MS Risk Blog

Belarus: Caught between the East and West

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The recent escalation of tensions between Russia and Belarus has created concern that Moscow is gearing up to annex Belarus like it did with Crimea. Russia and Belarus began 2020 without renewing their oil and gas contracts, resulting in Russia stopping its deliveries to the latter. This came after new oil taxes were expected to cost Belarus between $8-12 billion by 2024. While Belarus’s view is that Russia is exerting undue economic pressure on it, Kremlin-controlled media has accused Belarus of exploiting Russian resources. The country asked Russia last year to compensate its losses due to its ‘tax maneuver’. Russia responded by demanding a revitalisation of a 1999 Union State Treaty between the two. Belarus and Russia created this integration format in which they would retain sovereignty, territorial integrity, and constitutions. It provided for the unification or coordination of most economic and social policies, and at some time a united parliament and a constitutional act. Most importantly, they would share one head of state.

The Union State treaty has been at the centre of the dispute. Belarusian President Lukashenko has previously accused Russia of using this oil cut-off to attempt to force Belarus into joining it. “I understand what all those hints mean: You get the oil but you break up your country and join Russia,” he said at a December news conference. In January, he said that he did not wish to be the last president of Belarus. The Belarusian government has responded to the oil cut off by announcing it would reduce its energy dependence. Russian oil could be replaced with Norwegian, Polish, Ukrainian, and even American. Despite these efforts to retain Belarus’ sovereignty several protests against an integration with Russia were held in Belarus throughout January. Talks between the two has been conducted in secret, generating fear that Belarus will give up its sovereignty.

However, Lukashenko has warned that that unless the energy dispute is resolved Moscow could lose its only ally on the western border. If Russia continues pressuring the country, it may follow in Ukraine’s footsteps and start viewing it as a hostile nation. This would be a problem for Russia as it wants to retain Belarus as an ally. According to Yalowitz, former US ambassador to Belarus, Moscow has never forgotten that both Napoleon and the Nazis were able to come through Belarus when invading Russia. The country has long provided discounted oil to Belarus in return for it being a loyal buffer between Russia and Europe. The confrontation between Russia and the West after the 2014 Ukraine conflict started has only aggravated disagreements between Russia and Belarus. The worst-case scenario is one where a military conflict between NATO and Russia is initiated. Situated between the two, Belarusian territory could then become a battleground. In order to prevent this from happening it has taken a neutral stance in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and have encouraged peace talks. However, Moscow has started using economic levers, including the oil issue, to push Belarus to stand by it. If Russia succeeds in ‘taming’ its ally, this could be a potential problem for Western countries.

With Moscow’s history of invading neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula, it is no wonder that there is speculation that Belarus might be next. Clark and Bugayova, analysts with the Washington D.C Institute for the Study of War, wrote in a May 14, 2019 briefing that the Kremlin “has a strategic interest in consolidating control over Belarus and ensuring the long-term alignment of its government and its people with Russia.” They wrote that Putin likely fears further integration between the West and Belarus, and wants to expand its military basing in the latter country. In addition, Putin could view leadership of the Union State as a possible way of remaining in power after the end of his last presidential term in 2024. However, other experts disagree. While Russia has in recent years performed several land grabs, annexation between Russia and Belarus is less likely. They say that Belarus does not have the same geostrategic appeal for Russia. From a military perspective, annexation would mean that the border between Russia and NATO would be lengthened which could increase Russia’s vulnerability. The move would also most likely provoke a tough response from the West.

In any way, Moscow will most likely continue to try asserting influence over Minsk. Even if full integration remains unlikely, at least for the immediate future, Russia will keep using political and economic means to strengthen its influence over Belarus. Meanwhile it will be difficult for Belarus to turn to the West as long as it remains an authoritarian state. Despite these tensions, Belarus could be the key to solving issues between Russia and the West. It could provide a place for regional security talks for the actors, including Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the United States. It is uniquely placed to encourage the establishment of regional security cooperation as it is situated between NATO and Russia. Indeed, it has held peace talks to settle the situation in Donbas, which was considered key in the search for ways to restore peace in eastern Ukraine. In this way, Belarus could play an important role in reducing tensions and improving Eastern European security.