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Is Belarus Putin’s Next Land Grab?

Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 sparked an international crisis.

Vladimir Putin with Alexander Lukashenko (Maxim Malinovsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Last summer, in a small town overlooking the Russian border, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made a stark and pointed pronouncement. “If we don’t survive these years—if we fail,” he said, “it means we will have to become part of some other state, or they will simply wipe their feet on us. God forbid they unleash another war, like in Ukraine.”

Lukashenko was referring to Russia.

In March 2014, Russia responded to the ousting of pro-Russia Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The seizing of Crimea provoked widespread condemnation from the international community along with a wave of ongoing sanctions against Russia. Since then, NATO has redoubled its military presence in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic states where, as in Crimea, a large ethnically Russia population could provide enough context for another land grab. The last few months, however, have raised the question of whether they may be focusing on the wrong places. In February, NATO’s general secretary, Anders Rasmussen, warned of a “repetition of the Ukrainian scenario” not in the Baltics, but in Belarus.

As Lukashenko is known for dramatic outbursts, his speech—which might have caused an international incident coming from any other leader—was baldly reported on the national news wire and quickly forgotten about. Ten months later, the president’s words do not sound quite as absurd as they did back in June. While Lukashenko has accused Putin’s government of trying to topple him many times in recent years, the prospect of Russian annexation, one way or another, no longer seems the stuff of conspiracy theories. In December 2018, at the meeting of the Belarus-Russia Union State Council of Ministers, Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev broached the topic, suggesting integrating the two countries via a joint judiciary and customs service, a common currency and, above all, a Union State constitution. The notion of deeper integration between Russia and Belarus has been bandied around since the mid-2000s. But Medvedev this time was not proffering a suggestion, but an implicit ultimatum: Russia is contemplating changes to its oil industry regulations, which would force Belarus to start buying Russian oil at non-subsidized rates—a blow that Minsk estimates will cost them around $10 billion by 2024. The message was clear: Either unite, or suffer an economic disaster.   

Lukashenko has angrily pushed back against the threat, and at a meeting with Putin in February, he made a point of stressing “the holy sanctity” of his nation’s independence. The question is how determined Russia is to see through its plans for a union, and how far it will go to achieve it. Belarus is no Ukraine, with whom Minsk stood in solidarity in 2014 over Crimea—a defiant signal against similar incursions into their own territory. Whereas Ukraine suffered for its attempts to escape Moscow’s grasp, Belarus will suffer from the fact that it has, throughout its post-Soviet history, clung too tightly to the Muscovite breast. Unlike other nations in the region, whose post-Soviet pathways have varied from western-style liberalism to steroidal capitalism, Belarus differs little from its former communist self and continues to view the old mothership as protector and patron. In a country routinely, even somewhat blithely, labelled a “Soviet theme park,” a state-run economy is still very much alive, but is largely reliant on the largesse of the Russian state, which remains one of its very few foreign investors and trade partners.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, integration is a logical step. With recession looming, why bother spending money propping up an ailing regime which could simply be absorbed? Belarus is also a keystone in Russia’s defensive strategy, buffering against NATO’s increasing presence in eastern Europe. Since the interference in Ukraine, Lukashenko has resisted Russian attempts to build military bases in his country, much to Putin’s chagrin. A union would do away with that problem.

The most salacious theory, and the one favored by Western critics, is that absorbing Belarus is all part of Putin’s retirement—or non-retirement—plan: While the Russian constitution bars Putin from serving two consecutive terms, a new union constitution could enable him to serve beyond 2024.

We remain a long way from anything of a similar kind to the use of force exhibited in 2014, or in 2008 when Russian troops shelled and occupied various towns in Georgia. Despite his swashbuckling public image, Putin is, for the most part, fairly risk averse, and any military interference in Belarus would be highly risky, requiring an enormous operation. Even if the west fails to respond in kind—it’s hard to predict with a mercurial U.S. president at the helm—a long and costly war might well ensue: Unlike in Crimea, while many Belarusians feel a fraternal affection for Russia, they do not want to become part of it. Independence is relatively new to Belarus, which, apart from a few months in 1918, has always existed as the territory of a bigger state. And however qualified that independence might presently be, it is one that ordinary citizens will not give up without a fight.

Belarusians are perhaps unusually sensitive to the possibility of invasion, having served throughout its modern history as the corridor for Polish, French and German armies. All over Belarus, old bits of military hardware can be found scattered among the fields. In a land which hosted some of the fiercest fighting of the Second World War, the surplus of tanks, planes and rockets from those years now serve as memorials to the dead—a reminder of the devastation Belarus suffered in the crossfire of two advancing armies, killing over a quarter of the populace, a proportion more than double that of any other nation in World War II.

But Lukashenko, a near-dictator in his own right, who has made himself absolute ruler through 25 years of constitutional revision and suppression of the opposition, may also be exploiting public opinion on this matter. Domestically, external enemies can have their use, particularly for a president facing a sinking economy and occasional outbursts of dissent. Internationally, Lukashenko has proved himself a master tightrope walker between east and west, courting Europe to extract concessions from Russia and vice versa. By stoking fears over the potential for a second Ukraine, he may hope to intensify the growing volume of trade with the European Union and elicit more investment from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. And while Belarus—the only state on the continent to still carry out the death penalty—becoming an EU member is highly unlikely anytime soon, Minsk is happy to hold talks with the west to give the impression that it might.  

That is not to say that Russian annexation is a figment of Lukashenko’s imagination. The union is something that Moscow has pushed for, albeit tentatively, since the late 1990s. In the past few months, with the threat of recession and rising oil prices, it has become no longer notional, but possible. Who would have thought in 2013 that a year later Crimea would be a Russian territory? The same might be said for Belarus, though the process would not happen overnight nor occur with the same brute force. Any potential union will, instead, be the product of a series of calculations—the first of which it is clear we are now witnessing.