The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Belarus’s Lukashenko, Russia has been a lifeline for decades. Here’s why.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Sept. 14. (Russian Presidential Press Service/AP)

MOSCOW — For more than a generation, Belarusian authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has looked to Moscow for money, political support and critical backing for whatever means were necessary to stay in power. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarus offers a reliable — if sometimes troublesome — partner in Europe as many other former Soviet republics have made political alliances with the West.

A planned meeting Friday between Putin and Lukashenko in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi underscored their bonds and Moscow’s role as patron and protector for Lukashenko’s regime.

Why does Putin support Belarus?

Belarus is viewed by the Kremlin as a strategically important buffer bordering the European Union and NATO. Moscow proved time and time again that it would go far to keep Belarus in its sphere of influence.

Russia uses Belarusian territory to monitor military activity in Western Europe. Both countries have conducted an increasing number of joint military drills and for years discussed setting up a full-fledged Russian military base in Belarus.

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The Russian president, a well-known opponent of “color revolutions” such as Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution, was instrumental in backing embattled Lukashenko last year when the Belarusian strongman, who has been in power since 1994, cracked down on protests after elections he won. Opposition groups and others claimed that the voting was rigged.

Putin promised a $1.5 billion loan and created a group of law enforcement officers reserved to deploy to “ensure security in Belarus.”

What does Russia give Belarus?

The two countries have multiple cooperation agreements. Before the coronavirus pandemic, there was virtually no border between them.

Belarus’s comparatively small economy — which still relies on the Soviet-era model of government ownership — is propped up by Russia. Nearly a half of all goods Belarus produces — mainly cheese, trucks and tractors — go to Russia, compared to about 24 percent to the European Union.

The cornerstone of Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow is subsidized crude oil. Russia supplies it to Belarus at below-market prices. Belarus, in turn, refines it and sells it internationally. This profit accounts for a hefty part of Belarus’s gross domestic product.

Over the years, Putin has pressed Lukashenko to form a fully unified state, a proposal unpopular with many Belarusians. Lukashenko has resisted, fearing a loss of Belarusian independence and his own authority.

Has Lukashenko tested his relationship with Putin?

The relationship between Putin and Lukashenko has had its ups and downs over the past two decades. In the 2000s, Lukashenko tried to shed his image of “Europe’s last dictator” by flirting with the West and distancing himself slightly from Russia. This did not go down well in the Kremlin.

Both countries also have argued continually about gas and oil deals. When the two were unable to agree on a new price in late 2019, Moscow cut the oil supply. A few months later, Belarus ordered its first shipment of U.S. oil in an attempt to show Russia that it could survive without its support and would be willing to turn to the West, if necessary.

Where does the Kremlin stand now?

Russian officials firmly backed Belarus after Sunday’s apparent hoax-bomb claim that diverted a Ryanair flight to Minsk with prominent opposition journalist Roman Protasevich aboard.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended Belarus’s explanation of a bomb threat — later proven to be false — as “reasonable.” Margarita Simonyan, head of Russia’s state-funded RT television channel, praised Lukashenko for “beautifully executing” the operation and said she “envies” Belarus.

On Tuesday, the Kremlin announced that Putin will meet Lukashenko this week at the Black Sea resort Sochi. It will be their third meeting this year. Lukashenko is expected to brief Putin on the Ryanair incident. Russia, however, said the meeting was in the works before the Sunday events.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Monday that it was “very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” but added that he had no specific details about Russia’s involvement. The Kremlin dismissed the comments as “obsessive Russophobia” and maintained that Russia had nothing to do with Belarus’s actions.