When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus to ‘normalize’ relations, few would have been able to predict the lows which Belarus’ relations with Russia would sink to. Belarus, often characterized as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship,’ has spent much of its short history tied to Russia through various bilateral arrangements. Though Belarus is dependent on Russia economically, Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko has found himself in a row with Russia ahead of the August 9th Presidential election in Belarus.
With accusations of Russia attempting to engineer a coup in Belarus, it is abundantly clear that Moscow is on the cusp of alienating itself from Minsk, it’s last ‘ally’ in Europe.
When Russia illegally seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, President Lukashenko opted to steer Belarus on a path of neutrality. This stance deeply troubled Moscow, which views anything less than unequivocal support as an act of abandonment. The truth behind the move is complicated and involves Lukashenko fearing an assertive Russia led by President Putin who has suggested, as early as 2002, that Belarus should be merged with Russia. Indeed, Belarus has rejected numerous Russian proposals to deepen relations between the two countries including the implementation of a single currency and supranational governance.
The rejection of such proposals is usually accompanied by trade disputes which are typically resolved by the two. In 2020, however, things are different as an energy dispute led to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Belarus on February 1st 2020. This visit constitutes the highest profile visit from a U.S. official in over two decades. Pompeo’s arrival served to remind Lukashenko that he needn’t be dependent on Russia for Belarus’ energy needs. Furthermore, the visit signals a U.S. interest in breaking Russia’s grip on Belarus and further isolating Russia in Europe.
The U.S. may not need to do much in order to see Russia alienated from Belarus, as Russia may be doing that themselves. On July 29th, Belarus’ KGB and OMON special forces detained 32 Russians outside Minsk with alleged ties to Moscow’s Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian private military company that operates in active conflict zones. The story apparently caught Moscow by surprise as Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that Russia does not know anything about the matter. The Russians claimed that they were on their way to Istanbul to ‘see the Hagia Sophia.’
The crisis was further exacerbated when Lukashenko accused Russia of lying regarding the incident and that the mercenaries were planning a ‘massacre at the center of Minsk.’ Belarus’ Security Council suspects that there could be 170 other Russian mercenaries in Belarus and that they are plotting the ousting of President Lukashenko. As the situation continues to develop, it is clear that this accusation is more substantive than Lukashenko’s June fears of a ‘Maidan’ in his country ahead of his re-election bid.
The crisis threatens Russia’s tenuous relationship with Belarus as Lukashenko’s fears of Russian encroachment materialize, at least in his view. According to Aleksandr Feduta, a former advisor to the president, Lukashenko is ‘personally afraid of Russia.’ Lukashenko seems unlikely to let this matter go as he resists Russia’s demands to release the detained mercenaries. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, warned of ‘sad consequences’ should Belarus not release the detained Russians. In response, Lukashenko stated Russia shouldn’t try to intimidate Belarus and that they are ‘aware of all repercussions.’
Amidst increasing tensions, Lukashenko and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky held a phone call wherein the Russian detainees were discussed. The two discussed the potential extradition of 28 of the detainees for their participation in Ukraine’s Donbass War, a war which has seen the involvement of Russia-backed separatists. Furthermore, a planned bilateral summit between Lukashenko and Zelensky is in the works following the developments outside Minsk. The dialogue between Lukashenko and Zelensky, as well as the competing extradition requests, have prompted the invitation of both Russian and Ukrainian prosecutors to investigate the detained mercenaries on August 6th.
Regardless of the outcome of any such investigation, the maneuver to officially call President Zelensky over President Putin indicates a dramatic souring of relations between Belarus and Russia. Lukashenko’s actions to preserve Belarus’ autonomy from Russia cannot be separated from Lukashenko’s actions to preserve himself as President of Belarus. Ahead of a difficult re-election bid amidst discontent, Lukashenko seeks to maintain his image as a staunch nationalist opposed to foreign meddlers.
This incident serves to exemplify that Lukashenko has no loyalty to Moscow; it is rather directed at himself and his own power. Whether Belarus becomes a buffer state between the West and Russia rather than a Russian ally remains to be seen. However, the scenario is more possible now than ever before as Lukashenko’s fear of Russia continues to build.
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