One year after the protests began — what’s Russia’s plan for Belarus?
A year ago protests began against electoral fraud in Belarus. Dictator Lukashenko responded with a wave of harsh state violence, which led to the country being further isolated and sanctioned internationally. It now depends entirely on Russia — but it is questionable whether the Kremlin will seek real integration apart from symbolic political actions, analyzes Artyom Shraibman.
The Belarusian political crisis, despite being a domestic phenomenon at the beginning, had profound foreign policy consequences for Minsk. Following Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal repressions within the country and a number of confrontational international moves, culminating in forcing down the Ryannair flight to arrest an oppositional blogger, the West hit back with multilayered sanctions.
Expectedly, Lukashenko turned to Russia for support, and to some degree, he got it. Just weeks after protests erupted in Belarus, Vladimir Putin supported Lukashenko, agreeing to deploy Russian guard police troops in Belarus “if necessary” and to provide Minsk with a new 1,5‑billion-dollar loan. After the EU hit Minsk with sectoral sanctions in June 2021, Moscow vowed to additionally support Belarus.
Will there be an integration into the Russian Federation?
Observers who predicted the incorporation of Belarus into Russian Federation back in 2019, when the two sides discussed deeper integration, have now become even more certain about the inevitability of such a merger. Yet, despite objectively growing economic and political influence on Belarus, Moscow seems to be neither getting many real concessions from Lukashenko, nor providing him with a lot of additional support.
Pre-2020 pricing schemes on oil and gas remain unchanged despite the fact that Minsk considered both of them unfair. The gas price of about $130 per 1000 m3 is relatively low, but Lukashenko insisted he should pay as little as the neighboring Russian regions. Yet Russia keeps refusing to provide further discounts. On oil, the Russian “tax maneuver”, which begun in the mid-2010s, keeps annually cutting down the volume of Belarusian profits from duty-free supplies of Russian crude oil. Minsk has been demanding a compensation for several years, but Moscow refused and tied this issue to deeper economic integration. Thus, the political crisis in Belarus has not affected the most important and sensitive sector of Minsk-Moscow relations – energy.
Stage goal: A signing ceremony
In the security area also no serious concessions were granted. Lukashenko agreed to have a joint Belarus-Russian military training center in the West of Belarus, but he has not permitted any new permanent deployment of Russian troops in the country. There is also no evidence that Moscow is demanding any such concessions from Minsk at the moment.
Integration within the so-called “Union State” remains the central issue between the two governments. According to officials from both sides, they have nearly completed the package of 28 integration roadmaps. The documents are reportedly ready to be signed in Autumn when Lukashenko and Putin plan to hold another bilateral summit. There is no clarity on what compromises they are ready to agree on in the most delicate areas of taxation, customs and energy markets. Two years ago the process got stuck precisely because of these disagreements.
Either way, the signing ceremony now seems more possible than it was back in 2019, when Lukashenko torpedoed the talks by simply rejecting Russian demands. In 2021 he cannot afford to slam the door.
Is it worth the paper it’s written on?
However, knowing the bureaucratic tradition or Belarus-Russia integration, signing of the documents per se does not mean they will be implemented – immediately or at all. The Union State Treaty, for instance, was signed in 1999 and it still remains a largely symbolic paper.
With the currently discussed roadmaps, even formally, Moscow will not get any new powers over Belarus after the documents are signed. The most important roadmaps within the integration package (on single tax code and energy) are planned to come into force within 1–2 years after their approval. The completion of negotiations on these roadmaps is not the end of the bargaining, but merely a beginning of its new stage.
Priority: Nord Stream 2
The rhetoric of Kremlin representatives on this issue since the beginning of this year also suggests that Moscow is not in a hurry. Most likely, the Russian leadership realizes that Lukashenko has not yet resolved his domestic political crisis, while his international toxicity only grows. It means that forcing him to sign and immediately implement ambitious integration deals can result in international outcry and sanctions against Russia, as well as domestic destabilization in Belarus, since the majority of Belarusians, according to any available poll, reject the idea of deeper political union with Russia.
Artificially inflaming these problems is not something that the Kremlin needs now. Domestically, all eyes are set on eliminating political risks ahead of the Duma elections. Internationally, another escalation of conflict with the West over Belarus may ruin the prospects of the post-Geneva dialog with the US and, potentially, create problems for the launch of Nord Stream 2.
Besides, it is not clear what domestic political benefits can Putin get from imposing a Russian vision of integration (meaning – incorporation) on Minsk. The Belarusian issue is by far not the most important for the Russian public. Any poll taken in the recent years in Russia shows that, like the Belarusians, Russians are satisfied with the status-quo of integration. Only less than 20% of them would like to see two countries merging, and about the same number of respondents want integration to deepen.  
Putin has no alternative to Lukashenko
Finally, if Russia wanted to make Belarus its province, it must have a plan for a scenario in which Lukashenko refuses to concede. Moscow has plenty of economic, political and military levers, but it is reluctant to use them. Russia does not have the main ingredient for such a coercive operation – it lacks an alternative to Lukashenko. There is no evident force in Belarus on whom Moscow can bet, while secret talks with senior Belarusian officials are a very risky endeavor.
Besides that, no one does the job of alienating Belarus from the West better than Lukashenko. In this regard, putting extreme pressure on him is risky in the eyes of Putin. He cannot afford to destabilize Belarus with his own hands because of the fear that any revolt might elevate anti-Russian forces to the top, while Lukashenko is a more or less predictable partner. There are not even evident Russian efforts to build a parallel political infrastructure in Belarus.
Because of all these constraints, Russia does not currently have a proactive strategy vis-à-vis Belarus. Moscow neither puts too many efforts to accelerate integration, nor is it ready to provide lavish subsidies to Lukashenko. Russian policy in Belarus is reactive – until some new headache comes from Minsk, Moscow goes with the flow, giving Lukashenko just enough loans keep him from bancrupcy.
The only thing Moscow apparently does behind the curtains is nudging Lukashenko towards controlled political reform. Given how quickly Minsk isolates itself from the West, the Russian leadership believes they will be best placed to control the outcome of power transfer, when Lukashenko is finally ready to go. What if he decides to stay? There is no evidence Moscow has a plan for that.
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