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A nation must think before it acts.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus was the rare former Soviet state that remained strategically aligned with the Russian Federation. In 1999, Russia and Belarus reached an agreement to become a “union state,” which aimed to create a USSR-like federation with a similar government, currency, flag, and army. Over the past two decades, the union state has primarily aimed at economic integration, with efforts in the defense and intelligence sectors as well. This agreement is part of Moscow’s effort to reestablish regional hegemony in the former Soviet space by concluding new alliance agreements. Forming the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led intergovernmental military alliance organization of select former Soviet states that ensures the collective defense of its members, was also part of this strategy. Minsk’s poor relations with the West in recent years, primarily due to human rights violations, has motivated a newfound closeness to Moscow. The European Union imposed economic sanctions on Belarus in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election that was largely viewed as corrupt, solidifying the end of previously amicable policy relations. The growing unity between Moscow and Minsk isolates Belarus from countries in the West, resulting in increased dependence and commitment to Russia’s strategic goals.
Since Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s election in 1994, Russia’s importance in the country’s economy markedly increased. Cheap oil and gas exported from Russia represent 15% of Belarus’ gross domestic product (GDP), and Russia accounts for 41% of Belarussian exports. During times of escalated tension between Russia and the West, Belarus has served as Russia’s “middleman” by importing goods from the European Union, coining them as “Belarusian,” and re-exporting them to Russia, and vice versa. The relationship, however, is not completely symbiotic. Russia needs Belarus as an ally for energy trade since the pipeline that runs through the country is one of the only reliable transporters of energy resources from Russia to Europe remaining for Moscow to utilize.
These seemingly good relations have come with their share of tension: Multiple disputes have led both sides to meddle in each other’s markets. After Belarus violated a pipeline agreement with Russia in the mid-2000s, Russia raised gas prices and reduced flow, yielding less gas for higher prices. In response, Belarus increased transit fees and extracted gas destined for other countries. Russia, then, increased prices again, forcing Belarus to sell 50% of the pipeline back to Russian energy company Gazprom. Belarusian economic dependence on Russia prevents it from setting stronger boundaries with Moscow. Lukashenko’s previous policy has been to keep Russia at arm’s length while still maintaining close ties.
The previous cordial relations between Belarus and the West have largely deteriorated due to Belarusian corruption and human rights violations. Belarus’s fraudulent 2020 presidential election caused riots and unlawful imprisonment of protesters. Lukashenko’s regime has since cracked down hard on democracy movements, sending hundreds into exile and putting thousands in prison. He infamously detained journalists Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega after unlawfully landing a Ryanair flight in Minsk in May 2021. This caused strife with other countries as the plane landed for “safety reasons.” Both journalists were accused of breaking Belarusian law, but it was unclear what law, and no additional explanation was released regarding their detainment. The Belarus government claimed this was a “preemptive measure,” but its lack of transparency and regard for international norms angered Western watchers. Tensions have also risen due to a Belarus-driven immigration crisis imposed on Lithuania and Poland; Belarus illegally pushed thousands of Iraqi migrants into both countries, causing them to declare a state of emergency. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared these actions “a diplomatic conflict” and “an attempt to violate the integrity of the Polish state, the sovereignty of our borders.”
In light of deteriorating policy relations, Belarus is now isolated from the West. This isolation has forced Lukashenko into a corner, making him fully compliant and willing to cater to Russia’s needs for support. This situation motivated Lukashenko to remove the neutrality clause in Belarus’ constitution in July 2021, publicly displaying his full allegiance to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly supported the decision, affirming that the constitutional removal was Belarus “publicly relinquishing any obligations to the West and demonstrating full involvement in Moscow’s strategic priorities.” On August 30, Putin declared that Russia can “always count on Belarus for support.” On September 13, the two presidents announced plans for deeper economic integration under the slogan “two countries, one economy.”
Despite the asymmetric power dynamic, Lukashenko has tested Putin by publicly opposing Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea. Lukashenko has called Russia’s annexation of Crimea “a bad precedent being created.” In the past, Lukashenko’s attempts to improve diplomatic relations with the West by releasing political prisoners, loosening media restrictions, and hosting members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to discuss the Ukrainian war have angered the Kremlin. Despite this “rebellious” behavior, Belarus has received no genuine punishment from Russia due to Moscow’s need for it as an ally. Russia’s deteriorating foreign relations force the Kremlin to depend on Belarus as an ally. With the Zapad-2021 military exercises, it is clear that Russia’s goal is to assert greater control over Belarus—and Belarus appears to be complying.
The Zapad-2021 exercises, joint military exercises between Belarus and Russia, further support Russia’s plans for integration. The exercises showcased a scenario in which Russia defends Belarus from attacks by “Nyaris, Pomoria, and the Polar Republic,” which are aliases for Lithuania, Poland, and a Scandinavian country. In the exercises, Belarus “responds” to Western-backed terrorists causing instability relating to Lukashenko’s previous claims that protests to his election are pretexts to a planned invasion of Belarus by NATO. The exercises occurred in two phases, the first facilitated deflecting NATO intervention, and the second facilitated stabilizing a situation involving Western-backed terrorists. These exercises also included an integrated air and missile defense system in Grodno and a reassignment of Belarusian soldiers to Russian districts via Russian Military Commander Anatoly Sidorov’s suggestion. Furthermore, Russia created a special forces unit that includes four Belarusian brigades. Russia not only wanted to prepare for aggression against the West, but it also wanted to demonstrate its military prowess in conjunction with Belarus.
Although Belarusians have continued to protest the deepening Russia-Belarus military ties, Russian armed forces expert Michael Kofman asserts that “it is in Minsk’s best interests to invite a much larger Russian footprint as a show of support for the regime.” Although a permanent military base is yet to exist, Putin has been pressuring Belarus for one since 2015. Lukashenko’s newfound dependence on Russia could result in the establishment of a permanent military base, proposed by Putin to be held in Babyrusk and hold SU-27 fighter jets. While integration is the ultimate goal, further instability in Belarus is seen as an unwelcome inconvenience by Moscow, as Lukashenko’s anger towards his neighbors could lead to an accidental flare up. While troops were stationed in Belarus prior to Zapad, a larger number stayed after the exercises. Now, a more sizable Russian contingent remains in Belarus, and Russian troops are much closer to the border with Poland than ever, indicating this joint drill could become more permanent than a military exercise. Belarusian independence has slowly diminished as Russia’s military presence expands and may signal the end of previously enjoyed sovereignty.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.