Amid the latest disagreements between Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, Russia-Belarus tensions became quite visible. Russia's top officials are becoming increasingly insisting in their statements calling for further creation of the so-called "Union State" that would comprise the two states. As Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev noted, Moscow is ready to move along this path, including to "create a single emission center, a single customs agency, [unified] courts, and an Accounts Chamber." However, Belarus leader Lukashenko is apparently not amazed.
Putin's main goal in this regard is the consolidation around Russia of different buffer zones – either by directly absorbing territories of other states (as it could happen with Belarus) or preserving a neighboring state in the "gray zone" (as it is in the case of Ukraine). For Putin, his strategic task is "accumulating Russian lands."
Russia continues the process of absorbing Belarusian economy
Besides, the latest tensions also have economic roots. Among other things, the reason is the "Pipe" – a gas line that ran via Belarus, "feeding" Lukashenko and his entourage. The thing is that Moscow has now put a plug on it.
As Russia continues the process of absorbing Belarusian economy, Lukashenko is naturally resisting, at the same time trying not to lose all levers of influence or profits.
In fact, this has long been a traditional controversy between Putin and Lukashenko as the two bumped fists over the topic at least once a year.
In general, Belarusian economy is "artificial" (and I'm truly surprised to hear some Ukrainians saying: "How great it is to live in Belarus! We'd also like to live according to the same rules, where a president tells us when we should plant or harvest potatoes…"). For the most part, the economy there is based on duty-free access to Russia's energy resources (oil, in particular) and further sales, including to Ukraine. This is actually the lion's share of the Belarusian "economic miracle."
Really, why should Putin give away these resources if he, himself, could control profits? Besides, why should he remain too patient about Lukashenko in top office?
However, there are some more hints pointing at the ongoing processes between the two countries. Putin is now in his last cadence as president. Accordingly, he seeks to retain the existing system after he formally steps down. One of the options allowing him to do so is to create a superstructure, a union state, where he could be an arbiter over a junior partner. This option is quite possible.
Russia has long been a state exporting aggression, and this is probably the main resource of Putin's popularity
Now, Russian officials are looking for a good reason to reformat the constitution, claiming that, although the constitution is a special law, this does not mean that it cannot be changed. Earlier, statements were voiced that "Putin is Russia; if there's no Putin, there is no Russia ..."
From the military-strategic perspective, the emergence of such a Union State would lead to Russia seriously boosting its military presence in Belarus, which will greatly complicate things for Ukraine. After all, Kyiv is a bit too close to the Belarus border, so if Russia goes for an offensive, Ukraine will struggle to stop the blitz advance.
Secondly, such a super-state project is also interesting to Russia in the context of the U.S. withdrawal from the INS Treaty as Moscow would benefit from stretching their missile muscle across the territory of Belarus in the medium term.
Absorbing Belarus would also benefit Putin in terms of cementing his political ratings in Russia. Russia has long been a state exporting aggression, and this is probably the main resource of Putin's popularity. Recent polls by Levada Center show that Putin's support level has slid down to that recorded before the annexation of Crimea. Albeit very slowly, Russians are starting to see the connection between dropping living standards and Putin's foreign and security policies. Nevertheless, such drivers as a test launch of some new hypersonic missile, or a small victorious war, or "protection of compatriots abroad" still make Russians rejoice, leading to higher ratings for Putin. So these motives cannot be ruled out either. From this point of view, the latest aggravation of Lukashenko-Putin relations is understandable. After all, Russia is struggling to advance on any other "fronts" so Putin must demonstrate to his voters at least some "wins." Besides, why share power and money with Lukashenko if it is better to swallow his country and only then move forward with the expansion?
Neither the experts, nor the Belarus president himself are aware of how strong his resistance could be to Russia, or whether he has any chance to hinder Moscow's plans. Lukashenko has been squeezing out opposition and all that is nationalist or democratic for too long. He would get rid of everyone but his "androids" in government, who from time to time get an occasional whooping from him.
The scenario where Russia absorbs Belarus looks inevitable at the moment
In democracies, despite public instability, heated debates in parliament, fistfights on camera, and opposition forces in place, there is generally always someone to rely on. Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes annihilate everything around themselves. And when the resource feeding that authoritarian regime exhausts itself (large volumes of cheap oil, which allows regular payments to civil servants and security forces), something serious happens and the regime falls immediately. Lukashenko has found himself in exactly the same situation where he had no one to rely on in terms of political forces or public opinion leaders.
In addition, Lukashenko has always just as stubbornly put pressure on the country's culture and language. Belarus is known to be extremely "Russified." Belarusians watch Russian news, and, accordingly, they are part of the "Russian World." Therefore, of course, they will not perceive Russian absorption of their independence as Ukrainians did in 2014 when they ousted Yanukovych and took up arms to defend their country from Russia.
Another important point is the KGB and the military. On the one hand, Lukashenko, like any other dictator, paid a lot of attention to these structures and "cleansed" their ranks from time to time. But it remains unclear what the actual share is of Belarusian military and security officials with that "Russian World" in their heads. Moreover, if even Ukraine, the defense ministry and several intelligence and security agencies had once been run by officials with Russian passports in their back pockets, I wonder, how many such people serve in KGB and other structures…
Also, Belarusian civil society is under constant pressure; there are almost no free media...
So, it remains an open question, how Russia's occupation of Belarus will take place, will it be opposed, whether the people will take to the streets to support Lukashenko in his struggle against not being swallowed.
The scenario where Russia absorbs Belarus looks inevitable at the moment.
In fact, the only small difference still remaining between Russia and Belarus is their national flags
The inactive phase of this process had been launched much earlier. In any case, Belarus is Russia's military-political ally; there are joint boards of defense and foreign ministries. That is, in fact, they are already coordinating their foreign and security policies. They have almost no discrepancies in their positions regarding the outside world; in particular, NATO is defined as a threat. In this regard, Putin and Lukashenko are not too different.
In fact, the only small difference still remaining between Russia and Belarus is their national flags. Beyond that, this slow encroachment has long been happening. But will it be completed in the near future? This is still a question.
Anyway, if the Belarusians show at least the slightest resistance, this will require from Russia spending resources: manpower (special forces, military, managers, or whoever Putin is going to employ), as well as money. After all, any takeover involves high costs (at least at the first stage). And there are no sufficient resources in Russia at present.
If Russia takes over Belarus, this will be bad for Ukraine in the short term
Besides, Russians can act, as they say, only "with their boots directly on that ground," that is, having someone in the field to follow Moscow's orders. Russia cannot manage territories by creating an attractive future and infecting people with ideas. This is what we've seen in Crimea: Russians can only control the area by deploying more FSB operatives and others en masse.
As long as Russia has enough resources, money, oil, manpower, the absorption of territories will continue. As soon as these resources become scarce, these territories will "fall off."
If Russia takes over Belarus, this will be bad for Ukraine in the short term. But in the long run, this will be yet another burden for Russia, which will ultimately lead to Minsk flipping away from Moscow. And today I don't see the resources that could maintain this chimera – the Russian Federation – within its current borders, and even more so with Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, and also Belarus.
Moreover, let's not forget that Russia has its foot in Syria, the Central African Republic, and other countries. Its expansionist policy may not be as large as it was in Soviet times, but it is being implemented. However, given the resource overload, it simply brings Russia closer to a deep crisis or even collapse.
Oleksandr Khara leads the department of international multilateral relations at the "Maidan of Foreign Affairs" Foundation