By Matija Šerić
In recent years, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the public has given great importance to the partnership relations between the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation. In the last two years, the relations between the two countries have really improved and seem to be stable. This is true, however, Russian-Belarusian relations and their significance for the world do not only stem from the Ukrainian crisis and the Ukrainian issue, but have a much wider significance. The current partnership, but also the potential conflict, have a great impact on geopolitical relations in Europe due to the strategic importance of Belarus, which is located between the NATO alliance and Russia. In any scenario, Belarus is a key strategic point on the European political map.
It is a country that covers 207 thousand square kilometers between Russia in the east, Ukraine in the south, Poland in the west and Lithuania and Latvia in the north. The fact that throughout history countries such as Germany, France, Poland, Russia, Lithuania and many others have fought for Belarus speaks volumes about the importance of Belarus. Having Belarus under control is very valuable because it is the link between the Slavic East and the Germanic West. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the Belarusian SSR was one of the founding states along with the USSR and the Ukrainian SSR, which was a cunning move by Stalin to give the Soviet Union more votes in the UN. During the Cold War, the country was home to numerous Soviet military bases and nuclear weapons.
Relations after the collapse of the USSR
Contemporary Belarusian-Russian relations began to take shape immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Three presidents, Russian Boris Yeltsin, Belarusian Stanislav Shushkevich and Ukrainian Leonid Kravchuk, on December 8, 1991, signed the famous Belarus Agreement, in which the three countries recognize the independence of each, abolish the USSR, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) takes its place. It was the end of an old Soviet era and the beginning of a new democratic era facing the new millennium.
Although the CIS was conceived primarily as a trade organization of the former republics of the USSR, the question of Russia’s relations with its members, including Belarus, arose. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russian politicians were in a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, they wanted to connect and integrate into international organizations in which the collective West was involved, which meant that they did not interfere in the affairs of neighboring countries. On the other hand, the Russians were worried by the increasingly obvious intention of the NATO alliance to expand precisely into the territories of the former Eastern Bloc and the USSR. Although in the 1990s Moscow could not prevent or condition which new European country would join NATO, it could once again restore good relations with neighboring countries so that they would not become anti-Russian. Such a policy was the only rational one.
Although Russian-Belarusian relations were good in the early 1990s, they took off in the middle of the decade when President Aleksandar Lukashenko came to power in July 1994. In February 1995, Yeltsin and Lukashenko signed the Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighborly Relations and Cooperation. In doing so, Yeltsin emphasized the “shared historical experience over the centuries” and highlighted Belarus as “the most important Russian partner within the CIS” due to its geographical location and ties with Russia. The integration process was launched in April 1996, and exactly one year later the Union of Belarus and Russia was established.
In November 1996, the Belarusians completed the process of handing over their nuclear weapons to Russia, which was an agreement reached with the USA, Great Britain and Russia in December 1994 (Budapest Memorandum). In addition to Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan surrendered their nuclear weapons to Moscow and joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The Union between Russia and Belarus was established on December 8, 1999. The Treaty on Equal Rights of Citizens between Belarus and Russia was signed in December 1998 in the fields of employment, medical care and education. At that time, the public saw these agreements as symbolic and not as the creation of a new state of Russia and Belarus.
Relations during the 2000s
Vladimir Putin himself discovered that these were agreements of a mostly symbolic nature after he came to power in 2000. He was not satisfied with the agreements with Belarus because he considered them devoid of content. Putin’s proposal was either for Belarus to join the Russian Federation as a new republic or to create an organization similar to the European Union. However, Lukashenko rejected both ideas. Despite this, friendly relations continued, and the strategic value of Belarus for Moscow increased due to international processes.
After the terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11, 2001, as part of the invasion of Afghanistan and the “war on terror”, the American army appeared in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, NATO began to expand further to the east of Europe, and plans were announced for the deployment of NATO’s anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. As icing on the cake, color revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia began to appear in Russia’s neighborhood. As the Russians realized that classic integration with Belarus was unfeasible, they directed their foreign policy towards a pragmatic approach with two main goals: 1) relieve the Belarusian economy, 2) take control of the Belarusian energy infrastructure. Due to the latter, gas wars between the two countries followed in 2004 and 2007.
