12 February 2020

Putin’s next target

Sergiu Medar

Republic of Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union. Because of that and because of signing some bilateral agreements with the Russian Federation, Belarus has become dependent on the trade relations with the Eastern partner. Kremlin wants to end the integration process of Belarus into the Russian Federation, before the 2024 presidential elections, and then do the same with the other former Soviet Union member states.

Image source: Mediafax

At the beginning of February 2020, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has visited Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The purpose of these visits was the identification of these leaders’ positions on US, given that they are more or less part of Russia’s authority area. Here, Russia’s ambitions to relaunch the Eurasian Economic Union and even its development are quite obvious, including on military and security coordinates.

Republic of Belarus will hold the presidential elections this year. Alexander Lukashenko, the effective president, holds the authoritarian power of the country for 25 years. Seen as the last dictator of Europe, a name given by Russia itself, Belarus’s leader does not seem to leave his political position, therefore, lacking an eligible counter candidate, he will most likely win the August 2020 elections.

In four years, Putin will end his presidential mandate and it will be necessary to modify the constitution in order to get another mandate after 2024. Such an enlargement option for Putin’s autocratism cannot take place without popular support. He can get such support by spectacularly increasing the living conditions, which is less likely to happen, or by having a booming success on a foreign plan. Given the imperial mentality of the Russian people, “getting back” some territories which were once part of the Soviet empire would be a success for Putin and would implicitly be an advantage for him at the elections. This is the status of Russia’s force relations with the former Soviet states, placed “near abroad”. Geopolitically speaking, Belarus and Ukraine are extremely important for Kremlin, being the buffer zone that separates it from NATO. According to the National Security Strategy, the North Atlantic Alliance, as organization, together with US, individually, are seen as threats against Russia’s national security.

On the other hand, integration, at least Belarus’s one, in the Russian Federation would be a new geographic and political structure for the Federation, which would need also the establishment of a new constitution. This would indeed create the necessary legitimacy for president’s mandate enlargement.

After the 1990’s moment when Russia and Belarus signed many agreements and collaboration treaties, on December 8th, 1999, it was signed the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus, ratified on December 22th 1999, by the State Duma of Russia and on January 26th 2000, by the National Assembly of Belarus.

Although this treaty has more like a symbolic value, it ensured Russia that the EU or NATO will not extend on this region and, on the other hand, Belarus, giving up the Euro-Atlantic integration ambitions of some part of the population, will get energy from Russia to smaller prices. In order to make sure it will reach its objectives, Kremlin started an integration campaign for Belarus in the Russian Federation. To that end, Putin signed, in December 2019, in Sankt Petersburg, a new treaty with Lukashenko, which increases Belarus’s economic dependency on Russia. However, Belarus’s president did not show any integration enthusiasm, thus triggering Russia’s pressure.

At the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, Russia’s pressures on Belarus gained new meanings, both in the economic and the military field, all supported by an aggressive manipulation through media. As Medvedev mentioned, Russia’s prime-minister, the military integration with Belarus would mean the voluntary concession of sovereignty from the East European state.

Putin thinks that Russia is an empire, although he does not express it. Therefore, before forcing his geopolitical ambition “from Lisboan to Vladivostok”, the integration of states speaking Russian language and its dialects it a mandatory step. In his Sochi speech, given the 2014 Crimea seizure and aggression, Putin underlined that this integration is the main geopolitical objective he wants to reach in his mandate.

Hence, Stephen Blank, professor at the US Army War College, was mentioning: “Besides consolidating empire’s traditional connections, imperialism and autocracy as the two faces of the same medal, Moscow wants to annex Belarus to set the base of new military bases and dislocate air and land forces”.

To create further pressure on Belarus, where the main non-military weapon is the energy supply at smaller prices, starting January 1st, 2020, Russia has stopped supplying oil through Russian pipelines that cross Belarus. Therefore, Belarus felt compelled to import oil from Norway, at higher prices. In Belarus, there are several oil transport pipelines, but also processing facilities. A pipeline runs through North of the country, from East to West heading towards the Latvian port of Ventspils and the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda. Another pipeline crosses Belarus, in the same direction through South of the country to Poland and Germany. This pressure method is part of a déjà vu story successfully applied in other geographical areas.

