Why Putin dare not abandon Belarus dictator Lukashenka

Belarus dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Sochi with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on May 29. (Sputnik/Sergei Ilyin/Kremlin via REUTERS)

The ongoing crisis in Belarus was barely mentioned during last week’s hotly anticipated summit meeting in Geneva between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. While Belarus reportedly featured on the American leader’s agenda going into the talks, it seems the Russian side had no interest in discussing the issue.

This apparent reluctance reflects Putin’s view of Belarus as belonging exclusively to the Kremlin’s sphere of interest. Nevertheless, there had been considerable speculation ahead of the June 16 summit that the Russian leader might actually be prepared to sacrifice Lukashenka in return for concessions from the West.

According to this scenario, Putin would agree to the removal of Lukashenka, but would seek to install a Kremlin-friendly replacement from within the ranks of the Belarusian opposition. This maneuver would keep Minsk firmly in the Russian orbit, while also meeting Western demands for the normalization of the situation in Belarus, including the release of political prisoners and the scheduling a fresh presidential elections.

It is not hard to see why a gambit of this nature might appeal to Putin. It would allow him to demonstrate apparent goodwill on the global stage and play the flattering role of mediator statesman. This would serve the purpose of shifting international attention away from Russia’s aggressive actions and towards positive change in Belarus.

Technically speaking, orchestrating a favorable transfer of power in Minsk would present relatively few problems for Russia. Moscow already enjoys considerable influence over every aspect of the Belarusian state apparatus, and has undertaken steps in recent months to establish Kremlin-controlled political parties in Belarus that could help facilitate a suitable transition.

Meanwhile, Lukashenka could expect to receive the kind of special retirement package in Russia reserved for long-term Kremlin loyalists such as exiled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Naturally, there would be no talk of international justice or embarrassing trials in The Hague.

While this scenario has much to potentially recommend it, Putin appears to have moved in the opposite direction. Instead of using the Belarus crisis to ease tensions with the West, he has chosen to double down in his support for Lukashenka. This uncompromising stance is perhaps most immediately evident in Putin’s robust defense of Lukashenka’s recent act of air piracy.

The Minsk strongman’s decision to force down an EU airliner passing through Belarusian airspace in order to detain a dissident Belarusian journalist sparked international outrage and has provoked a new wave of sanctions. Undeterred, Putin has publicly backed Lukashenka’s actions and even went so far as to temporarily block a number of EU airlines from Russian airspace in apparent retaliation for measures imposed against Minsk.

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In the final analysis, Putin has likely decided that removing Lukashenka is simply too risky. The Russian ruler remains haunted by the Soviet collapse and fears a repeat of the pro-democracy uprisings that swept Central Europe at the end of the 1980's and initiated the fall of the USSR. This explains Putin’s 2014 decision to invade Ukraine following the country’s Euromaidan Revolution, and also forms the basis of his opposition to the ongoing anti-regime protests in Belarus.

Putin recognizes that the collapse of the neighboring Lukashenka regime would have direct and potentially disastrous consequences for his own future in Russia. It could serve as a source of inspiration for Russian opposition forces, who would inevitably begin to pose the question of whether they could replicate the success of the protest movement in Belarus and overthrow their own dictator. With Russian Duma elections scheduled for September, Putin is in no mood for such challenges.

The survival of his own regime is not the only strategic interest shaping Putin’s approach towards Belarus. The Kremlin needs to maintain its dominant position over the country in order to secure Russia’s western borders and expand the encirclement of Ukraine. Russia’s growing military presence in Belarus also allows Moscow to menace nearby NATO member states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

From a Russian perspective, one of the biggest drawbacks to keeping Lukashenka in power is the damage this has done to the intricately assembled architecture of the Minsk peace process. For almost seven years, ongoing negotiations in the Belarusian capital have helped Russia maintain the fiction of observer status in the Ukraine conflict. However, Lukashenka’s increasingly obvious dependence on Moscow has led Ukraine to declare in recent months that Minsk is no longer a suitably neutral venue for peace talks.

Prior to the outbreak of the current crisis in Belarus last summer, Lukashenka had done much to cultivate the image of an internationally acceptable host for the Ukraine peace process. He maintained friendly ties with Ukraine and pointedly refused to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Since August 2020, this stance has shifted considerably, with Lukashenka accusing Ukraine of supporting a “color revolution” in Belarus. Most recently, he has allowed representatives from Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine to interrogate dissident Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk.

The latest indication of Lukashenka’s eagerness to please the Kremlin was the early June announcement of a new national holiday with ties to the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the outbreak of World War II. Beginning this year, Belarus will mark National Unity Day on September 17, the date in 1939 when the Soviet Union joined Hitler’s Germany in the invasion of Poland. In recent years, Putin has vocally defended Soviet cooperation with Nazi Germany and has angrily rejected claims that the USSR was jointly responsible for sparking WWII.

This year’s National Unity Day celebrations are scheduled to take place during the Zapad 2021 joint military exercises, which will see large numbers of Russian and Belarusian troops deployed close to the border with Poland. Is this just Putin and Lukashenka’s idea of geopolitical trolling, or is something more ominous being planned?

Whatever they have in mind, both rulers seem to appreciate that their fates are now inextricably intertwined. Lukashenka’s reliance on Russia has been clear for some time, but Putin is in many ways also a hostage of his Belarusian counterpart. Europe’s last two dictators know that if one should fall, the other will find himself in a perilous position. They may not necessarily like it, but Putin and Lukashenka are now locked in an authoritarian alliance.

Jan Pieklo is an author, expert on Eastern European and Western Balkans affairs, and former Polish Ambassador to Ukraine.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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