How the Union-State of Belarus and Russia affects the European Union
28 July, 2020
The impact of a Union-State between Russia and Belarus may not seem all that significant to Europeans at first glance. However, the secondary and tertiary effects could completely change the security dynamic on the Eastern flank of the EU – all of which are members of NATO. In effect, if the Union State were to happen, and I believe it eventually will, it would give Russia the ability to project complete military power surrounding the Baltic states, through the opposite end of the Sulwaki Gap in Poland, and the ability to invade the whole of Western Ukraine. While the likelihood of any one of this happening remains low, it still gives the Kremlin the ability to weaponize the region in a way that pales in comparison to the status quo.
Belarus on its own is little more than a landlocked rump state with a stagnant economy and is a living testament to Soviet nostalgia. Even so, it remains an important buffer for both the EU and NATO, and for that matter, Russia. The aim should not be to try to integrate Belarus into the Western bloc; rather, the West should make a concerted effort that it remains neutral even though it will remain a de-facto ally of Moscow. To do this, both the US and the EU will have to have a coordinated policy on what the red lines are and what consequences will follow, be it downgrading of economic relations, sanctions, or a further military build-up of Eastern Europe. However, in order do that, we must dive a bit into the history and present realities of Belarusian-Russian relations, and more importantly the current complex dynamics of the region.
The original idea of a Union-State started with the “Commonwealth of Belarus and Russia” in Spring of 1996 by former Russian Premier Boris Yeltsin and Belarus’ still present leader Aleksandr Lukashenko. This was formalised in late 1999 and officially called the “Union State of Russia and Belarus.” Originally Lukashenko thought he could be the prime candidate to replace Yeltsin in the successor state. However, that was before Vladimir Putin came on to the scene. Throughout Putin’s time in power, he and Lukashenko have seldom seen eye to eye. Even so, Lukashenko has always been careful about poking the “big bear.” While some parts of the treaty have gone into effect over the years, for the most part, the two countries have retained their own autonomy and political interests despite being close allies.
It has only been since the invasion of the breakaway Georgia republics and Ukraine that Belarus has looked at their large eastern neighbour with an increasingly wary eye. Despite the close partnership, Belarus has decided to remain neutral on Russia’s forays much to Kremlin’s chagrin. Nor has the country recognized Russia’s dubious client states for the simple fact that Lukashenko knows, even if it is unlikely to happen in a direct manner, that Belarus could always be next depending on how the political winds blow.
President Lukashenko is up for election in August, and despite arresting both of his main opponents, one them is still on the ballot and the wife of the other is running in his stead. The most popular candidate is Viktor Babariko, who until his decision to run for office within the last few months, was the Chairman of Belgazprombank – a Belarusian subsidiary of the infamous Russian oil company Gazprom. It is no secret that Barbariko has close ties to Russia, but it is unclear to what extent he has cooperated or will cooperate with Kremlin. Both he and his son Eduard were arrested by the Belarusian government back in January on charges of money laundering. His campaign says it has collected 435,000 signatures from voters, which is well over the 100,000-threshold set by the government.
All of this, the general discontent around Belarus’ stagnating economy and the abysmal human rights abuses, have caused a string of massive protests that have rocked Minsk in the last days. Not surprisingly, Lukashenko’s cronies have also arrested another popular candidate – activist blogger Sergei Tikhanovski. Amidst the backdrop of the current protests, some are beginning to wonder if this is not the start of a revolution similar to the one that occurred in Ukraine in the early 2000s. It is already been dubbed the “Slipper Revolution,” on account of the fact that Tikhanovski said he will be taking a slipper to Lukashenko, who he has repeatedly called a cockroach. There is no doubt that the nickname is catchy and by Belarusian standards, has definitely picked up steam.
The irony of this is that earlier in the year, Lukashenko allowed protests over Russian pressure to fulfil the obligations it has under the Union-State pact. The fear amongst Belarusians was largely over the fact that they would lose their own independence as a state and would be at the whims of Moscow. This ignited an unprecedented energy in the Belarusian people not previously seen to the same extent in other election cycles. Somehow Lukashenko has always weaselled his way out of Russian pressure. However, it is evident that Russia still looms in the shadows waiting for an opportune time to make its next move. Minsk has been playing the West and Russia off of each other for some time, but in the last months, they have been especially adept at it.
