While it remains unlikely that Belarus will become a part of Russia anytime soon, Moscow will continue with its efforts to assert influence over Minsk.
The year-long saga of talks between Belarus and Russia over closer integration under the so-called Union State Treaty of 1999 was put on hold in December after Moscow failed to convince Minsk to accept a new and deeper format of bilateral cooperation: that is, a union state of the two countries with a unified political and economic system.
Over the past few weeks, the bilateral relationship has again come under strain as Russia – most likely for political reasons – cut off oil supplies to Belarus. In response, the Belarusian government, which could secure Russian oil only for January, announced that it would reduce its energy dependence on its eastern neighbour and replace Russian oil with crude from Norway, Poland, Ukraine, the Middle East and even the United States, demonstrating its will to keep a safe distance from Russia.
Halting oil supplies has been seen as the latest Russian attempt to put pressure on the Belarusian government to maintain the Kremlin’s influence over the country, while the Belarusian response indicates that the issue is just as much political as it concerns the country’s energy security.
The president of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, is set to reconvene with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in mid-February, shortly before he meets US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
“It’s an honour to be the first president of Belarus, but I don’t want to be the last,” Mr Lukashenko has said, accusing the Kremlin of pressuring Belarus into a merger and leveraging the country’s dependence on Russian fuel.
Meanwhile, Mr Putin has announced a number of constitutional changes to the future structure of the Russian political system, that will most likely result in a new Russian head of state from 2024, overseen by Mr Putin as the potential head of the State Council of Russia, a so-far insignificant institution he now plans to strengthen.
“A lot of experts have been speculating whether this plan of power transfer makes the unification scenario between Belarus and Russia within the Union State less likely for the Kremlin,” Arseny Sivitsky, the director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies tells Emerging Europe. He believes that the short answer is “both yes and no.”
“With the help of deeper integration within the Union State, the Kremlin is trying to solve the strategic task of keeping Belarus in the Russian geopolitical orbit,” he continues, noting that the first attempts to do so date back to 2015 when Russia pushed for deeper military ties with Belarus, deploying Russian military bases in Belarus and establishing a joint military organisation under the Union State, amongst much else.
Mr Lukashenko rejected these demands.
Mr Sivitsky believes that the Russian ultimatum to Belarus, which has a “clear geopolitical motivation” aimed at undermining Belarus’ independence, is motivated by the “strategic phobia” reflected in the assessments of the Russian intelligence community and political leadership. These assessments predict that Russia might lose its influence over Belarus in the next 5-10 years as a result of Belarusian efforts to normalise relations with western countries and China.
“In addition, Belarus might face a power transfer process in the upcoming years, a new generation of leadership might come with less pro-Russian sentiments than previous ones, especially given the background of growing pressure from Russia,” he adds.
“Although since 2014 political and economic tensions have indeed been growing between Moscow and Minsk, it is highly unlikely that Moscow would really pursue the full integration of Russia and Belarus,” says András Rácz, senior research fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), pointing to seven political, economic and social aspects of Belarusian-Russian relations.
“First, such a move would indeed meet desperate resistance from the Belarusian elites, as it would mean that they would lose most of their powers and influence. Second, probably the Belarusian people would not be fond of getting annexed by the Russian Federation, though mass resistance is also unlikely,” he tells Emerging Europe, referring to a number of unprecedented demonstrations in Minsk that called for protecting Belarus’ sovereignty.
According to Mr Rácz, who argues that the Union State project “was never about the full integration of Russia and Belarus, but only about a very close intergovernmental cooperation” between the two sides, the Russian population would also not welcome “regaining Belarus” the way it welcomed the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, a region that occupies a special place in Russian history and therefore it is unlikely to result in a surge in the Russian president’s popularity.
Discussing his fourth argument, Mr Rácz says that from the military perspective, “the annexation of Belarus would mean that the direct border of Russia and NATO would be lengthened by some 1,200 kilometers. As most Russian decision-makers perceive NATO as a key security concern, it is hard to comprehend how the Kremlin would benefit from increasing its own perceived vulnerability vis-à-vis the Alliance.”
“Fifth, the stable, but austerity-driven Russian budget hardly needs the burden of feeding 9.5 million Belarusians, and of taking over the mounting problems of the country’s still largely unreformed ex-Soviet economy,” he says, before adding a sixth reason: “another annexation would surely come with significant and painful international repercussions, including new sanctions and other punitive measures” from the EU and the US.
“Last, but definitely not least, though many speculate that after the end of his current presidential term in 2024 Mr Putin might plan to stay in power by ruling the so-called Union State, in fact it is a much easier solution to modify the Russian constitution than coping with all the hardships connected to the potential annexation of Belarus,” Mr Rácz believes, referring to the recently proposed Russian constitutional changes.
Contrary to what most western observers think the point of the whole process is, Mr Sivitsky argues that the potential unification has never served as the primary purpose of keeping the Russian president in power after his last, constitutionally allowed presidential term expires in 2024. “It might be one of the concomitant effects, but not the major one,” he says.
Russian pressure is here to stay
While Mr Sivitsky feels that the Russian president did not mention the Union State as part of the constitutional power changes he proposed, it does not mean that integration with Belarus has lost its relevance.
“Judging by the latest developments in relations between Minsk and Moscow, the Kremlin is not going to recall its integration ultimatum. On the contrary, it will continue to put pressure upon Minsk demanding strategic concessions that undermine Belarus’ national sovereignty and independence,” he highlights, adding that Belarus will remain a priority in the Kremlin’s midterm agenda.
However, he says it cannot be fully excluded that the Union State would be later added as an option for power transfer in the Russian leadership since “neither Belarus is going to make strategic concessions, nor is the Kremlin going to ease its pressure on Minsk”, which is why bilateral tensions will increase and may result in a “serious crisis.”
Mr Rácz agrees that Russia will most probably keep narrowing Minsk’s freedom of manoeuvre by political and economic means to strengthen its influence, despite that full integration remains unlikely.
By suggesting to move on with the Union State project which he sees rather as the toolbox and not the objective itself, the likely Russian intention “is not to create a full-fledged union, but to get further political and economic concessions from Minsk in exchange for not forcing the integration any further. Hence, the most likely outcome of the present situation is that Moscow will keep pressuring Minsk, but without formally questioning the sovereignty of Belarus.”