In 2009, 48% of Belarusian exports went to Russia, while 6% of Russian exports went in the opposite direction. Despite trade cooperation, the most serious tensions will break out that year and relations will be seriously damaged. Lukashenko accused Russian authorities of offering a $500 million loan on the condition that Minsk recognize Georgia’s breakaway pro-Russian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but stressed that Belarus’s position was not for sale. He also stated that citizens of Belarus must abide by Georgian laws when traveling to the two regions. Lukashenko’s harshest statement was that Belarus should “seek happiness in other parts of the planet” instead of Russia. Commenting on the military cooperation between the two countries, Lukashenko compared 10 million Belarusians to Russia’s human shield against the West. It is a service that he said is “not free”.
In July 2009, the so-called the dairy war, when Russia banned all imports of dairy products from Belarus, stating that they did not comply with the new regulations. Belarus has accused Russia of using the ban for political purposes, while Russia has denied that the ban is political. The Russians soon lifted the ban and Belarusians continued to supply dairy products. However, a new dispute arose as Moscow claimed that Minsk owed it $231 million for the gas it had used since the beginning of the year. Belarus has threatened to introduce border and customs controls on its border with Russia and has refused to attend meetings of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO – Russia’s version of NATO) in Moscow. In the interview, Lukashenko questioned the need for diplomatic relations with Russia.
The outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis
Although the border barriers between the two countries were removed in 1995, the border was restored in 2014 on the Belarusian side. The Russians only established a border zone in the Smolensk region in 2017. The reason for Belarus raising the border is the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 and the outbreak of war in Donbass.
It is obvious that Minsk was somehow afraid of a possible Russian invasion. It did not happen, but Lukashenko gave a speech in the Belarusian language for the first time, and the authorities began to affirm the Belarusian identity, which is different from the Russian one. Moreover, the war in Donbas allowed Belarus to assert itself in the international community as a neutral mediator to achieve peace. The agreements on the cease-fire in Donbass in 2014 and 2015 and the peaceful reintegration of that region were named Minsk 1 and Minsk 2. However, in practice they never fully came to life, but only partially.
Although in those years Lukashenko somewhat distanced himself from Putin, in September 2017 the relations between the two countries became close again as joint military exercises were held. The hostile attitude of the West was the key to a stronger connection. In 2019, Lukashenko held talks with Putin in Sochi and declared that their two countries “could unite tomorrow, no problem”. This idea was supported by Putin from the beginning, and apparently Lukashenko became partial to it in fear of the color revolution that was being hinted at.
Tensions and Belarusian elections that will change everything
Despite the fear of a pro-Western coup, cracks in relations could be seen at the beginning of 2020, when new tensions arose. Lukashenko accused Putin of intending to incorporate his country into Russia. The Russians, in turn, canceled economic benefits. More precisely, Russia has temporarily suspended the sale of oil to Belarus at reduced prices.
In response, Belarus diversified its oil imports, importing oil from Norway, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. In July of the same year, relations further deteriorated because 33 Russian military advisers were arrested in Minsk. Lukashenko then accused Moscow of trying to cover up an attempt to send 200 soldiers of the private Russian military company Wagner to Belarus on a mission to destabilize the country ahead of the August 9 presidential election. On August 5, the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, warned Belarus to release Russian advisers.
However, the presidential elections that August will definitely bring Lukashenko and Putin closer together. After the election, which many observers labeled as disputed (the EU and many others), a wave of protests followed that resembled an attempted color revolution and lasted until March 2021. It resulted in more than a thousand injuries, more than 30 thousand arrests and several dead protesters.
The support of the Russian state services to the Belarusians was extremely important for keeping Lukashenko in power. Putin has formed a special unit of the Russian army to intervene in Belarus if the unrest gets out of control. After that bitter experience, Lukashenko definitely burned all bridges with the West because he lost the reputation he enjoyed there and Belarus definitely aligned itself with Russia. This proved to be good on the financial front because at the end of August 2020, Lukashenko announced the refinancing of the state debt to Russia in the amount of 1 billion dollars, and in mid-September he visited Sochi, where he agreed with the hosts on a loan of 1.5 billion USD.
