After enjoying decades of uninterrupted close partnership with Belarus and its autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko, the future of Russia’s relationship with its post-Soviet neighbor is at a crossroads. In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin made efforts to revitalize the essentially obsolete 1999 Union Treaty between Russia and Belarus. This would entail a near total alignment of public policy within the two countries and could ultimately lead to unification through extensive political integration.
Moscow’s bold overtures toward Belarus are the latest in a series of moves aimed at drawing the small nation into an even tighter orbit with Russia as a deterrent against NATO encroachment. Despite Belarus and Russia’s similar political environments, deeply intertwined histories and cultures, and Belarus’ heavy reliance on Russian oil and gas, annexing Belarus will be no small task for Putin.
Though Lukashenko has promoted a more Soviet than Belarusian national identity in his country, he nonetheless appears intent on maintaining Belarusian sovereignty. Over the years, he has balked both at granting Russian oligarchs influence over his country’s economy and at allowing Russian military bases to be established on Belarusian land. He has also largely kept Belarus out of Russian military campaigns and sometimes courted closer relations with the European Union.
Moreover, Russia’s aggressive posturing in recent months has pushed many Belarusians — especially young citizens — to take to the streets in protest against the threat to their independence. Additionally, recent polls signal that the majority of Belarus’ population is opposed to Russian integration.
Unfortunately for Belarus, it bears little leverage with its powerful neighbor. Russia’s temporary ban on oil deliveries to Belarus that began in early January and threats to completely cut Belarus off of Russian oil and gas — in response to Lukashenko’s refusal in December 2019 to acquiesce to increased political integration — have forced the Eastern European state into a desperate position.
Unless the U.S. or EU comes to Belarus’ rescue, Lukashenko may be left with no choice but to accept greater Russian influence in his country, if not outright unification. The repercussions of this would reverberate well beyond Eastern Europe. The global fears of Russian expansion that abounded in the wake of Crimea’s annexation would be revived and an even deeper wedge would be driven between Russia’s already tense relationship with the West.
Read more on the Russia-Belarus relationship and its future here.