Will Russia try to occupy Belarus?
Earlier this year, several public figures sounded that alarm, including former NATO general secretary Anders Rasmussen and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum. That concern clashes with the idea that Belarus is Russia’s closest ally.
So where did they get that idea? Over the past four months, the Kremlin has been proposing closer ties within the Union State of Russia and Belarus, an agreement that aims toward deeper integration between the two. That treaty was signed in 1997 — but has had few tangible results. Some Russian elites are rumoring that creating a fully functioning union might enable Vladimir Putin to stay in power after he reaches his term limit as president in 2024. He could simply assume the role of chairman of the Union State.
But is this realistic? A closer look at the evidence suggests that the chances of Putin governing Belarus are slim. While Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka may publicly say that the two countries may integrate more, long-term trends show that Belarus is gradually distancing itself from Russia, as I’ll explain below.
1. Over the years, Belarus has grown more independent.
Belarusian authorities depend on their alliance with Russia. The economy relies on Russian energy subsidies and discounted oil and gas prices that have saved Belarus more than $100 billion over the last two decades. Belarus also exports half of its goods to Russia.
However, over the years Lukashenka, Belarus’s authoritarian ruler, has built a loyal and effective bureaucracy that pursues its own foreign policy interests rather than toeing the Kremlin’s line. For instance, in 2008, Belarus did not support Russian aggression in Georgia; more recently, it has remained studiously neutral in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.
Even Belarus’s participation in Russia’s regional integration projects — such as the Union State of Belarus and Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization — has been more rhetorical than practical. These projects accomplish little; their member states seek to minimize commitments, taking advantage of these organizations mainly for public appearances and to stay in Russia’s good graces.
2. Throughout Putin’s term, Belarus and Russia have consistently had disputes.
As a result, Russia has become dissatisfied with Lukashenka, feeling that he is not loyal and that he’s reluctant to support Russia’s foreign policy. That’s showing up in economic disputes between Moscow and Minsk. As Russia changes its oil industry regulations, Belarus may be forced to buy Russian crude oil at the competitive global price. That would be a disaster for Belarus’s budget — costing around $10 billion over the next five years.
Further, in the past few years, Belarus and Russia have had trade wars over sugar, oil, milk, potash, airlines, the border, and many other issues. Usually sides argue about the price of energy commodities or access of Belarusian goods to the Russian market. Russia even cut off gas deliveries to Belarus twice in the 2000s, as the Belarusian authorities refused to pay higher prices. Lukashenka described that Russian decision as an act of terrorism, because “it left the country without natural gas in minus 20 degrees C.”
That said, the two countries have so far always managed to work out a solution. Public conflict is one way that Belarus and Russia negotiate; in two decades Belarus has never signaled it might leave the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
3. Belarus still matters for Russia, but the Kremlin has fewer resources to finance Lukashenka’s rule.
When Lukashenka assumed power in 1994, a constant stream of Russian energy subsidies allowed the Belarusian economy to grow rapidly. In certain years, energy subsidies accounted for almost 20 percent of Belarus’s GDP. That share has been dropping. It was only 8 percent in 2018.
That’s in part because Russia has been losing interest in Belarus. For instance, Belarus hosts two Russian military facilities that have lost their critical importance for Russia, as military technology has improved and Russia launched a new radar station, that duplicates functions of the radar based in Belarus, in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave in Europe. And Russia has less need of Belarus as a transit state: for example, Nord Stream, a gas pipeline launched in 2011, connects Russia directly to Germany, circumventing Belarus.
The Kremlin is also less willing to bankroll Belarus as Russia faces stagnation, with energy prices dropping worldwide. While enacting painful internal reforms, such as raising the retirement age, Russia has been reluctant to finance its ally, burnishing Lukashenka’s image as a successful president.
4. Discussion of Russia occupying Belarus is primarily a political trick.
So far, there is no evidence that Russia might attack Belarus. So why does it get discussed in the news media and among political elites?
Because this threat is convenient for many players, who use it as a pretext to pursue their goals. Belarusian officials use the menace of a Russian occupation as a negotiating tactic to delay acting on the human rights demands made by the European Union and United States. Westerners use this possibility to push Belarus to develop closer relationships with Western countries to avoid occupation. Belarusian civil groups use it to motivate the government to decrease Russia’s influence in the media sphere. Finally, Russian authorities use it to pressure Belarusian authorities during negotiations on such issues as oil deliveries.
If Russia does ever choose to attack Belarus, it won’t necessarily triumph. Most of the Belarusian population and elites support the country’s independence, and the costs of such attack would undoubtedly be high. And it’s hard to imagine that Putin could become Union State president with any real power; the past 25 years of Lukashenka’s presidency have shown that he is not the type of politician who agrees to share power.
And yet each year, Belarus acts more independently. Russian officials may feel that they need to reimpose control on Belarus now or lose yet another ally.
Ryhor Astapenia is founder and chairman of the Center for New Ideas, a Minsk-based nonpartisan NGO promoting democratic reforms in Belarus.