Shaky "bridge" between the West and Russia: Why Minsk never ceased to be Moscow's "ally"
Analysts at the U.S.-based private intelligence company Stratfor reported that since 2014, Belarus has turned from Russia's failthful ally into a neutral mediator between the West and the Kremlin. But this is not the first time Alexander Lukashenko had his tail stepped on, and began playing a game seemingly independent of Russia. Lukashenko is trying by all means to retain power, and if to this end he needs to become anything, be that even a bridge between the West and Russia or a pro-Western politician, whatever, he will undoubtedly do all it takes. At least, he will pretend he does...
But there are a few nuances worth mentioning here. First, what kind of a "bridge between the West and Russia" can the Belarusian president be if he professes values that are opposite to the European ones? He politically persecutes his opponents, oppresses freedom of speech, and suppresses any manifestations of civil liberties. Is this the country that has come to life and seeks to return to the European family of peoples?
Second, during his long-term cadence, Lukashenko oppressed all that was pro-national and all that was democratic. On whom can he rely if in the absence of the Belarusian ideology as such, the empty space was filled with the notorious concept of the "Russian World"?
Thirdly, there is a parallel that can be drawn between Belarus and Ukraine. After all, back in the day, Russia almost managed to occupy key government positions in our country, that's when our chiefs of security agencies, defense ministry, etc had Russian passports in their back pockets or simply used to work for our northern neighbors. The same thing has been happening in Belarus. Despite recurrent personnel purges, who could actually know the real degree of infiltration of state bodies with agents of Russian intelligence? That is precisely why the Kremlin might be able to remove Lukashenko from power at any given moment, make him more loyal, or simply absorb the country altogether.
Indeed, Lukashenko earlier used to take certain steps that went against Russia's interests and were in favor of the West, like releasing political prisoners or changing his foreign political rhetoric. But it was more related to the gas pipe issue. As long as Russia provided the resources necessary for Lukashenko to preserve his regime, he remained loyal to Moscow. Instead, when the gas flow was under threat, he tried to balance and pretend to be a democratic leader.
However, in 2014, some major bells rang for Lukashenko when it turned out that the status of a "fraternal" nation did not save Ukraine from Russian aggression, therefore it became clear that Belarus could as well repeat the fate of its southern neighbor. But, on the other hand, Belarus was among the countries that voted in the UN against the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Minsk does not share Kyiv's foreign policy goals because Belarusians regard NATO as an aggressive bloc which threatens Belarus as well. It's not Russia, which is waging a war against Ukraine and oppresses Belarus politically and economically that they fear but the North Atlantic Alliance!
There was a time when some Ukrainians rejoiced over the fact that Lukashenko denied Russia's deployment in Belarus of their air force bases, but for some reason, only a few paid attention to him offering Moscow to place missiles in his country's territory...
That is, Lukashenko is a leader who will do his utmost to stay in power, being ready to do anything for the sake of it, even to appear pro-west.
The great victory of Belarusian diplomacy is that it is in Minsk where the Donbas settlement talks are held. This gave Belarus the opportunity to break their political blockade.
Recall Lukashenko's visit to Ukraine - he was received as Kyiv's great friend. Although before that, he was pretty much avoided, with everyone making clear that his visits were not really a good idea.
Therefore, I would consider Stratfor's report an assessment of certain tactical changes in Lukashenko's behavior. However, Lukashenko is going for changes only in order to preserve his power rather than fundamentally reform his regime. So Belarus remains under the umbrella of Russia's foreign and security policy.
Belarus is also an important "client" for Russia in the economic sense, since most of the infrastructure sites, including the strategic gas pipeline, already belong to Russia. It is difficult to call Belarus Russia's "ally" since Moscow has no allies - there are countries that depend on it, that is, "client countries", with which the Russian Federation has allied agreements. By and large, these are countries that take into account each other's interests. But which Belarusian interests does Russia take into account? None of them. Moscow is constantly blackmailing Minsk, not having a real clue what is happening there and not willing to, because they have plenty of problems of their own.
Why does Russia need Belarus? First, to maintain the myth of the "fraternal peoples", because this is an important aspect for Russia.
Second, and this is the main thing for Russia, is that Belarus serves as a strategic buffer between Russia and the "hostile countries" of the West. That is, Russia needs the territory of Belarus in order to be able to prepare to repel conditional aggression on the part of NATO Allies.
In addition, Russia plays by the categories of "zero-sum games": either Belarus remains Russian or it falls into the orbit of the West. And in terms of a strategic game, this will be considered a defeat for Russia. The country which considers itself to be a big player in the geopolitical field just cannot let the latter happen.
If a democratization process starts in Belarus (and this will inevitably happen – however, only when Russia weakens and Lukashenko falls), this will be a bad signal for Russian citizens, because they will see that "fraternal peoples" can live their life different from that in the "Russian-World concentration camp". Of course, Russia cannot let this happen, either.
In Putin's mindset, all Maidans and things like that are events controlled by the West, being nothing else but CIA special operations, therefore, he has no room in his mind to assume that people might actually rise against a tyrant and a lifestyle he imposes on the people. Thus, tyrants act alongside not only because their interests coincide, but rather because they are pushed by the common mindset. So what has changed in Lukashenko's mindset for him to act differently except for his ultimate desire to remain in power?
Oleksandr Khara is an expert at the Maidan of Foreign Affairs Foundation