Somewhere couched in all of this drama has been the pressure from Kremlin to finalize the Union-State. Because of Belarus’ reticence, Russia has been reducing oil subsidies that the government would turn around and sell for an upcharge to other European states. Needless to say, this was an important source of revenue (11-billion euros), and the small Eastern European country feels increasingly squeezed as a result. Not surprisingly, Lukashenko has also accused Moscow (and Poland even) of election meddling. Of course, this is just Lukashenko deflecting, but at the same time it is hard not to believe that Russia is not meddling in some way given what already transpired in 2016 in the US election.
Geopolitics of the Region
Naturally this leads to a principle question: “what does all of this mean for the EU?”. Until recently relations with both the EU (and also the US) seemed to be on the mend. In February, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Minsk as a sign of rapprochement and has since offered to sell 100-percent of their oil. Relations with the EU have improved to a point to where high level officials have started to put visa liberalisation on the docket and are concluding an agreement for easier readmission to the Schengen area. There was also a high-level visit to Austria by Lukashenko in late 2019. This is not happening in a vacuum, and EU officials, whether they publicly acknowledge it or not, know how vulnerable Belarus is to Russian manipulation. This is why there has been a steady push to improve relations with Minsk and more calls for broader engagement.
Currently, the main problem is Lukashenko’s arrest of opposition candidates which puts the West between a rock and a hard place. Does the bloc bite the bullet and go against its “values” and continue with rapprochement, or does it shutter any progress made and increasingly run the risk of Belarus becoming completely isolated? The answer should be neither. Here is why: Most of the sanctions will remain, and Lukashenko or his successor will have to decide what steps toward democratic progress they want to make in a carrot and stick approach. Furthermore, Belarus is not a candidate for NATO or EU admission, and nor will it be at any point in the coming years. Conversely, it is also not in the interest of the West to do nothing while Russia swallows another country it sees as one of its fiefdoms. In this case it would allow Russia to park its military on an increasingly large swath of the EU’s eastern flank – all of which are NATO members and an important strategic partner – Ukraine.
“The likelihood of an invasion would still remain low, because short of a quick and direct strike of limited means or God forbid a nuclear war, Russia knows that in any protracted conflict it would not just lose, it would be embarrassed”
The countries, in particular, that are most aware of this are Poland and the Baltic trio. If Moscow does eventually have its way, then this could present a two-fold scenario, neither of which are good. First, if the Russian military is parked in Belarus, then it puts it a stone’s throw away from having direct access to its enclave of Kaliningrad, and it would allow Russian forces to surround the Baltic states and Poland from two sides. The likelihood of an invasion would still remain low, because short of a quick and direct strike of limited means or God forbid a nuclear war, Russia knows that in any protracted conflict it would not just lose, it would be embarrassed. Kremlin is fully aware of its limitations and would only take such a calculated risk if it felt there was a strong possibility that the West would back down.
Most projections say Russia could invade the Baltic states in 60 hours or less. In essence, one could imagine if it had the ability to also project powers from the Russian mainland, Kaliningrad, and Western Belarus. This also would not just put the EU’s eastern flank at risk, but also the whole of Western Ukraine if Russia were to have access to Belarusian territory. The fact that Ukraine is not a part of NATO nor the EU would make it a much more likely target. Even so, this would completely change the security dynamics of Europe if it were to happen. Moscow has proven that it is not afraid to act militarily within the former Soviet space if it suits its interests, and anyone who thinks it is inconceivable that it cannot or will not again is missing the point that Putin wants the West to think “No way it could happen again.” The likelihood of any one of these scenarios occurring will remain significantly low, but most would have said the same before Russia invaded Crimea and kicked off a hybrid war in the Donbass region. Let’s also not forget about Georgia.
This is why, both the EU and the US must be engaged on these issues. What seems like a non-issue today could turn into a huge dynamic shifting moment tomorrow. It has already happened before and it is not out of the realm of possibilities it could happen again. In particular, consistency from Brussels is crucial in forming a strategy to work with an irritant like Lukashenko and trying to keep its behemoth of neighbour to the East from its worst imperialistic inhibitions. It is easy to understand why Eastern Europe feels so threatened by Russian sabre-rattling. Despite this inconsistency in security policy, diplomacy from the West is still the best tool to mitigate any potential conflict. Given that even the remote possibility of any of these scenarios is unpleasant, it is crucial that the EU engages with both Belarus and Russia and draws clear red lines on where broader European security could be imperilled.
