In the mid-1990s, Minsk signed several treaties and agreements with Moscow that prioritized a pro-Russian geopolitical orientation. These treaties culminated in the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus in 1999. This Union is largely symbolic. Based on the principle of equality between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus, it has yet to be realized due to conflicting intentions. However, unlike other post-Soviet states, Belarus would renounce its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and proclaim integration with Russia its main foreign policy priority. In addition, Belarus would provide Russia with security from the West as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanded Eastward. In return, Moscow would guarantee preferential energy supplies, privileged access of Belarusian goods to the Russian market, and financial resources. Thus, the deal was an exchange of Russian economic assistance, so-called integration subsidies, for Belarus’ geopolitical loyalty.
Since 2015, however, the Kremlin consistently has reconsidered the terms and conditions of the strategic deal, cutting the level of integration subsidies and demanding deeper political, military, and economic integration from Belarus. Russia is thus violating the spirit of the deal, while Belarus remains committed. This process also is motivated by shifts in Russia’s geostrategic doctrine, demonstrated primarily by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. This conflict has affected relations between Minsk and Moscow. Belarus’ reluctance to support Moscow in its confrontation with Ukraine and the West has exacerbated the Kremlin’s phobia of losing geopolitical control over the country, thereby provoking permanent tensions. Turbulence in relations also is determined by various forms of military, political, economic, and even informational pressure on Belarus from the Kremlin. Moscow’s final goal is to force Belarusian authorities to make strategic concessions that guarantee Russian interests and undermine the national sovereignty and independence of Belarus.
This is the essence of the so-called integration ultimatum formulated by the Kremlin at the end of 2018. However, its roots date to 2015 when Russia tried pushing several initiatives aimed at deeper political-military integration with Belarus. Although the ultimatum demands deeper economic integration within the Union State framework, the Kremlin has been advancing initiatives to reshape the current model of the Belarus-Russia political and military alliance. These initiatives suggest that the Kremlin is not satisfied with the status quo. Instead, it seeks a relationship in which Belarus, currently enjoying a high level of strategic autonomy, becomes asymmetrically dependent on Russia in economics, politics, and security.
On the one hand, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has opposed such an abuse of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty. On the other hand, Minsk is ready to discuss certain economic integration issues with Moscow to form a common market for the free movement of goods, services, labor, and capital. However, the Kremlin considers even economic integration in geopolitical terms as it looks to secure Belarus’ presence in the Russian sphere of influence. In addition to its clear geopolitical motivations, the integration ultimatum serves elements of the Russian domestic political agenda. Forming a Union State by 2024, for instance, may present an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to retain power after his current presidential term ends. It also may demonstrate a new Russian geopolitical success. But above all, it helps to solve a strategic task of keeping Belarus in Russia’s geopolitical orbit.
Conflicting views between Minsk and Moscow regarding the Union State may cause a crisis in bilateral relations, particularly as Belarus refuses to make concessions that undermine its sovereignty. Negotiations on economic integration are designed so that Belarus can withdraw if Minsk senses this danger. Because Russia will not make concessions on preserving integration subsidies unless Belarus gives up its independence and sovereignty, an escalation of tension is inevitable.
To withstand a confrontation with the Kremlin, Belarus must reduce its economic dependence on Russia and mobilize political, economic, and diplomatic assistance from the international community. Otherwise, there is a risk that Belarus will be transformed from a supporter of regional security and stability into a source of security threats and challenges.