Since the worst cannot be ruled out, strategists need to “think the unthinkable”. Thus, the announcement of the future deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus cannot be reduced to a rant, especially since these would in fact be battlefield weapons, with a range sufficient to strike a large part of Europe. In the immediate term, the geopolitical significance of such a deployment seems more important. Belarus, independent since 1991, is sliding towards satellite status.
Belarus, which is located between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic (NATO-EU) bloc and is still called “Belorussia”, was once a republic of the former USSR. The Slavic state in Eastern Europe has a surface area of 207,600 km² and a population of 9,500,000. Belarus means “White Russia”, white referring to freedom, as the inhabitants of this region did not pay tribute to the Great Khan during the period of Mongol rule over medieval Rus’ (13th-15th centuries). The result of the break-up of the USSR, this state is a member of the Eurasian Union, which Vladimir Putin wanted (it came into force on January 1, 2015). Despite the weakness of the independence movement, Belarus was one of the three republics at the origin of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) whose creation, on December 8 1991, precipitated the end of the USSR. Since 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained power through authoritarian methods and is now in his sixth term. The “last dictatorship in Europe” is under numerous sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States.
An uncertain “Russia-Belorussian Union”
As a former member of the Polish-Lithuanian state, Belarus has a distinct history from Russia. Its territory is part of the corridor of plains stretching from the North Sea to the Siberian vastness. On this geographical crossroads, the road and rail links between Berlin and Moscow, the traffic routes to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) and those that cross the Baltic-Black Sea isthmus intersect. Comparable to an energy corridor, Belarus ensures the transit of part of Russian oil and gas exports to Europe, via the Druzhba pipeline and the Iamal 1 gas pipeline (see the role of state company Beltransgaz). Russia and Belarus were thus logistically and energetically interdependent, until North Stream I bypassed the territory of Belarus from the north (North Stream I and II are now out of order).
In the mid-1990s, Russia and Belarus became even closer. In 1995, they formed a Customs Union, which was extended the following year by a “Russia-Belarus Community”, later upgraded by a Union Treaty (1997). However, the planned institutions — a unified parliament, a single currency and a common president — did not see the light of day, although there is a Supreme Council of the Russian-Belarusian Union. Militarily, both countries are members of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation), but their defence systems are only partially integrated. Belarus hosts two Russian radar bases and Lukashenko proposed for a while the deployment of Iskander and S-300 missiles, in response to the American missile defence project. On the other hand, he refused the integration of air defence systems or the placement of national units under the command of the CSTO.
Cross-interests and similarity of political regimes have not prevented crises and conflicts, especially over oil and gas. In the years that followed the break-up of the USSR, Belarus bought Russian gas at very low prices, but this agreement was called into question in 2007, with Minsk having to accept a doubling of the tariff and hand over half of the Beltransgaz distribution network to Gazprom. The conflict then turned to the refining of Russian oil in Belarus, with Minsk re-exporting the volumes at a high premium; Moscow wanted to impose a high tax on oil going to Belarus. With the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008, disagreements took on a new dimension. Fearing the reintegration of Belarus into the Russian sphere, Lukashenko did not recognise the (fictitious) independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (August 26, 2008), promoted by Moscow without success within the CIS and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).
When Moscow set conditions for aid to deal with the economic crisis in autumn 2008 — Belarus was to join the rouble zone — the conflict spread to other areas. Initially, the planned aid was to be provided in dollars, but Russia wanted to replace the US dollar with its own currency. In June 2009, at an SCO summit in Yekaterinburg, Moscow reaffirmed the objective of a ruble zone in the region. In fact, this new bilateral crisis began on May 28, 2009. On a visit to Minsk, Putin pushed Belarus to adopt the Russian currency by paying the planned financial aid of $2bn in roubles. Lukashenko later claimed that Putin simultaneously wanted to impose the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on him. The crisis led to a trade confrontation, with the Kremlin deciding on an embargo on dairy products.