United against Ukraine
Russia and Belarus have extensive military cooperation. In addition to the aforementioned military exercises of the two armies, which are regularly held, Russia has several military bases and radars in Belarus. At the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, relations between Russia and Ukraine were further damaged and there were frequent announcements of a Russian invasion.
At the end of 2021, Minsk finally recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea after seven years of refusal. Belarusians have allowed the Russian military to conduct exercises on Belarusian territory and to launch part of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 from Belarusian territory. Lukashenko stated that Belarusian troops could participate in the invasion if necessary, and that Russia could locate its nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil.
The possibility of attacking Ukraine from Belarusian territory gave the Russians a strategic advantage in the war. The Russian army thus got the opportunity to attack Kyiv from only 80 km away. If the Russians could not launch an offensive against Kiev from Belarusian soil, they would have to cover at least twice the distance. Launching the offensive from Belarusian soil also allowed Russian troops to strike Kyiv from the west, without having to cross the Dnieper river.
However, the Russian troops did not use the gift given to them by the state of Belarus because the Ukrainians managed to defend Kyiv and the Russian army later withdrew from the north of Ukraine. In March 2022, Oleksandr Kamyshyn, the head of Ukrainian Railways, stated that the railway line between Ukraine and Belarus had been destroyed as a way to prevent the transport of Russian equipment and materials from Belarus to Ukraine.
In recent months, Belarus has also become a base for the Wagner group, and at the end of March this year, Putin announced that Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, and they were delivered during the summer. These processes further raised the stakes in the Ukrainian war, that is, the tensions between Russia and Belarus with Ukraine and NATO members (mainly Poland and the Baltic states) were strengthened. In September, the European Parliament called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Lukashenko for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Such a move added fuel to the fire.
Before the Ukrainian crisis, Belarus served as a buffer state between the Russian Federation and NATO, and its strategic importance is shown as the Ukrainian war heats up more and more and becomes a war of Russia against NATO. Belarus is still a buffer state, Russia’s protective layer against NATO, but it is important for other reasons as well. Although Belarusian military units are not participating in the war in Ukraine, Belarus is openly (logistically, materially) on Russia’s side, while Poland and the Baltic countries are on Kyiv’s side. And such involvement of Belarus in the war is beneficial for the Russians, because Kyiv was forced to strengthen fortifications along its thousand-kilometer border with Belarus, wasting resources that could otherwise be used on other battlefields.
Also, parts of the Ukrainian army are stationed on the Belarusian border due to fear of a new Russian attack in that area. Since Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are located in Belarus, it is a certainty that NATO and Ukraine will not attack Belarus, which is also an element that favors the Russian side. The Baltic states and Poland are also strengthening their borders for fear of an attack from Belarus or Russia. Lithuanians and Poles fear the possibility that Russian forces could launch an attack from Belarus towards the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad through the occupation of the border zone, the Suwalki Corridor, which is about 96 km long. By occupying the Suwalki pocket, Kaliningrad would be connected by land to Belarus and Russia, and the Baltic states would be cut off from Poland. However, the probability of that happening is low because whoever tried to do so would be at war with the NATO alliance.
Since Belarus and Russia are two authoritarian states with two charismatic leaders, it can be said that they form the axis of resistance to the American unipolar order in Eastern Europe. Both countries have been suffering certain western sanctions for about 15 years and both cooperate with anti-American countries around the world – Iran, China, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Myanmar. Belarus protects Russia well from potential encirclement in the European East, and last year the trade exchange was about 40 billion USD. However, Belarus’ greatest contribution to Russia’s interests in the future could be that, thanks to Belarus’ role in the Ukrainian war, at the end of the day Ukraine (regardless of the outcome of the war) will remain outside NATO. This was the first and most important goal of Putin’s Russia, which will undoubtedly remain so even when Putin leaves power (unless a pro-Western government appears in the Kremlin, which is unlikely). On the other hand, thanks to Moscow, Belarus preserved its sovereignty in relation to the EU and NATO, which would otherwise have been questioned by globalist structures.