In launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s original plan was to seize Kyiv, decapitate the Ukrainian leadership and install a puppet government. That plan would have been impossible without the help of Belarus, from which country Russia launched its Kyiv offensive. Although Vladimir Putin withdrew his troops from that front at the end of March 2022, Russia is still using Belarus as a base for missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and transportation and Alyaksandr Lukashenko and Putin have since pledged further military cooperation.
But relations between the autocrats in Minsk and Moscow have not always been this friendly.
In 2009, Lukashenko refused to recognise the breakaway quasi-states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia endorsed as independent territories following Putin’s invasion of Georgia. In that same year, Belarus also joined the Eastern Partnership, an EU-sponsored project whose aim is to help its members integrate into the European Union. In June 2009, during the so-called Milk War, Russia blocked imports of Belarussian dairy products. Writing for Politico, Vitali Silitski speculated that Moscow wanted to oust President Lukashenko “and will do whatever it can to prevent Belarus turning westward.”
The two nations have been officially linked since 1999 as The Union State of Russia and Belarus: a supranational union with the explicit purpose of furthering the integration of the two countries’ economic and defence policies. Both leaders have expressed a wish to see Minsk and Moscow more closely allied. However, while Putin genuinely cares about this goal, Lukashenko’s main aim is to stay in power at all costs—a goal that would be jeopardised if the country were too closely integrated with Russia. As Philip Short has argued in his acclaimed biography of Putin, Russia needs Belarus “as a buffer on its western flank” and therefore has to humour Lukashenko.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 soured relations between the two leaders. Lukashenko viewed it as a “bad precedent,” an implied threat to Belarussian sovereignty. Although Lukashenko is an admirer of the Soviet legacy and almost always speaks Russian in public, after Putin’s land grab in Crimea, he began promoting the Belarusian language and identity and in July 2014, he gave a public speech in Belarussian. Belarusian activists, led by politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, have also championed Belarusian culture and history. In a 2020 interview for the Economist, she relates having once considered Belarus simply “a geographic territory inside the former Soviet Union.” But she soon realised the importance of Belarussian national identity and now prominently displays the red and white flag—which symbolizes an independent, pro-western Belarus—instead of the official state flag, which dates back to the Soviet era.
In 2017, Polish government think tank the Centre for Eastern Studies noted a trend of “soft Belarusianisation” following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine:
To an increasing degree, the state ideology is focusing on strengthening national identity, emphasising the divergence of Belarus’s interests from those of Russia, and re-examining the historical narration in a direction which emphasises the distinctiveness of the history of Belarus from that of Russia.
Tensions between Moscow and Minsk were also evident in the run-up to the (rigged) 2020 Belarussian presidential elections when Lukashenko arrested 33 Russians, whom he claimed were operatives of the notorious Wagner Group, a paramilitary association closely connected with the Kremlin. The Belarussian government claimed that 200 Russian mercenaries had entered the country to “destabilize the situation during the election campaign.”
Before the election, Lukashenko had all the major opposition figures rounded up and arrested. Amid this crackdown, his most popular rival, Viktor Babariko, was imprisoned. What is less well known is that Babariko was the head of the Belarus subsidiary of Gazprom, a Russian energy giant under Kremlin control. A few months before the elections, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Lukashenko in a bid to weaken ties between Belarus and Russia. “Your nation should not be forced to be dependent on any one partner for your prosperity or for your security,” Pompeo told Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei.
After the election committee proclaimed that Lukashenko had received 80 percent of the vote, it became clear to everyone that the elections had been blatantly fraudulent. There were major protests in Belarus itself. The US and EU refused to recognise Lukashenko, initiated sanctions against Belarus and endorsed opposition contender Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (though their support was mostly restricted to words). As a result, Lukashenko turned to Moscow for help in shoring up his power. And, although some of Putin’s allies criticized Lukashenko’s actions leading up to the election and Putin himself let Lukashenko sweat for a week, he eventually congratulated him on his “electoral victory” and provided him with a $1.5 billion loan. As analyst Katsiaryna Shmatsina has written, “the abrupt deterioration of relations with the West only brought Belarus closer to Russia’s embrace and made its economy highly dependent on Russia.”
Unsurprisingly, on 28 June 2021, Lukashenko suspended Belarus’s membership in the Eastern Partnership and publicly declared that Crimea is part of Russia. Lukashenko is not an independent player anymore. In 2022, in response to questions as to when he plans to leave office, Lukashenko told journalists that he would have to consult his “older brother”—i.e., Putin.
This need not have happened. If the west had continued to support Lukashenko’s bid for a more independent Belarus, the country might have become a sovereign state—and without full independence from Russia, Belarus will never achieve democracy. In international relations, sometimes one must sup with the devil. Lukashenko would not be the first autocratic ally of the democratic west. For example, neither the US nor NATO has come out in support of democratic Armenia in its struggle against Azerbaijani aggression—because of Armenia’s political closeness to Russia. In condemning Lukashenko, the western nations have achieved nothing: they neither provided the democratic opposition with the material support they would have needed to topple the regime, nor did they endorse Lukashenko’s policy of soft Belarusianisation. As a result, Belarus remains both an autocracy and “more state than nation.”
The west should have treated Lukashenko in the same way as they did Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic. Djukanovic was initially a Serb nationalist who supported Slobodan Milosevic’s invasions of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991–1995. But in 1997, Djukanovic distanced himself from Milosevic in the realisation that continuing to support him could ultimately undermine his power. Djukanovic’s campaign for a separate Montenegrin national identity culminated in the proclamation of Montenegro’s independence, following a 2006 referendum. In 2017, under the leadership of the now pro-western Djukanovic, Montenegro joined NATO. The west’s discreet support for an autocratic former communist ultimately led Djukanovic to a pro-western stance and allowed Montenegro to break away from the stranglehold of Milosevic and helped bring about the downfall of that autocrat and his ambitions for a Greater Serbia. This policy should have been replicated in the case of Belarus.
It is the Ukrainians who will ultimately pay the price for the west’s abandonment of Lukashenko. If Belarus had taken the same stance as Kazakhstan—which refused to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine—the Ukrainian military would be in a much stronger position. In order to defeat Putin, the west should have co-opted Lukashenko—as unsavoury a figure as he is.
A project to coopt Lukashenko at the very moment of the Obama reset with Putin?
At any rate, it doesn’t take much consideration to understand that such a scheme would have been nothing more than the most expedient possible path to ending Lukashenko’s tenure.