Belarus is not the kind of country that makes headlines abroad. To the curious observer, it is mostly an odd, autocratic blip in the middle of newly democratic Eastern Europe. In 2005, a few months after a referendum allowed Alyaksandr Lukashenka to rerun for president indefinitely, then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labelled the country as “Europe’s last dictatorship” – a name that came to be equated with the country’s geopolitical essence.
When Belarus does make the headlines, chances are it’s in relation to Russia, its closest ally. One example is the Zapad joint military exercises that took place this September, mostly on Belarusian territory. Although the exercises are not a new concept, Zapad 2017 was the first such initiative since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and put neighboring countries north and south on high alert. Soon after the exercises were over, Ukraine accused Russia of leaving troops behind in Belarus to use the country as a platform for future offensives.
Belarus has been Russia’s most loyal ally for over twenty years. Lukashenka is a Russophile with a nostalgic outlook on the USSR, who reversed all cultural and political rapprochement with Western Europe as soon as he was elected in 1994. The state has maintained near-total control over the economy, which has not only allowed it to defuse social tensions through welfare provisions, but also prevented the rise of a Russia or Ukraine-style oligarchy that could compete for power.
Taken at face value, Lukashenka sounds very much like Putin before Putin was in office. The two share similar power models, very similar world views, and tight military ties. So how worried should NATO be about the potential launchpad Russia has on its doorstep?
If Belarus lends its territory to exercises like Zapad, it’s not just because of undying loyalty. Belarus relies heavily on subsidized gas from Russia, which it then sells in Europe at a profit. The money goes on to grease the cogs of Lukashenka’s quasi-Soviet economic policies. In return, Russia gets a loyal ally, one that is immune from “colour revolutions” and would be at the frontline of any NATO incursion.
Is Lukashenka happy with such an arrangement? Only partially. A permanent presence of Russian military on Belarusian soil was actually strongly resisted by Belarus. In 2013, Lukashenka went as far as saying that having a Russian airbase in the country – which Russia had proposed under a common air defense strategy – would be incompatible with Belarus’s national sovereignty. As of 2017, no base has been built. In its place, an anti-aircraft defense network was rolled out across Belarus to appease Russia’s demands.
Not just a pawn
Though worldview and rhetoric do play a part, at the end of the day it’s mutual gains and pragmatism, rather than political loyalty, that drive interactions between the two countries. Belarus understands that in the eyes of Russia, it’s not a protégé, but a business partner. And no matter how close the ties, the senior partner can sometimes spook the junior one.
With the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Belarus witnessed how Russia dealt with a traditional ally that risked wiggling outside its influence. Although Belarus’s pro-Putin elite is much more anchored in place than Ukraine’s, disagreements with Russia have abounded in recent years. Aside from Belarus’s refusal to host Russian forces, it also does not recognize the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which declared independence from Georgia following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Additionally, as a result of Russia’s increasingly on-and-off attitude to shale gas exports, Lukashenka has begun to seek rapprochement with the EU, much to Putin’s annoyance, in the hope of having Brussels lift sanctions on the regime.
But if the Belarusian elite decided to stand its ground against Moscow’s pressures, it realized it did so at its own risk – and it started preparing for every eventuality. In September 2016, Belarus conducted its largest military drills in recent years. The scenario involved certain regions in the country declaring independence and organizing their own paramilitary forces. In other words, the Belarusian army has been testing its readiness in the face of “hybrid warfare” of the kind Russia has employed in Eastern Ukraine.
Siarhei Bohdan, of Belarus-focused think-tank the Ostrogorski Centre, has argued that Minsk would gladly do without Moscow’s chauvinist rhetoric against the West, and only follows along in Russia’s displays of force reluctantly.
At the same time, Belarus has every interest in deescalating “Cold War II” and taking the role of a cool-headed broker between parties, rather than acting as a platform for the Russian army and risk military confrontation on its territory. Total collaboration with Russia is far from granted, and Minsk actively resists any permanent of presence of Russian military on its territory, which would put it in the crosshair of NATO.
But Bohdan sees Western officials validate Moscow’s narrative of Belarus as its base in the heart of Europe, without taking notice of Minsk’s effort to maintain a more neutral position. In reality, Belarus has every reason not to position itself as Russia’s military frontline. As long as it’s able to resist such pressures, and at the same time keep its own power structure in place, it can effectively function as a cushion state between sides.
That does not mean the equilibrium will last indefinitely. Belarus has a surprisingly active political scene, and although the regime keeps a monopoly on power, opposition parties and civil movements are already planning for the post-Lukashenka era. Should a new political class opt to shift the country’s allegiances westwards, it will face a significant backlash from Russia. At that moment, Europe will know if Belarus brings a revolution, a war, or both.