Russia and Belarus are back in the sparring ring, with 2017 bringing an escalating series of rows over energy and trade. This has happened before, but not against such an uncertain and troubling background. In any case, much more unprecedented (given the fact that the two countries are still part of a ‘Union State’) was Russia’s imposition of passport checks on the Belarusian-Russian border in early February.
Moreover, sometime in 2017 tens of thousands of Russian troops will descend on Belarus for the Zapad (‘West’) exercises held every four years. Normally, it is the Baltic States and Poland that complain at the blatant war-mongering – this time it is Minsk that worries that the troops might stay.
So what is different this time? Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka is a great survivor. For twenty years, from 1994 to 2014, he was the 'Last Dictator in Europe', leveraging his foreign policy value to prop up his domestic social contract in return for a lack of political freedom. There was a big difference between the 1990s and the 2000s – on the one hand, Lukashenka and Putin initially didn’t get on; on the other hand, there was more money around and higher global prices for oil and gas (Belarus is a major oil refining sate).
But the underlying formula didn’t really change until, ironically, Lukashenka was celebrating his twentieth year of power in 2014, when his long-term strategy was hit by two massive shocks. First were the repercussions of the crisis in Ukraine – Lukashenka (like many regional leaders) feared both the export of revolution and that he might be the next target of Russian subversion. Second were multiple economic shocks: Russian subsidies grew less generous, Russian export markets shrank, Belarus was caught up in the back-and-forth of sanctions, the Eurasian Economic Union floundered, and global energy prices collapsed. GDP in Belarus fell by 3.9 per cent in 2015 and by 2.6 per cent in 2016.
Lukashenka is now in uncharted territory. I have written elsewhere that he could try switching from a social contract to a security contract, but polling suggests that he is out of step with public opinion, which largely sides with Russia against Ukraine and still favours the social contract.
Lukashenka is often described as playing a ‘game of balance’ between Russia and the West. This is misleading, if the implication is that he is equidistant between the two. More exactly, Lukashenka is playing a ‘game of truancy’. Belarus is part of the Russian family – if not Putin’s preferred metaphor of the ‘Russian World’ – but is constantly threatening to run away from home. But Russia requires absolute loyalty to the family, so even the smallest steps towards the West are perceived in Moscow as betrayal.
Moreover, Belarus’s strategic value has just gone up. First, because NATO troops are moving into the Baltic States and Poland. Second, because of rumours of a ‘third gas war’ against Ukraine (the first two were in 2006 and 2009). Russia needs at least two alternatives to Ukraine if Kiev cuts the supply route again. The North Stream provides one; Belarus the other. Russia has controlled the pipe through Belarus since 2011, but it doesn’t want to be dependent on another transit state.
So Lukashenka’s game of seeking ‘balance’ or reassurance, or expanding his options by building ties with the West can lead to escalating confrontation just as easily as to a new long-term equilibrium, as Russia tries to forestall the process. Which is exactly what is happening now: only ultra-loyalty is good enough for the Kremlin; subservience is not a rational position for allies, as Armenia has also been discovering, particularly since the ‘four-day war' in April 2016.
The politics of travel are in constant flux around Belarus. Ukraine seems likely to finally get visa-free travel to Europe this summer, having opened up in the other direction a decade ago. EU Member States are in turmoil over Brexit, migration and the future of Schengen. Last October Belarus announced a year-long experiment with visa-free arrivals for citizens of eighty countries, for up to five days. Russia claimed that was a threat to its own border controls and on 7 February dramatically introduced limited passport checks on the Belarusian-Russian border.
Reports on the ground indicate that this is far from a full-fledged border regime. Not every car is stopped. But it is hugely symbolic. Russia and Belarus established a ‘Union State’ in 2000. It mainly exists on paper but its two major practical benefits until now have been the free movement of trade and people – Belarusians can still jump the queue alongside ordinary Russians at Russian airports. Just as importantly, the Union State has lain at the heart of ‘Slavic unity’ and ‘Soviet restoration’ rhetoric over the last twenty years.
