Where it all went wrong - recent history
After the USSR dissolved, Belarus took a few years to re-organise and start down a new path.
Alexander Lukashenko, the current president, initially ran as an independent and populist in 1994. In the run-up to the election he had already built a bit of a reputation as strongly anti-corruption. His presidential campaign promised not to fall in on any particular left or right ideology but to target corruption. A big part of his pitch, and one of the reasons he won, was that he promised to recognise Belarus’s former soviet status and align with Russia.
In general, things seemed to be going relatively well for Belarus and Lukashenko. Russia, by comparison, had a stronger economy, but Yeltsin was an ineffective president.
Throughout the 90s Lukashenko seemed to keep successfully taking advantage of this. Discussions between Belarus and Russia on forming a monetary union already started in 93-94. By 96, a “Treaty Forming a Community” was signed by Yeltsin and Lukashenko, aligning foreign and economic policies, governed by a Supreme State Council and Executive Committee. Lukashenko remains the Chairman of the Supreme State Council to this day. Admittedly, neither the council nor the committee have any real power, but it was the first slow move forward toward some kind of integration. Further treaties followed in 97 and 98, finally creating the “Union State” in 99.
The end goal was a full unification of Russia and Belarus. Lukashenko looked likely to become the new leader of this new united country.
Unfortunately for him, this all came to a complete stop when Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in 2000. The relationship between Belarus and Russia has remained good but not been quite the same since. Two things probably happened 1) Putin put a stop to this on the Russian side and started a reorientation, and 2) Lukashenko must have realised that proceeding under a strong Putin would not work to his advantage. Belarus has, until recently, resisted further integration with Russia.
In the meantime, Lukashenko remained, by reasonable estimation, a popular president. There’s plenty of reason to believe that he might actually have won his subsequent elections (except in 2020) without any undue interference.
Lukashenko remains strong but his power has been declining for 20 years. This is informing his government’s domestic policy, and international policy toward Russia and the west. The worse things get internationally, the worse things seem to get domestically, which in turn is pushing worse foreign policy. Belarus is in a difficult position and its options limited because of everything Lukashenko is doing to hold onto power.
With hindsight, Lukashenko overplayed his hand in the years leading up to 2000. In the years after he seems to have overplayed his hand again with both Russia and the west, trying to get as much as possible out of both.
Hedging your bets - relationships with Russia and the west
Lukashenko tried to keep a balanced relationship between Russia and the West. This was always very risky and he has drawn it out as long as realistically possible. Belarus was always ultimately much more likely to fall in with Russia than the West.
Drawing this out has helped Lukashenko keep personal power for longer. Drawing this out has also already made his personal situation, and Belarus’s, much worse now that the options have run out. Belarus should expect to pay a high price for making Russia wait this long and an even higher price still as Russia is the only place it can turn to for help.
The Maidan protests and revolution in Ukraine in 2014 had an impact on Lukashenko. So did the Russian annexation of Crimea, which he initially did not recognise (Radio Free Europe 23-Mar-2014). It made him more amenable to the west (Moscow Times 22-Apr-2014). He was likely afraid that something similar (both revolution and annexation) could happen in Belarus. There was some precedent for this. Belarus didn’t recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Reuters 08-Sep-2008) in line with Russia. The events in Ukraine seem to have been a bit more serious. It’s hard to judge how serious. There were at least some efforts at “derussification”.
This meant, for example, some promotion of the Belarussian language (Russian is by far the most widely spoken language), and an emphasis on greater sovereignty. For the first time anyone could identify, Lukashenko delivered a speech in Belarussian, not Russian, ahead of Belarus’s Independence Day (Radio Free Europe 02-Jul-2014), ahead of Putin visiting for the celebrations.
It’s not clear how effective or long-lasting this was with Belarussians. Russia was and remains popular with Belarussians. There’s no obvious Russian enclave or population which Russia might decide it needs to protect. There’s no real need for Russia to do anything at all. Belarus is well aligned. Flights between Minsk and Moscow are treated as domestic. The border between Belarus and Russia is practically non-existent. On the other hand, there’s interesting (polling and anecdotal) evidence which suggests Russian propaganda is more effective the further away from the border you get. The more time you actually spend looking at Russia, the more you know that the presentation and reality don’t quite match up.