My Personal Take
Despite spending most of his life in the Soviet Union, I believe Putin thinks more like a Russian tsar than he does as a Soviet apparatchik. Make no mistake, Putin is a nationalist and his vision for Russia is to recreate the Russian empire. He clearly faces many difficulties, but his eyes are more on the long game than they are on the immediate future – something both the EU and the US constantly do when it comes to strategy. Basically, I believe Putin is focused on what Russia could be and not what it is now. His goal is to maintain the status quo and maximise opportunities wherever they may exist and right now that means Belarus.
This is all part of a bigger strategy on Russia’s behalf to reassert dominance (at a minimum) within the former Soviet space, Eastern Europe, and other traditional spheres of influence bit by bit whether directly or by proxy. For the time being, it is about maintaining the status quo and not losing ground. Syria, for example, is their ticket to access in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Propping up Maduro in Venezuela is a way to retain atleast some influence in Latin America. It should go without saying that Russia’s geopolitical moves in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet space are, however, their main priority. While not a stranger to mistakes, a big part of Putin’s strategy is based on filling vacuums left by inconsistency in European and American leadership. They know that they would stand no chance if they were to directly militarily engage the West; so, their aim is to do it from the sides, undermining trust in institutions, and with hybrid warfare.
Regional organisations like the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Treaty Security Organisation (CTSO), are from my viewpoint, meant to bolster Russian influence and control of the former Soviet space with the hope that it does not have to use more divisive means to get its former fiefdoms under heel. In the case of Georgia and Ukraine, they have already experienced what happens when one attempts to go beyond the Russian sphere. What actually may complicate this for Russia, at least in Central Asia, is China. Despite relations between the two hegemons being on the upswing, Putin has no intention of playing second fiddle to Beijing. Europe should keep this in mind as a way to bring them back toward the Western orbit. It remains to be seen how Kremlin will handle Chinese influence in Central Asia, and if they would use similar coercive means if they move beyond a point of influence deemed acceptable by Kremlin.
With an economy smaller than the state of Texas by a decent margin, and barely outpacing Spain, it goes without saying that Russia has a relatively weak economy, especially with energy prices plummeting on account of COVID-19. The EU has far more leverage than what they are assuming; yet, a big problem is that they are not willing to use it in direct diplomatic engagement with Moscow. Even so, I believe if the EU (ideally in tandem with the US) formed a cogent strategy, then at least some of the nonsense Russia is up to in Belarus would stop. The EU nor the US can really stop the formation of a Union-State especially if Belarus does it willingly, but if subversive means or a direct invasion were to happen there must be clear red lines drawn. This is also true with the possibility of Russia parking its military in Belarus. If multiple other rounds of blistering sanctions from the US and EU were put on the table over a Russian military presence in Belarus, it may not stop them in the end, but it would make them think long and hard about their next moves.
It is hard to read the tea leaves on what comes next as with the Covid-19 situation not likely to be resolved soon, it is hard to say how the bigger picture will ultimately play out. For Belarus, in particular, Lukashenko will very likely retain control, and Kremlin will try to create a façade of taking a hands-off approach. However, they will be pressuring Minsk at every chance they get with a watchful eye on how both the EU and the US react. This is why, it is critical that engagement with Belarus be a much higher priority in European security topics than it already is. The goal should not be to try to bring them into the Western orbit, which would be foolish for many reasons. Rather, the goal should be the neutrality of Belarusian territory, even if they move forward with the Union State.
From the Russian perspective, Belarus is not just a strategic priority, instead it is in tandem with Ukraine. By the Russians themselves, Belarus is considered ‘nashe,’ which in Russian means ‘ours.’ This means that for them, it is an extension of the Russian state itself. European policy makers must keep this mind when engaging with Russia on their intentions on Belarus. There is little that can be done to stop a Union-State, but with the right calibrated diplomatic efforts and clear red lines (and with Russian sensitivities in mind), the West could quite possibly stave off the risk of major escalation out of the interest of both sides and most importantly in the interest of European security.