. This has never been as evident as after the Ryanair plane scandal, after which the European Union said, “Enough is enough!” For the West, Lukashenko beating up the opposition is a moral issue, and moral issues often lose to business. Lukashenko threatening the security of intra-EU passenger flights is a security problem, however, and those are much closer to the base in the hierarchy of needs.

On May 23, Belarusians forced a plane flying from Athens to Vilnius to stop in Minsk on the pretext of receiving information that a bomb had been planted on board. The whole operation was carried out ineptly; the threatening e-mail was sent to the airport after the tower had informed the pilots about the bomb on board the aircraft, and the contents of the letter were out of date. A Hamas fighter, who supposedly was to send the e-mail demanded an end to the Israeli campaign in Gaza and cessation of support for it from the European Union, although the war was already over and Brussels was by no means supporting the Jewish state. Hamas quickly dissociated itself from the whole matter, also criticizing the Belarusian regime for its archaic approach to freedom of speech.

The whole operation was aimed at arresting one of the passengers, 26-year-old blogger Roman Pratasevich involved in channels in the Telegram messenger that were the thorn in the regime’s side, called Nexta and Belarus Golovna Mozga, which made fun of Lukashenko in front of a multi-hundred thousand audience, informed about the situation in the country, and for the last year, distributed ideas for subsequent days of protests. At the same time, Pratasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapiega, was arrested, accused of running a website revealing the personal details of militiamen suppressing popular demonstrations, although her friends and family claim that the student holding a Russian passport was never interested in politics. In her, the regime acquired an additional hostage. And it was effective, as evidenced by Pratasevich’s interrogation in front of the cameras of the regime-controlled channel ONT.

It can be argued that the authorities predicted a relatively harsh reaction from the Western international community – much sharper than after rigging the presidential election, the expulsion of the likely winner Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya from the country, the disclosure of torture at police precincts or even the deaths of protesters. Certainly, Minsk was aware of the existence of a thin red line it had crossed. Previously, authoritarian states had hardly ever forced transit passenger planes to land to arrest any of their passengers.

The situation was a precedent, so the reaction to it will be one as well. Too soft, and it will encourage other autocrats to push their luck. The names of countries that might draw from Lukashenko’s know-how are many – from China through Russia to Turkey, to focus only on the biggest players.

Is Moscow pulling the strings?

In this matter, as in most secret service cases, we can only rely on presumptions. Some argue that Lukashenko could not have taken such an adventurous step without receiving an “all clear” from the Kremlin. Others add that even if there was no such signal, the degree of infiltration of the Belarusian power structures by the Russians is such that it is difficult to imagine that Moscow would not be aware of its ally’s plans. The question remains, whether such Lukashenko’s action is justifiable when the Russians are agreeing on the details of Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Joe Biden. However, it is equally justified to observe that after the initial ambivalence in reactions – when the influential MP Konstantin Zatulin called Lukashenko’s act shameful, the curator of state propaganda, Margarita Simonjan, wrote that she is rarely as proud of Belarus – Moscow has proven it’s unwavering loyalty.

After five days, Lukashenko was received by Putin in Sochi, while the Moscow airport incidentally refused two flights from Western Europe to Russia, a conflict with Lufthansa arose, and finally, an opposition activist associated with Mikhail Khodorkovsky was pulled out from a Polish plane in St. Petersburg after boarding was completed, which was a demonstration on the one hand and a provocation on the other.

Ambivalent reactions may raise questions about Lukashenko’s predictability. The less predictable Lukashenko will be for his Russian patrons, the greater the chance they will start looking for a possible successor, or even move on to Plan B if such a successor has already been selected. For now, however, it seems that Lukashenko still performs the function that the Kremlin devised for him. He is weak and therefore susceptible to Russian pressure, but not enough to give in to street pressure and give up, which would encourage the Russian opposition to follow in the footsteps of their Belarusian colleagues. That is still the optimal scenario for the Kremlin.

In 2020, when Lukashenko came under increasing pressure from the people – who knows whether his remaining in power was or was not due to the general strike failure – Moscow halted the pressure for accelerated integration, which had been strengthened since autumn 2019. This is a convincing indication that the Kremlin did not want to change the power structure in place since 1994. On the contrary, the Russians wanted Lukashenko to remain in power. There will be time to pay for this support with the transfer of elements of Belarusian sovereignty, perhaps this year. But Moscow could not afford to let the people decide who the president of Belarus would be. In this context, the fact that the Belarusian protests, unlike both Ukrainian revolutions or Mikheil Saakashvili’s success in Georgia, did not have a geopolitical component, is but a nuance, albeit an important one.

