Belarus is the only Russian ally left in Europe: what is in it for them?
While all European nations have condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is one country Russia can still count on: Belarus. Russia even used its territory as a stepping stone for the invasion. We spoke with Matthew Frear, Assistant Professor and expert on contemporary Belarus, to shed light on the country's strategy and its loyalty to Russia.
It is often assumed that Belarus is always going to be a loyal partner of Russia, but Frear says that this does not paint the full picture. Although there is a very close relationship, that does not automatically mean that Belarus has always done everything that was expected of it.
Play both sides
In the past, the country would try to not be completely under the thumb of Moscow. Its foreign policy could have been best described as trying to play both sides. ‘Lukashenko has been president of Belarus for nearly 30 years. He doesn't want to be a governor of a region in an expanded Russian Federation. The Belarusian government has always wanted to be loyal to Russia for their own benefit: to get cheap oil and gas,’ Frear explains.
‘They have continuously made promises to Russia and the West and done their utmost to avoid keeping them. If you read the speeches Lukashenko has made over time, you see they contradict each other. One year he talks about the importance of the West and the next year he says the West is terrible and that our brothers in Moscow are our best friends,’ he says. ‘It has always been a case of getting as much as they can for as little as possible. But after 20 years of doing that, everybody knows that trick.’
Independent or puppet state?
And with the sanctions resulting from the 2020 protests, Belarus has become isolated from the West and has only Russia to turn to. ‘I would say Lukashenko is the weakest he has ever been. In the past, he was able to maintain control with his own forces, but during the protests in 2020 they depended on Russia for support.’ This dependence means less room for manoeuvre for Belarus. ‘Because of that, Belarus has found itself cornered and engaged in the war in Ukraine. In the past, Moscow has often talked about how they would like to have a military base in Belarus, but Belarus has always resisted. However, now, after the training exercises, Russia just kept its troops there and invaded Ukraine from Belarus. There is even the suspicion that Lukashenko didn't know beforehand that Russia was planning to invade Ukraine from their territory.’
But if Belarus has little to no room to determine its own strategy, can you still call it an independent country? Frear thinks you can, although there are a few catches. ‘It has never been as if everything is being dictated by Moscow. They have tried to do their own thing whenever possible,’ he begins. ‘You could argue that, because they couldn't stop Russia from staying in their territory to launch an attack, they are not controlling their border any more. That is a real sign of weakness in terms of proper independence. But on the other hand, they haven’t committed to sending troops themselves. That could be a sign they are acting independently.’
When it comes to Lukashenko's and Belarus’ future, there is a lot of uncertainty. ‘I suspect he will try to stay on as president. The next presidential election will be in 2025. The question is whether he will be supported by the elites and Moscow,’ Frear explains. Russia is a real concern. ‘What happened to Ukraine will be at the back of their minds. It is like, if we complain too much, this could happen here too. It is not impossible that Russia could decide to keep its troops in Belarus or to override the authorities. However, things are dragging on in Ukraine. Russia is going to be focused on that, so if Minsk doesn't annoy or betray Moscow, they should be all right.’