Given Russia’s modus operandi as a propaganda state, it does not attack without warning. It needs to shift the narrative first. Lukashenka still has a positive image in Russia, but the Kremlin is starting to soften it up with a series of licensed attacks: the Centre for Strategic Assessments and Forecasts seems to have a particular animus against Lukashenka. They may not yet have reached the necessary crescendo, in mainstream media, to flip the story around; but Lukashenka has responded in kind, most notably with an extraordinary seven hour press conference on 3 February, where he declaimed “Why take us by the throat? Yes, we will survive without Russian oil. We will buy it elsewhere”, and claimed he told Putin “Listen, Volodya, don’t spoil my evening”.
Little Green Men 2.0?
Then there are worries over the Zapad exercises. Traditionally, these involve the Belarusian and Russian military defending themselves against unlikely ‘fascist’ invasion from the Baltic States or threatening to move in the opposite direction (continuing a Soviet tradition that began in 1973). Zapad-2013 took place in September of that year, when Russia was pressurising all the local states not to sign EU agreements at the Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership in November. This year, Zapad-2017 will take place in Belarus and Kaliningrad. Lukashenka has emphasised that “the Russian army units, which are going to come to Belarus, will leave just the way they will arrive. Russia is never going to occupy Belarus.” Nonetheless there are still fears that the exercises could be used as cover for some kind of special operation, or to prevent any effective response by Minsk to provocations staged elsewhere. The Russian Ministry of Defence has requested transit for more than 4,000 rail cars, indicating the exercises could involve twice as many men as in 2013, upwards from 40,000.
Belarus’s possible responses are limited. It is raising defence spending towards 2% of GDP: its armed forces are more functional than Ukraine’s were back in 2014, but they remain highly integrated with Russia’s. The 2016 military doctrine talked about the dual threat of ‘hybrid warfare’ and ‘colour revolutions’, but practical training against either threat has been limited. Belarus at least has a law against fighting in east Ukraine – on either side – in case veterans were to make trouble when they came back. On the other hand, having seen the ease with which Russia used its Black Sea Fleet to launch a coup d’état in Crimea in 2014, Lukashenka dug in against Russian proposals to open a base on Belarusian territory, at Babruisk. Nobody thought he would have been able to thwart Russia for this long, but he has.
Economic arguments between Russia and Belarus are also more intense than usual. Minsk is particularly disappointed that the Eurasian Union is not functioning as they want. Russia continues to impose its nonsensical ‘health-and-safety’ bans on imports from Belarus, and the third tranche of Belarus’s Stabilisation Loan ($300 million) from the Eurasian Development and Stabilisation Fund has been delayed. Free trade and loans are sorely needed: Belarus’s macroeconomic performance has taken a turn for the worse, and alternative talks with the IMF have not gone far.
Revenues from oil exports are down from a peak of $16.4 billion in 2012 to $6.1 billion in 2016. Deliveries of crude oil for refining at Belarus’s two big refineries at Mozyr and Navapolatsk in a good year would be close to 25 million tons; in the first quarter of 2017 Russia has only scheduled 4.5 million tons, with Russia claiming that Belarus owes $425 million in gas payments.
Belarus’ economy has been in recession for two years, and with such a high degree of state ownership and planning, there is no cyclical recovery in sight. Belarus has introduced limited money-saving measures and tinkered with business-friendly reforms, but their effect is limited so long as Lukashenka is reluctant to abandon the basic economic model of state industry and social support.
A sudden dénouement is still unlikely in 2017. Both sides still have something to gain from the relationship. But this is more than just an occasional spat. The old paradigm has broken down; Lukashenka hasn’t found a new one; and Russia is now determined to demand more. At the very least, Russia is trying to leverage the ‘truant’ back home.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.