“I am all yours”. What the new union of Lukashenka and Putin means and how it might affect Ukraine
In early November 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin called his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka from temporarily occupied Sevastopol. The leaders of the two countries signed a “road map” that in reality will become a “springboard” for the absorption of Belarus by Russia.
During a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the so-called “union state”, Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree launching the implementation of the programme for deeper Russian-Belarusian integration within the Union State in 2021–23 (the head of the Russian Federation signed this document earlier).
The agreement proposes 28 programmes that will become a springboard for the absorption of Belarus by the Russian Federation. At first, it was noted that Putin was supposed to arrive in the Belarusian capital for a “historic event”. However, he travelled to annexed Crimea, and events were held in Sevastopol for the so-called National Unity Day of the Russian Federation.
Vitalii Tsygankov, a journalist with Belsat TV, explained that Putin’s decision was preceded by a “mutual exchange of ‘jabs’.” The main one was when Komsomolskaya Pravda was closed in Minsk and a correspondent was arrested.
Tsygankov noted that in response to this, Moscow published data in the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (pro-government sociological centre) demonstrating the fact that Lukashenka is not popular, in contrast with what the propaganda says. The ratings showed that Belarusians have a more positive attitude towards oppositionists like Maria Kalesnikava, Viktar Babaryka and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Also, 65 per cent of Belarusian citizens supported a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition.
Tsygankov added: “The research shows that Lukashenka has a rating of about 25 per cent, while Tsikhanouskaya has a much higher one. The fact that Tsikhanouskaya was interviewed on Ekho Moskvy sparked a conspiracy theory [that Moscow did not fully support Lukashenka]. Perhaps it happened by accident, but it just so happened that the atmosphere was quite scandalous. Therefore, Putin clearly decided not to go to Minsk, but to conduct business from a distance – in order to leave Lukashenka out a little. Doing all this from Sevastopol was the last step of his strategy of exclusion.”
From Yeltsin to Putin
The agreement on the “union state” was signed by Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Boris Yeltsin on December 8th 1999. It provides a basis for the creation of a “union state” parliament, a supreme state council and a council of ministers. In addition, we need the harmonisation of legislation and the creation of a unified judicial system.
There were many obstacles on the way to such integration. In particular, increasing gas prices in Russia and disputes over the import of Belarusian dairy products to the neighbouring state challenged the process. Integration was postponed until 2010. After that, there were disputes over the gas supplies from the Russian Federation once again. After all, it was possible to resume the negotiation process in 2019.
On December 13th 2018, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev proposed two ways of integration at a meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State of Belarus and Russia:
“Conservative” – which assumed leaving everything as it is, without increasing the level of integration to the limits that were set in the agreement of December 8th 1999.
“Progressive” – which would create a single tax, tariff and pricing policy, a single emissions centre, a single customs office, etc.
The Belarusian media called Dmitry Medvedev’s proposals an actual “ultimatum”. In response, Lukashenka expressed the opinion that the Kremlin wants to incorporate Belarus into Russia under the pretext of “deep integration”. Back in 2018, Belarusian analyst Alyaksandr Klaskowski wrote that “there are extraordinary interpretations [for this action] … by creating a single state Putin wants to secure his rule after 2024. If there is such a scenario, however, it is unlikely that it is the main one”.
At the same time, irritation accumulated in the Kremlin due to the way the Belarusian ally was acting and reacting. “Therefore, they want to kill two birds with one stone with Medvedev’s ultimatum”, the analyst added. He noted that there are simpler reasons on the surface. In particular, with fewer resources, Moscow has become embroiled in a confrontation with the West.
Back in February 2020, Lukashenka sharply criticised Moscow for the conditions of integration. However, his position changed after the August protests of the same year. Already in April 2021, Belarusian Ambassador to Russia, Vladimir Semashko, stated that the signing of the integration guidelines could take place in September-October. However, the number of the programmes decreased somewhat from 31 to 28.
The decree launching the implementation of the programme for deeper Russian-Belarusian integration within the Union State was signed on November 4th. The 28 Union-related programmes are reported only in general, the details of their implementation are still unknown.
What is known, however, is related to the integration of monetary systems, general principles of collecting indirect taxes, common approaches to pension and social security issues, the fight against terrorism, as well as mutual access to public procurement and government orders. Macroeconomic policy will also become common. The two countries plan to integrate monetary systems and harmonise monetary policy, form joint oil and gas markets, etc.
The two heads of state also adopted the concept of migration policy and approved the military doctrine. During the meeting, Lukashenka noted that Belarus and Russia plan to strengthen the regional classification of troops.