In the post-USSR scramble, Belarus is one of Russia’s clearer foreign policy successes.
The younger generations, however, are a bit different. They spend a lot more time looking to the west, going to Poland and Lithuania for partying and shopping. The Belarussian young are much more likely to be pro-foreigners and pro-western.
It’s hard for the government to control online freedom. It’s necessary for prosperity. It’s also full of different opinions and shows alternatives.
If the events in Ukraine in 2014 pushed Belarus toward the west, the election and protests in 2020 reversed this entirely. The addition of the Polish border crisis in 2021 has probably burned all of Belarus’s (or at least Lukashenko’s) bridges with the west and put all its eggs in the Russian basket.
The customer is always right - popular unrest
On 09-Aug-2020 there was a presidential election.
It became widely disputed (BBC 10-Aug-2020). Protests started in May (Radio Free Europe 25-May-2020) and led to the largest political protests which Belarus had ever seen over the next months and into 2021. These protests were unusual and dangerous in a very real way. A lot more older people and women, two groups which don’t usually politically protest anywhere, came out against Lukashenko.
This was particularly embodied by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the presidential election. She was a late entry as an independent. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a YouTuber, was arrested on flimsy grounds two days after he announced that he would run for president (Washington Post 23-Jul-2020).
One of the difficulties for Lukashenko is that none of the opposition parties are realistically “pro-West”. They all favour good relations with Russia. The opposition can’t be presented as unpatriotic at all. This is also Russia’s problem. The flag of choice at the protests was the white-red-white tricolour, a symbol of independence from the 90s (Guardian 22-Aug-2020). This all lends itself more to a Belarussian, anti-Russian nationalism.
Ideally for Russia it would have a popular and pro-Russia leader in Belarus. The obvious compromise all around is to replace Lukashenko. That could also lend itself to a containment strategy. Putin certainly doesn’t want any momentum going. It’s also interesting that the chain of command (if Lukashenko is killed or incapacitated) will now go to the National Security Council instead of the Prime Minister (DW 24-Apr-2021). Lukashenko’s son Viktor plays a prominent role on the council. There’s some speculation that he is being prepared as a successor. It’s too early to judge.
Containment in mind, Lukashenko staying is the better bet in this case. At least he is pro-Russia. The longer term problem for Russia is that the younger generations in Belarus are not as interested in having a pro-Russian leader. In the meantime, Lukashenko attempted a kind of fig leaf compromise. Constitutional changes to limit some of his powers, and a referendum, was promised (Al Jazeera 31-Dec-2020).
It’s not likely that this would help regain some favour in the West. The west is deeply ideologically pro-democracy. It’s very keen to avoid supporting any more dictatorships, monarchies, etc. than it feels it really has to. If Lukashenko hadn’t burnt all of Belarus’s bridges with the west because of the presidential election, his next actions certainly did. He forced a Ryanair flight to land under false pretences of a terrorist threat so that it could arrest a journalist (Reuters 23-May-2021). Arresting a journalist for political reasons is bad enough. Seizing a foreign commercial flight was even worse.
Lukashenko has aligned himself, and therefore Belarus, with Russia. Russia probably doesn’t like him very much. Lukashenko’s political position and stability, never mind Belarus’s economy, relies on Russian support. This means that the only real cards Lukashenko has left to play is to make himself useful to Russia.
Testing the water - Polish border crisis
The border crisis (ongoing) touches on a lot of issues. Above all it’s a case of Lukashenko trying to make himself useful to Russia. It is very unlikely that anything Belarus is doing is without Russian approval. It looks like the west is being tested for its responses.