Lukashenko is aware of this. Both he and his longtime minister of diplomacy, Vladimir Makei, successfully entered the Russian narrative about one nation, a common threat from the West and the hypocrisy that we are to display when convincing the Eastern Slavs to democracy. Belarus remains Russia’s only formal ally in Europe, with its army strongly integrated into the Russian command structures. The only thing that has ended is the smoke-and-mirror show calculated to extract financial support from the West and to keep Moscow in check in negotiations on subsequent loans or energy commodity prices for the next year. Lukashenko likes to say what his interlocutors want to hear, but his whole biography tells us that he is much more honest when he declares brotherhood with Russia than when he complains to the West about threats coming from Russia.

In this sense, Lukashenko never played both sides. Minsk is not Ankara or even Kyiv from the times of Leonid Kuchma. The Russian lead guitar has always set the solo tone in this music, with the European bass remaining in the backdrop. Sometimes the bass guitar cannot be heard when one is wearing poor headphones, and yet the songs are recognizable. Without a European background – unlikely to become prominent in the next few years – Lukashenko will remain true to himself. However, daydreaming about the diversification of raw material supplies or stories about a Russian threat will be more subdued

Minsk easily abandoned the theses, promoted at the end of July 2020, regarding Russian support for the anti-system opposition or plans to acquire 30 percent of energy resources from the West. Their purpose was twofold. On the one hand, it was to convince the West that Lukashenko wants sincere cooperation; on the other, he was proving to Russia during the annual negotiations on supply prices that he had an alternative.

Minsk was ready to invest a lot to create this type of illusion. Hardly anyone now remembers about the American oil tanker for Belarus or Mike Pompeo’s visit to Minsk, even though only a year has passed since then. The reveal always took place when Lukashenko got something from Russia or was afraid of something. As soon as Minsk and Moscow reached a compromise on the supply of raw materials, the topic of diversification vanished from the agenda. When Lukashenko felt threatened by the outbreak of protests, he stopped mentioning Russian sources of funding for Viktar Babaryka’s campaign and returned to his favorite complaints about the scheming West. As Makei argued in a recent interview with „Kommersant”, without Western inspiration, no one would take to the street, because people who can afford holidays in the Maldives do not go out to protests.

The game of appearances is over

The Ryanair incident has far-reaching consequences, however. From the provider of regional stability, which he appeared to be in 2014–2015 when he offered good services to Russia and Ukraine during the war in the Donetsk Basin, Lukashenko became a threat to this stability.

The final reaction of the West is yet unknown, but if we were to believe the opinions of those involved in the work on the sanctions, the EU restrictions, which will probably be announced soon, are expected to strike a severe hit in the foundations of the Belarusian economy. For the West, Lukashenko beating up the opposition is a moral issue, and moral issues often lose to business. Lukashenko threatening the security of intra-EU passenger flights is a security problem, however, and those are much closer to the base in the hierarchy of needs.

Further restriction of contacts with the West – and in recent months, only Minsk’s silent deal with the Holy See on the appointment of the nuncio breaks away from the logic of freezing relations – has put Lukashenko even deeper in a one-on-one stand-off with Putin. The same will happen if the EU sanctions hit the regime financially. Belavia may redirect some of its flights to Russian cities, more fuel and potassium fertilizers may go to Russia and developing countries, but all this will affect the structure of foreign trade, with an increase in the share of the Russian Federation, already the highest of all European countries. Lukashenko will therefore become even weaker, and this time, apart from the subsequent waves of protests that threaten him, he will also lose the chance for point-based support from the West in matters of maintaining sovereignty. All this at his request, since no one told him – to use the first example in line – to torture Pratasevich in prime time.

And then the Kremlin will return to the plan of the then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who as early as 2019,  prompted the adoption of the common currency (implicitly the Russian ruble), the unification of tax and economic regulations and the creation of supranational authorities in which, due to different potentials, the Russians will have the final say.

Formal annexation is unlikely to be an option, but reducing Belarus to the role of Abkhazia 2.0, where local authorities can decide on trifles, but foreign, defense and security policies remain the domain of the curator, could be a summary of Putin’s rule and a prelude to the operation „succession”, which Russian commentators are increasingly hinting at, regardless of the constitutional extension of the current president’s ability to hold his current office.

Certainly, such a scenario is not what Lukashenko wishes for. Not because he was some great patriot of his country. Simply put, the more sovereignty Belarus has, the more personal power its everlasting leader has. It is always better to be the president of a smaller state than a local governor on the periphery of a superpower, retaining only the title of president but not his international powers. But if the risk of losing power – whether from the opposition or a potential Russian-inspired coup – turns out to be real again, the equation will change. After all, it is better to be governor than another Viktor Yanukovych, a former president chased by the world for his past crimes and thus condemned to a life of a wealthy political pensioner on the outskirts of Moscow.

Polish version is available here.

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Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.