Igar Tyshkevich, an analyst at the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, noted that at this stage it is possible to analyse certain interests of the Russian Federation, since Moscow will still try to draw Belarus into a format where there will be Russian bases on the Belarusian territory, which Minsk does not yet want. According to Tyshkevich, the Kremlin also wants to maximise the co-operation between the military-industrial complex of Belarus and Russia. Thus, in fact, to return to the situation of 2013, when the Belarusian defence industry was actually a contractor for the Russian one. But this situation changed around 2019.
The changes foreseen in the greater integration, Tyshkevich explains, calls for close co-operation between the military-industrial complexes of both countries, including the maximum involvement of Belarusian specialists in the Russian defence industry.
According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute in 2014, between 2009 and 2013 Belarus accounted for one per cent of global revenue from the military industry. Belarus was 16th in the ranking of arms exporting countries. Due to the close military co-operation with Russia, most of Belarusian military products are supplied there. Nevertheless, for many years Belarus has tried to preserve the remnants of independence from Moscow through the weapon sales, but last year the country dropped to 26th place in the ranking of the world’s largest arms sellers.
Moscow is waiting for concrete steps
Tsygankov, the Belsat journalist, noted that it is very difficult to say anything specific about the agreed-upon road map, but it is obvious that military, strategic, and geopolitical issues are the most important for Moscow.
“The ‘road map’ can be assessed as quite peaceful. They will not radically change anything, including in the economy and in the military sphere. Yet, this is another step towards greater dependence of Minsk on the Kremlin. There are more talks about some specific programmes in the military field, but not about all of them. In particular, there is no statement about the training and combat centre near the city of Hrodno, which official Minsk does not want to call a base. If it is not a base, what is it?” Tsygankov asked rhetorically.
He concludes that according to all the documents signed within the framework of the so-called “Union State”, in case of military action the Belarusian army can be considered a western group of common troops and is one organism together with the Russian army.
“Therefore, in this case, the signing of some abstract documents changes nothing. But these small steps do, including those aimed at increasing Minsk’s military dependence on Moscow,” he admits.
On the other hand, according to Tsygankov, some experts actively discussed the movement of Russian troops not only near the Ukrainian border, but also near the Belarusian one. This shows a strategic trend that Russia does not fully trust Belarus. After all, it is still deploying its troops at the Belarusian border quite actively since 2014. By doing so, Russia duplicate the functions that the Belarusian army could perform as an ally. Yet, it is obvious that Moscow does not fully trust the Belarusian army and the Belarusian political leadership since it sets its own border line for defence or attack on the Belarusian border. This is something that did not exist before, according to Tsygankov.
“I am all yours”
During the ceremony for signing the “road map” that was held in the format of a video call, Lukashenka “complained” that his Russian counterpart “promised everything, promised that he would take [the Belarussian president] with him to Crimea,” but did not invite him there that day. Tsygankov highlighted that now many experts are discussing whether this statement by Lukashenka can be considered as a recognition of the occupied Crimea as a part of Russia or not.
“Lukashenka’s question ‘Why didn’t you invite me?’, when it was already obvious that he was not invited, is quite cunning of him in order to get out of the situation, and to say that ‘I am all yours.’ It is clear that he would not have said such a thing a week before the event, because Putin then would have invited him to Sevastopol and then what would Lukashenka have done?” Tsygankov adds.
On the other hand, it cannot be assumed that Minsk has remained in the same position since 2014. According to the Tsygankov, everything has changed, in particular after August 2020. Belarus has always voted against UN resolutions on Crimea and has been on Russia’s side. Lukashenka also spoke about economic co-operation with the occupied peninsula.
“With these small steps, he bought Russia off, with the rhetoric that he allegedly wanted to go there. He believes that by saying this to the public, he is fighting off Moscow’s apparently insistent requests to take the final formal legal step towards the full recognition of Crimea as Russian territory,” Tsygankov explains.
However, Tsygankov is sure that Lukashenka does not want to take this step. Even when such statements first appeared, the self-proclaimed president firmly stated that he would not do this. Therefore, “Lukashenka’s new flirtation about Crimea” would lead to nothing from a legal point of view: “In this sense, there was no unambiguous legal recognition of Crimea as a Russian territory. It’s some sort of an erosion. Lukashenka is resisting Moscow’s continuous demands to create an end point. He dodges and says funny things, he does everything in order not to take the final step, which even the military openly demands of him in their publications,” he adds.
Lukashenka has not taken such a step in relation to the temporarily occupied Crimea because of co-operation with Ukraine, including economic co-operation. In addition, he still hopes to play a game with the West. Therefore, he understands that putting an end to the “Crimean issue” is irrelevant for him for now.
Translated by Arzu Bunyad
This text originally appeared online at the website of the Ukrainian TV24 (24 канал) and is republished here with their permission.
Alina Turyshyn studied at the Faculty of Journalism of the Ivan Ohiienko National University in Kamianets-Podіlskyi. She covers politics and social issues.
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