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Swedish Defence Research Agency

3 November

Russia and Belarus closer to a union

Russia and Belarus’s presidents are expected to sign a package of so-called union state programmes. These aim to deepen cooperation between the two countries within the frame of a common union state. The FOI report, Endgame Belarus? Union State Integration Under Pressure, explains what that would mean.

Vladimir Putin + Alexander Lukashenko

Presidents Lukashenko and Putin playing ice hockey in Sochi the 15th of February 2019. Photo: Sergei Chirikov/Reuters.

The presidential elections in Belarus on 9 August 2020 and the subsequent protests of electoral fraud became a turning point for Alexander Lukashenko’s attempts to balance between East and West.

In the past, the West had turned a blind eye to parts of Belarus’s dictatorial politics, since the country could act as a buffer against Russia. But the brutal treatment of protesters and the imprisonment of opposition politicians led to Belarus’s being isolated and the imposition of sanctions by Western countries. The same countries no longer recognise Lukashenko as the country’s leader. According to the FOI report, there was thus no alternative for Lukashenko than to approach Russia, regardless of the price. This is happening now, including through several presidential summits.

“Thus, Belarus is also losing its opportunities to assert its own sovereignty and its room for manoeuvre in foreign policy,” says the report’s author, Jakob Hedenskog, Deputy Research Director at FOI.

Unprepared for independence

Russia and Belarus have always been close to each other, however. Belarus had never been an independent country until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Unlike the Baltic States, for example, the country was relatively unprepared for independence and had major economic problems.

“That’s why Lukashenko was able to win the 1994 election on the promise of increased cooperation with Russia. The countries concluded an agreement to establish a Union State as early as the end of 1999. But it soon became apparent that they had different views of what that meant. While Belarus saw it as a union between two equal states, Russia viewed it as a way to reintegrate Belarus, in practice becoming absorbed by Russia,” says Jakob Hedenskog.

The presidents of the countries are expected to sign 28 so-called Union State programmes, primarily on economic issues.

“Vladimir Putin first wants to build economic integration, which among other things will create a common energy market. Political integration is further away," explains Jakob Hedenskog.

A pawn in the game

Belarus is constantly being pushed further and further away from the West. The migration crisis at the EU border and the fact that Belarus forced down a civilian aircraft flying a route between two EU countries have also contributed to increasingly cold relations.

“It’s reasonable to believe that Russia is behind some of what Belarus has been up to, with the aim of getting Lukashenko isolated. Belarus has become even more of a pawn than earlier in Russia’s conflict with the West,” states Jakob Hedenskog.

The realisation of a union state would create a deteriorating military strategic situation in Europe. It would also reduce the distance to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

“This could lead to tensions and increase the risk of incidents. It could also achieve an injection of Russia’s neo-imperialist policies into the local area,” says Jakob Hedenskog.

Delay of the game, Interference, Sudden death

In the report, Endgame Belarus? Union State Integration under Pressure, Deputy Research Director Jakob Hedenskog paints three future scenarios for Belarus. Central to the course of events is whether there is a possibility that Aleksander Lukashenko will be able to remain as president or whether he is ousted, either by Russia or his own people. Since both Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin play ice hockey, the game’s terms are used to illustrate the scenarios. Jakob Hedenskog comments.

”Delay of the game”

(Lukashenko remains and integration with Russia continues).

Jakob Hedenskog: “This is in principle what we see developing today. This scenario exists in two variants: one where Lukashenko remains president for the foreseeable future and one where he formally resigns but rules from behind the scenes. The scenario could be acceptable, though not optimal, for Russia to avoid a crisis or a ‘colour revolution,’ like the one in Ukraine in 2014, with unforeseen consequences.”

”Interference”

(Lukashenko is deposed under Russian-controlled conditions and integration is accelerated).

Jakob Hedenskog: “This scenario also has two variations: one where Russia ousts Lukashenko on its own and one where the transfer of power occurs in some sort of consensus with the West, as happened in Moldova in 2019.”

”Sudden death”

(Lukashenko is removed in a manner not under Russia’s control, which would induce Russia to intervene, primarily with police and special forces, to save its influence).

Jakob Hedenskog: “This could take place in the form of new protests or even acts of terrorism. A chaotic development would be unacceptable to Russia. Russia would be prepared to accept the major risk of new sanctions and of even worse relations with the West in order not to lose its influence in Belarus.”

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