One of the more minor issues was that after the Ryanair hijacking, air travel was severely curbed. For a start, international airlines began pulling out of Belarus (New York Times 25-May-2021). Adding the pandemic on top of this, fewer and fewer people were flying to or even above Belarus. Belavia, the Belarussian national airline, was forced to cancel dozens of flights (FlightGlobal 31-May-2021). In the mix of sanctions, and in the first forays of a migrant crisis involving Belarus, the Prime Ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland issued a joint statement calling for action on “new irregular migration routes” (Press Release 23-Aug-2021).
Belavia and the entire Belarussian air travel industry was in trouble. It began flying more people from the Middle East. Turkey was a particular hotspot of onward travel from Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Yemenis. The Turkish Civil Aviation Authority has now stopped citizens from these countries from flying to Belarus (Twitter 12-Nov-2021). Belavia made a statement on the same day that it would also block citizens of these countries from boarding its planes in Turkey, but they didn’t have a choice. The UAE has also stopped certain countries’ citizens from flying to Belarus (Reuters 15-Nov-2021) and with it closed Belarus’s last aviation route to the Middle East.
It’s not entirely a surprise that Belarus would try to make money in such a roundabout and questionable way. In certain circles it is infamous as a landlocked country for its supposed salmon, trout, and shrimp (Euractiv 20-Aug-2014) exports. Belarus was in fact Norway’s top purchaser of salmon and trout in 2019 (Salmon Business 30-Dec-2019) which was then re-labelled as “Belarussian” and sold to Russia as a way to avoid certain sanctions and retaliatory measures which were put on Russia, and Russia on Norway.
Middle Eastern migration addressed a particular short-term problem for Belavia but the issue is much bigger. There’s no way that Belavia, as a state-owned airline in a highly authoritarian country, could act on its own and cause a problem like this.
The specific location and highly visible nature of this border crisis is notable. There are forests and mountains further to the south which are useful for all sorts of smuggling (including people) between Poland and Belarus.
It also doesn’t include Belarus, though it is not an obvious inclusion. It’s not on any of the seas or on the way to any of them.
The Three Seas Initiative is not particularly in China’s interests either. It bisects the Belt and Road Initiative routes into Europe and Belarus is an important partner for China.
China says that it and Belarus are “iron brothers” (Press Release 11-Jun-2020). Until recently it was politically stable, geographically well-positioned, and a potentially great gateway to Europe. Centralised political authority works well for China. China understands state-led economies and it would allow them to reorganise Belarus to their advantage.
Cutting off Belarus from Europe contradicts the idea that it could be a gateway to Europe, which favours Russian interests, but if it helps strengthen Lukashenko this is also in China’s interests.
Causing trouble for migrants is also potentially good for China. As touched on earlier, Lithuania joined Latvia, Estonia, and Poland in a call to close Belarussian air routes. Lithuania is also in trouble with China over recognising Taiwan (BBC 21-Nov-2021). Lithuania is also the first European country to start building a border wall preventing migrant invasions from Belarus to the east (DW 09-Jul-2021).
The West also underestimates how well aligned Russia and China are. It is one of the greatest blunders of Western so-called foreign policy experts. Is an autocratic Russia more likely to align with the critical and undermining west or a non-judgemental China? China also has a lot of interests in Russian mineral resources and a potential new shipping route through the Arctic (Frontier Mogul 09-Mar-2021).
How much of the trouble in Belarus is not because of Russia but because of China?
Ukrainian intelligence is worried about what Russia may do in 2022. The Polish Prime Minister thinks that this is all a prelude to something worse (Reuters 22-Nov-2021).
It’s not clear what exactly that might be.
Observers should also be on the lookout in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, perhaps Transnistria, Kaliningrad, and other sensitive territories for Russia.
Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave is full of troops and weapons and a serious obstacle to any NATO land response if there was ever war in the Baltic countries.
Almost all of the exports from Kaliningrad to Russia go by land through Belarus. If Belarus ever left Russia’s sphere of influence it would cut off an important Russian defensive territory. It might also encourage Kaliningrad to make a serious push for independence. Bringing Belarus closer to Russia makes Kaliningrad safer for Russia. A huge amount of Russia's military strategy and war has focused on ports. Kaliningrad is a valuable one.