The Russia-Belarus conflict, determined by sheer power politics, finally turned to the military sphere. Moscow wanted to link its financial aid, open to other CSTO members, to reinforced military cooperation. In this context an anti-crisis fund was set up on February 4, 2009 at the meeting of CSTO member countries in Moscow. The very next day, the creation of a 10,000-strong operational reaction corps under Russian command was announced, part of which would be based in Manas (Kyrgyzstan). Belarus was supposed to agree to the establishment of a joint air defence with Russia, the basis of a common CSTO system, with a single control centre in Russia. In the Russian vision, these projects would form the core of the post-Soviet space, to rival NATO structures.
Lukashenko’s oscillating diplomacy
In order to contain Russian pressure, Lukashenko turned for a while to the European Union, which conceived and established an “Eastern Partnership” (Prague Summit, May 7, 2009), a vast cooperation program possibly extended to Belarus. Polish diplomacy played an essential role in this policy of opening up to Eastern Europe. Such a turnaround was however unlikely, due to the nature and practices of Lukashenko’s regime. Since the 1994 presidential election, Belarus has been the object of Western criticism and sanctions, due to the lack of freedom and open elections. The Council of Europe and the OSCE have repeatedly described Belarusian elections as an “electoral farce”, but this has had no impact on subsequent elections. The small number of concessions made by Lukashenko is simply aimed at regaining some leeway to counterbalance Moscow’s weight and power.
Nonetheless, close ties with Russia grew stronger. Shortly before the presidential elections on December 19, 2010, Lukashenko signed an agreement establishing a customs union with Moscow and Astana (December 9, 2010), in return for Russia waiving its oil export duties. The monetary and financial crisis of 2011, provoked by Lukashenko’s largesse before the election, opened a new conflict with Moscow. The Russian government exploited it to strengthen its hold on Belarus: the loans granted were offset by the opening up of state-owned groups to Russian capital, with Beltransgaz being the main target (four fifths of the Russian economy is state-owned). However, Belarus refused to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and did not support the “hybrid war” in Donbas (2014). Its president even welcomed the negotiations conducted within the Normandy Format (France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine), which led to the Minsk agreements (Minsk-1, September 20, 2014; Minsk-2, February 12, 2015). It was back on the international stage.
Despite the repeated crises between Minsk and Moscow, the nature of the regime and the logics of the situation point towards closer ties, in line with what Celeste A. Wallander calls “trans-imperialism”. Like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Belarus is a key country in the Russian project of political, economic and military integration of the post-Soviet area. Its rallying to Putin’s Eurasian Union project, as early as 2014, seemed to crown the resatellisation policy of the country. However, relations remained fragile and Lukashenko continued his oscillating diplomacy between Moscow and Western capitals. Washington and Brussels combined their efforts to make Belarus step back from Russia. Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State under Donald Trump, visited Minsk on 1 February 2020 to support Belarusian sovereignty and offer US oil in place of Russian oil, used by the Kremlin as a means of coercion.
The circumstances of the August 2020 presidential election, with the inevitable re-election of Lukashenko (over 80% of the vote), the civic protests against electoral fraud and the subsequent repression eventually tipped the balance in Russia’s favour. When Western capitals refused to recognise Lukashenko’s election, Putin gave him his full support. The Russian security apparatus supported that of the Belarusian regime, ensuring that Moscow had a greater hold: satellisation was underway. This is reflected in a constitutional amendment that put an end to the theoretical neutrality of Belarus and authorises the deployment of nuclear weapons (February 27, 2022). As for the Russian military manoeuvers carried out in Belarus for several months, they were part of the preparation of a “special operation” against Ukraine. In fact, on February 24, 2022, Belarusian soil was used as a platform for firing and projecting Russian military units onto Ukrainian territory.
Of course, the Russian “special operation” did not achieve its goal and Ukraine is still a free nation, even if one fifth of its territory is occupied. The fact remains that Belarus, despite the existence of an active opposition, is trapped. Russian troops are taking root on its territory, strengthening Moscow’s hand, and Iskander missiles (50-500 km range or more) will be deployed by the next NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11-12, 2023. In short, the “union” projected in the 1990s takes the form of a satellisation: a return to the “Belarus” of Soviet times. Note the spirit of continuity of the chekists who run Russia-Eurasia. As things stand, only Russia’s defeat in the Ukraine war, with its regional after-effects, could stop this process.