Belarus's economy is based on agricultural production and crude oil processing. That is why stopping the oil supply or suspending smaller prices would seriously affect the living income in the state that provided Europe with large quantities of petroleum products processed in Belarusian refineries. In a public speech criticizing Russia's energy export policy, Lukashenko, known for his "colourful" language, used an expression wherefore children who would use it would be deprecated.

Lukashenko introduced a hybrid economic system, which involves a centralized economy but also allows the development, on a small scale, of a private partnership, especially in the IT field.

Speaking about the Belarus situation, Arkadi Moshes, program director at the Finnish Institute of International Relations, stated that "there is a general feeling that something is happening. The general situation is probably much more serious than before".

Lukashenko wants to maintain a balance between Moscow and Brussels or between Moscow and Washington, forgetting that the mentioned powers have goals that can hardly be reconciled.

To verify the readiness level as well as to test army's reaction to the quick changes of situation, Belarus has been conducting, since January 30, shortly before the arrival of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a large exercise in the South East area. During this exercise, there were conducted watercourses, approached in forests as in urban areas. The management of the Ministry of Defence did not disclose any information regarding the purpose of this exercise: how many units are involved, what these are and what commands are involved. This exercise’s role was to warn Russia and try to discourage a possible military action. At the same time, the new NATO Defender Europe 2020 exercise will strengthen cooperation between Belarus and Russia, both seeing it as a direct military threat to the two states. This way, the US reconciliation effort with Belarus is undermined.

This exercise was preceded by important changes in army's leadership. Acting on a rotating role, Belarus President Lukashenko has appointed a new defence minister, a new chief of staff and a new president of the Security Council.

Mike Pompeo's visit to Minsk, however, has opened a new chapter in the relations between the two countries. Since 2008, US has imposed economic and political sanctions on Belarus. Economic restrictions on oil refining were also imposed, financial blockages were initiated on some banks, as well as travel bans applied to Belarusian personalities, including Lukashenko. As a result, Belarus expelled the US ambassador to Minsk, while Washington reacted to reciprocity.

Therefore, in a brief visit by the US Secretary of State, Professor Moshes emphasized that: “The economy of Belarus now needs subsidies and money. The money does not come from the US or Europe, they come from Russia”.

In order to prevent Russia from blackmailing it with oil supplies, Lukashenko also began to look for alternative sources, discussing with the US, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. There is information in the media that according to Odessa, the first oil tanker for Belarus will arrive in February.

Moscow knows that Pompeo's visit to Belarus will not change Moscow's relations with Minsk too much, but he wants to use this pretext to increase pressure on Belarus. There are no signs that the US will lift sanctions applied to the Eastern European state too soon. The agreement for the relations’ resumption, within ambassadors’ level between the two states will be implemented soon. The US offered to provide oil to Belarus at affordable prices, as soon as possible. But Pompeo did not mention that within the US political institutions cannot impose prices on private companies even if they deliver strategic products.

Lukashenko seems to be trying to get closer to US, in particular, and the Western world in general. That is why he will need consistent political support and a positive reaction from them. Pompeo's visit was an obvious signal from the US, addressed to Russia, expressing American interest in Belarus. Likely, in the same context, we will be witnessing visits of European leaders in the same region. But it is unlikely that the US will be able to lift, even partially, the sanctions applied to Belarus until August 2020, when the presidential elections will be held. Russia, even if it does not feel threatened by this evolution, will try to discourage Lukashenko, and he will probably have to make many concessions to Russia. This may also be the reason why the Russian ambassador to Minsk attended the last meeting of the Supreme Defence Council of Belarus.

It is unlikely for Belarus to succeed in having a foreign and domestic policy independent of Russia. The Russian Federation military threat will continue, as Belarus's sovereignty’s suspension depends both on the compromises Lukashenko will make to Putin, to win the August elections, as well as on how Russian leader’s constitutional proposals will be implemented.