Gas supply is another interesting element. Lukashenko closed the pipelines from Russia (TASS 17-Nov-2021) for “maintenance” for three days. They then reopened (Pipeline Technology Journal 22-Nov-2021). Again, it is very unlikely that this was done without Russian approval. Gas prices in Europe are very high, perhaps in part due to this. Russia may have expected these manoeuvres to make the Nord Stream 2 pipeline more likely. It doesn’t seem to have worked. Germany’s energy regulator suspended approval (BBC 17-Nov-2021). Perhaps Germany saw through the fuss and refused to give Russia something it wanted.
The situation is ongoing. It’s particularly interesting that the border crisis seems to be alleviating a little. It could be that the western response firmed up. Belarus is moving people out of the make-shift border camps to warehouses (BBC 20-Nov-2021). This is just in time. Migrants have already frozen to death (Daily Mail 11-Nov-2021) and it’s not even the deepest winter yet. How would it look if Belarus left these people to freeze to death?
There are also some reports and rumours that some of these migrants have tried to make their way south to Ukraine. If so, some have probably crossed there successfully.
Ukraine already wants its own 2,500km border fence too (Reuters 19-Nov-2021). The head of Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency, Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, believes there’s a high risk that Russia is preparing to attack Ukraine in Jan-2022 (Military Times 20-Nov-2021). Earlier this year, the Royal Navy’s HMS Defender sailed deliberately close to Crimea, provoking a strong Russian response (BBC 23-Jun-2021). The UK also signed a defence deal to sell ships and weapons to Ukraine (Sky News 16-Nov-2021).
Belarus and the migrant crisis could be very useful for more destabilisation at a minimum and infiltration at worst.
Bigger picture - other things to look for
Belarus is still a difficult problem for Russia. It doesn’t want to lose an ally because it would affect Kaliningrad and gas pipelines. It also wants Belarus on side regarding territorial recognition in Crimea and elsewhere, but doesn’t want to make it feel afraid for itself. Russia doesn’t want to risk its relationship with Belarus but also can’t allow potentially contagious political freedom.
The border crisis is certainly more complicated than the surface issues. Ukraine is a very obvious place to keep an eye on.
A less obvious place might be the Balkans.
One of the most overlooked aspects of the migrant crisis is that it’s a large migration of muslims into Europe. A lot of European countries are already struggling with all sorts of issues from social integration all the way up to terrorism. Is the migrant crisis an attempt to further destabilise Europe with more muslim migrants?
Nevermind Western and Northern Europe. The West should watch out for the one place in Europe which already has a very difficult and recent history with muslims and which are perhaps more aligned with Russia than the west might think.
What would the west and/or the EU do with that kind of trouble much further into its heart, the wrong side of the Carpathians?
Another but less obvious actor to watch is China. It has its own interests in Belarus, the wider region, and a positive but murky relationship with Russia.
The Three Seas Initiative is an early stage multinational project aimed at better connecting the countries between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas. It would greatly unify these countries politically and economically, and potentially create alternative energy supply routes. Unity on Russia’s western borders is bad for Russia. Better economies in the region make them more powerful, less reliant, less likely to look toward Russia. It also risks longer term loss of gas customers if there are better supply routes north to south in Eastern Europe.
The Three Seas Initiative very conspicuously omits Russian areas of influence and territory. It is a very obvious threat to Kaliningrad.
It’s all very easy to get to and completely conspicuous.
There are further reports from the migrants that Belarus is giving them visas and helping them get there with wire cutters (New York Times 13-Nov-2021), and even stun grenades (TASS 16-Nov-2021). Migrants are also blowing cigarette smoke in children’s eyes to make them cry for the cameras and chanting that they want to get to Germany (News.com.au 11-Nov-2021). They have help signs in English (BBC 17-October-2021). This is definitely for show.
It’s a classic Alinksyite tactic - make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. There’s a lot of sympathy in the EU for migrants and support for free movement of people. If Poland can be made to be seen to take very harsh and difficult measures, even if justifiable, a significant portion of the population will be against it. It’s a divisive, difficult, demoralising, totally cynical tactic, which democratic western countries with nice sensibilities are not prepared for.
