The past couple of days have seen a flurry of statements and actions from the Belarussian side indicating that President Lukashenko is on the brink of pivoting his country away from Russia.
As a brief backgrounder, I have previously written a detailed analysis in May 2015 questioning the intentions behind Belarus’ rapid rapprochement with the West, suggesting that its leader might be tempted by sanctions relief and other perks to ditch his Russian ally in favor of his new “Western partners”. Lo and behold, that cautionary forecast now horrifyingly seems to be on the verge of rapidly materializing, as Lukashenko sharply lashed out at Russia for its decision to heighten the FSB’s security forces along their mutual border and has threatened escalatory political-legal measures in response.
Russia’s supposedly controversial move was prompted by Minsk declaring at the beginning of last month that it would implement 5-day visa-free travel privileges to visitors from over 80 countries. While the public intent behind this decision appears to have been to improve Belarus’ attractiveness to foreign tourists and bring in much-needed foreign currency, any responsible security professional in Russia could obviously see the potential for it to be exploited by hostile forces in exporting countless “Weapons of Mass Migration” into their country.
It should be remarked in this context that Russia and Belarus are legally in a “union state” which has removed the common international border between them, so “visitors” entering Belarus could in theory just hop across the border to Russia without any problem.
Therefore, Moscow felt compelled to order the FSB border security initiative which has since rankled Minsk.
In hindsight, it appears as though Lukashenko’s earlier decision pertaining to 5-day visa-free travel privileges for over 80 different countries was a sly provocation to trigger the predicted Russian response, with Belarus foreseeing that this would give it enough of a “face-saving” excuse to justify its further pivot towards the West.
In regards to this preplanned provocation and Russia’s reasonable reaction to it, Lukashenko has issued a set of statements which would have been otherwise inconceivable – or at the very least, “unjustified” – had it not been for the drama that he (or the foreign forces advising him) first engineered.
Commenting on the FSB decision to heighten border security with Belarus, he accused Russia of violating international agreements , which is uncharacteristically harsh language for one “ally” to use against another. Coupling this with the preexisting (and often perennial) oil dispute that he once again has with Moscow, Lukashenko swore that he would take Russia to court.
If this results in Russia cutting off oil supplies or at the very least reducing their output until the increasingly prolonged dispute is finally settled, then Belarus is willing to deal with the consequences of what would eerily mirror the gas crisis that Ukraine started with Russia over a decade ago.
In the words of the Belarussian President himself
It is clear that we will do without Russian oil, though it will be very difficult for us. It is not comparable, if you choose between independence and Russian, Iranian, Azerbaijani or American oil
As the saying goes, “when it rains, it pours”, and Lukashenko looks to have used this ‘convenient’ occasion to also issue threats against Russia for banning select agricultural imports from Belarus on the grounds that they were unsafe.
Lukashenko pinpointed Sergey Dankvert, the head of Rosselkhoznadzor (Russian agriculture watchdog), as being the subject of a new “criminal proceeding” for allegedly “causing damage to the state”.
What Belarus is doing, in fact, is laying the precedential framework for later ‘justifying’ its forthcoming withdrawal or (voluntary or Russian-enforced) suspension from the Eurasian Union, despite Lukashenko smearing such a forecast as a “hoax story”.
It might also be preparing to do something similar as regards the CSTO, even though the organization just issued an official statement refuting any such reports.
It’s unclear at this moment exactly how far Belarus’ pro-Western pivot will go, and whether Lukashenko plans to leave or become suspended from one or both of these organizations, or remain within them as a permanent stumbling block to their efficiency.
The Belarussian leader’s words can’t be taken at face value, since even if he intends to pursue one or the other scenario, he’d obviously have enough diplomatic sense at this time to not openly state so in public, though whatever promises he gave to his new “Western partners” are another matter entirely.
No matter which direction it ultimately leads, Belarus’ latest moves are very troubling for Russia’s multipolar integrational efforts and have served to accelerate the deterioration in trust between both sides.
Although bilateral disputes are not uncommon, this one carries with it a deeper significance because of the raft of countermeasures and unusually harsh rhetoric that accompany it, to say nothing of the tense international situation of the New Cold War in which all of this is unfolding.
It’s very unlikely that the hot-headed and stubborn Lukashenko will back down from his latest theatrics, both because of the nature of his personality and due to the subtle encouragement that he’s getting from his new “Western partners”.
The extent of how far he’ll eventually go is probably dependent on the financial and other personal benefits that he believes he can reap from a pro-Western pivot, as well as whether Russia is successful in matching or ‘outbidding’ them for his continued ‘loyalty’.
A closet reading of the situation, however, indicates that Belarus has already made up its mind about which direction it wants to go and is approaching the final stages of formalizing its decision.
Minsk’s latest attacks against Moscow might even be political signaling to Brussels and Washington that Lukashenko is serious about whatever he may have previously agreed to with them behind closed doors, and that this most recent round of rhetoric is a ‘goodwill gesture’ designed to prove to them that he’s indeed a trustworthy partner. All that he’s waiting for now is confirmation that his covert interlocutors will carry through on their end of the deal, which might not happen right away of course, but could progressively play out across the next couple of months as more sanctions are lifted and other perks extended to the Belarussian leadership and its military-economic elite supporters.
Should Belarus continue along this trajectory, then whether or not it remains in Russia’s economic and military integrational institutions is a moot point because it’ll be essentially functioning as a deadweight which holds them back from everything that they’re trying to accomplish.
Even worse, however, would be if Lukashenko tries to integrate Belarus into the opposite direction through an EU Association Agreement and a milder form of the “Shadow NATO” partnership that Ukraine presently has.
If either of these two, let alone both, eventualities ends up transpiring in any form or fashion, then it would signal a major crisis for the security of Russia’s western borderland regions.
Russia already has to worry about Sweden and Finland potentially joining NATO in the future, the Atlantic Bloc’s illegal buildup in the Baltic States and Poland, Ukraine’s uncomfortable de-facto integration with parts of the organization, and the group’s provocative war games in the Black Sea, so the last thing that Moscow needs to worry about at this moment is one of its most trusted and longest allies ‘defecting’ to the enemy and opening up a gaping hole in Russia’s security.
Moreover, given the lasting effect of historical memory and unshakeable geopolitical determinants, it’s entirely foreseeable that an emboldened and newly anti-Russian Belarus might team up with Poland in expanding Warsaw’s “Neo–Commonwealth” eastward to the gates of the Russian Heartland/Core.
There’s no telling how Russia’s decision makers would preemptively respond if they were convinced that such a scenario was inevitably unfolding, but it’s reasonable to conclude that it would represent the end of the Russian-Belarussian Strategic Partnership.
From a cynical perspective, however, the triggering of this series of events – which appears to have already started to a certain degree – might have been exactly what the US and EU expected when they initiated their first ‘olive branch’ outreaches to the country a few years ago, and with Lukahsneko personally lavishing in the “pro-democratic” praise of his new “Western partners” and appearing to be utterly enamored with the attention that they’ve been giving him lately, it’s going to be a monumental challenge for Russia to reverse the strategic momentum and “win” Belarus back.
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