Belarus is risking its independence for a Russia-centric foreign policy

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The Jan. 18 announcement that Belarus would participate in joint exercises with Russia at a moment of intense tension between Russia and Ukraine demonstrates how Belarusian policy has come to be effectively dominated by Russian interests. The vulnerability of Alexander Lukashenko’s government, which stemmed from massive protests against his fraudulent reelection in 2020, has impelled him to abandon Belarus’ previous balanced foreign policy in favor of one that prioritizes the country’s relationship with Russia.  

While Lukashenko remains the principal decisionmaker in the highly personalistic Belarusian government, his international standing was weakened by the events of August 2020. Immediately following the Central Election Commission’s announcement that Lukashenko had received a new mandate with north of 80 percent of the vote, massive protests against the results broke out in Minsk. While moments such as Lukashenko being rejected by crowds at public events or a bizarre official video of Lukashenko brandishing an automatic weapon in defense of the presidential palace appeared to show the strength of the protests, the long-term consequences of the failed movement were the Western condemnation of Lukashenko’s heavy-handed suppression of protesters.  

Belarus’ relationship with Ukraine has previously been cordial and amicable, even though the two countries increasingly saw their international alignments diverge following Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution. While Lukashenko admitted that Crimea had become a “de facto” part of Russia shortly after Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula, he simultaneously tried to balance on a tightrope between supporting Russian policy in general while intentionally avoiding discussion of the peninsula’s de jure status.  

As a result of its cordial relationship with both Russia and Ukraine, Belarus hosted negotiations for the Minsk I and II ceasefire agreements regarding Eastern Ukraine and even saw the Minsk airport serve as an unofficial air link between the two countries after direct flights between Russia and Ukraine were terminated. However, Lukashenko’s November decision to recognize Crimea as a de jure part of Russia represents a departure from the previous Belarusian tendency to avoid that endorsement.   

Since the events of August 2020, Lukashenko has increasingly abandoned multi-vector foreign policy in practice while still paying lip service to it in general. Statements from Belarusian officials such as Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei indicate that Belarus’ leadership still views a multi-vector foreign policy as critical to maintaining sovereignty and independence. 

Prior to the deterioration of relations between Belarus and the West, senior Trump administration figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton indicated that increased economic and political links between the nations could be in the cards, albeit tenuously. However, after Lukashenko’s response to protestors, the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus, effectively chilling such initiatives. As a relationship with the West became untenable, the substance of Belarus’ foreign policy began to shift to one that is singularly focused on Russia. 

In November, a package of 28 programs designed to tighten bilateral economic, trade and banking links under the framework of the Union State, was agreed upon by Russia and Belarus. This package is the latest in a series of agreements that deepen the links between the two Union State members. Minsk’s dependence on Moscow for support was particularly visible last fall when the Belarusian government attempted to weaponize migrant flows towards its western neighbors and the only substantive support came in the form of joint air patrols by Russian and Belarusian air forces.   

Previously, Lukashenko had expressed reservations about increasing military cooperation with Russia. While Minsk agreed to begin joint air-defense missions with Russia last summer, Lukashenko had been vocal in his opposition to Russian attempts to establish an airbase in the country. Nonetheless, Belarusian armed forces have increasingly worked with their Russian counterparts, notably including Belarus’ eager participation in this month’s Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization intervention to save the embattled Tokayev government in Kazakhstan.   

Belarus’ former reluctance to host Russian military installations has been replaced with an acquiescence to play an enabling role in its coercion campaign against Ukraine. As Russian troops arrive in Belarus to participate in military exercises in early February — which were only announced on Jan. 18 — American policymakers have become concerned that the positioning of Russian troops could open up an even larger portion of Ukraine to Russian incursions. Additionally, an upcoming February referendum on a new constitution draft promises to remove legal barriers to basing Russian troops on Belarusian soil.  

The draft constitution strikes language that forbids the stationing of nuclear weapons in the country and mandates a neutral approach to foreign policy and replaces it with a general prohibition on the use of Belarusian territory in aggression against other states. This means Belarusian territory could still be used in an operation against Ukraine if it were framed as defensive in nature by Moscow and Minsk. However, Monday’s announcement that “Belarusian cyber-partisans” had targeted the country’s rail network to impede the movement of Russian troops appears to indicate that dissatisfaction exists towards Lukashenko’s decision to fall in line with Russian policy.  

Lukashenko’s assertion Friday that Belarus would fight alongside Russia if either country was attacked demonstrates how thoroughly the country has aligned itself with Russia. Ukraine and countries on NATO’s eastern flank such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia can no longer be as sure as they could in the past that Minsk would not act as a foil for Russian aggression.  

In his quest to hold onto power, Alexander Lukashenko has almost entirely folded his country’s interests into that of Russia’s.  

Wesley Culp is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress focused on Russia and Eurasia. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp. 

Tags Alexander Lukashenko Alexander Lukashenko Belarus Belarus–Russia relations Collective Security Treaty Organization Europe John Bolton Mike Pompeo Minsk Russification Union State

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