Lukashenko himself talks about this issue (BBC 19-Nov-2021) in a very passive aggressive way, practically confirming that Belarus is causing this and blaming the EU for not engaging with him. Does he actually want something out of the west or is this nonsense?
It could be looked at as fourth generation warfare. Belarus has paid for these people to come, helped them to the border, armed them, and sent them to forcibly cross. Are these people in practice some kind of mercenary? At the very least this has been a good test for western public and political response.
A migration crisis is a good card to play. It worked for Turkey. The EU was forced to make a deal (Press Release 18-Mar-2016) and spend a lot of money to keep Turkey from sending on hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants. It’s unlikely that Belarus could get the same kind of deal. Turkey directly bordered Syria. The air routes to Belarus are cut. The only alternative for Middle Easterners is to go through Russia. It’s hard to imagine that Russia would want thousands of migrants going through hundreds of kilometres of its territory with all the potential trouble they could bring and no certainty that they would make it to Belarus or any EU country.
Perhaps a migrant crisis allows Belarus to present the west domestically as cruel and hypocritical. There are other benefits to Lukashenko, and Russia, which come from this.
Sanctions on Belarus allow Lukashenko to pitch a west vs Belarus conflict. If he can be seen as a defender that’s usually good for politicians. It’s also a good distraction. Many people have been frustrated at the government’s pandemic response and economic problems. Sanctions allow Lukashenko to blame the economic problems on the west. It also creates a much clearer divide and way to alienate any pro-Western Belarussians or even those mildly disposed. Poland is responding to the crisis by building a wall (BBC 29-Oct-2021). Poland is also suspending railway freight (TASS 19-Nov-2021). Belarus is blocking more websites from the west (Radio Free Europe 29-Oct-2021) and there are rumours it will get even worse. Coincidentally, Russia is also increasing its internet censorship powers (New York Times 22-Oct-2021). With fewer air travel options on top of all of this, it will be harder for Belarussians to go west.
All of this is good for Russia.
Russia already supplied Belarus with a lot of gas. Thanks to the Union State deals, Belarus and Russia already had very closely aligned economies, foreign policies, and militaries.
This has only become closer. Russia has been loaning Belarus money (BBC 14-Sep-2020), regularly and repeatedly (Reuters 29-May-2021), and the two countries agreed to integrate their gas and financial markets (AP 04-Nov-2021).
Belarus’s military officers are trained in Russia and the two countries have led a series of military drills throughout 2021 (Euronews 13-Sep-2021). They are formalising further integration and shared use of infrastructure (AP 20-Oct-2021). Lukashenko has gone as far as to say that Russia and Belarus would fight as one army in a war (AP 02-Sep-2021).
Another western response is that the EU is accelerating its plans for its own military. A draft proposal for an EU Intervention Force was leaked (Bloomberg 03-Nov-2021). On the one hand, this is quite a weak response. All the EU/European countries can do is issue a paper? On the other, creating a military (which the EU has long wanted to do for various reasons) seems like a strong response but may be quite damaging. It potentially undermines NATO, of which the Baltic states, Poland, Slovenia, and Germany are all members.
Weakening NATO is good for Russia and specifically regarding Belarus.
The two main places where migrant clashes have happened are Usnarz Gorny and Kuznica, which are both out in the open and on relatively flat, open terrain towards the north of the Poland-Belarus border, and relatively near the medium-sized (population approximately 400,000) town of Grodno.
Belarus; destabilisation and proxies all the way down 23-Nov-2021
Belarus stands out.
In the west, most ordinary people know almost nothing about Belarus. Among the governing classes it is popularly known as Europe’s last dictatorship. Political fashion is a shallow reason why Belarus is interesting. There is much else worth looking at.
It’s true that Belarus is heavily politically restricted. It’s also poor. It’s also a story of how history might have been different, the strategic options a country has, and the relationships between clients and sponsors.
Belarus is full of hints about what the big concerns may be for the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine in their short to mid-term futures. It should be an alarm to be on the lookout for suspicious activity across Eastern Europe.