Russia’s quadrennial Zapad war games for its Western Military District were held from September 16 to 20, 2021. As previously, it was a spectacular show of force. However, this year’s event also showcased how Russia’s partner in the drills, Belarus, is rapidly losing its political independence. The first consequences can already be seen.
Strategic real estate
The main theater of operations was in Belarus, where Belarusian and Russian troops conducted joint operations to repel an armed invasion. Given the country’s strategic location as a neighbor of both Ukraine and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus constitutes a strategically important piece of real estate. As long as Russia does not have access to airfields and permanent bases for its ground forces inside the country, NATO enjoys a slight “gray-zone” advantage.
A big part of speculation in the run-up to the Zapad-2017 war games was that Russia might use the event as a cover for simply taking over Belarus, allowing its ground forces to remain and forcing concessions on a permanent base for its air force. That did not happen in 2017, nor did it materialize in 2021. That said, there was a significant difference between the two events that carried far-reaching implications for the role of Belarus in the increasingly antagonistic relationship between Russia and the West.
In 2017, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko was still performing a balancing act between Russia and the West. While he allowed the war games to go ahead, he also ensured transparency by inviting observers from NATO and neighbors ranging from Ukraine and Poland to the Baltic states and neutral Finland and Sweden. He also made strong declarations that no attacks on neighbors would be allowed to originate from his country.
This performance so angered the Kremlin that both President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu opted to abstain from reviewing the drills on location. Russian military commanders refused to take part in the traditional dinner after the event. In response, President Lukashenko canceled plans to appear with President Putin at a Russian military installation and extended the provocation by expressing a desire to improve relations with the West.
However, in 2021, both men had ample reason to display a united front against the United States and Europe.
The transformation is of fundamental importance. Mr. Lukashenko has a long and infamous track record of authoritarian rule, epitomized in him being branded “the last dictator in Europe.” The key to his political endurance has been twofold. In international relations, he kept himself afloat by deftly playing Moscow and Brussels against each other. On the domestic front, he secured repeated “reelections” by resorting to ever harsher repression and vote-rigging.
Both these games are now ending abruptly. This is not because Russia has decided to play hardball but because the European Union has finally had enough of President Lukashenko’s human rights abuses. As additional sanctions are imposed and the door to Brussels is slammed shut, he may find himself smothered in the embrace of Mr. Putin.
For as long as he could play Moscow off against Brussels, the dictator could be sure that Russian economic assistance would be forthcoming despite his oppressive policies at home. Even when Mr. Lukashenko refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin growled but did not take serious action.
The peak of his high-wire act took place in the run-up to the August 2020 presidential election. Determined to run on a nationalist platform, Mr. Lukashenko launched a media campaign that portrayed Russia as a threat to the sovereignty of Belarus. It culminated only days before the polling when security forces arrested 32 Russian nationals thought to be mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization linked to the Kremlin. In a direct challenge to Moscow, they were charged with trying to destabilize the country.
The official outcome of the elections was that Mr. Lukashenko, as expected, had won yet another “landslide victory.” But this time around, the opposition cried foul and embarked on several months of strikes and street protests. With Russian forces likely on standby to intervene, the security forces of Belarus proved sufficiently ruthless on their own to break the will of the opposition. Six months after the protests began, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya admitted in a press interview: “I have to admit, we have lost the street.”
Lukashenko the puppet
For Minsk, the price for this achievement has been the burning of all bridges with the West, where sympathy for Ms. Tikhanovskaya (in exile) and her incarcerated friends runs high. That relations breakdown is President Putin’s gain: now, he can effectively “weaponize” Belarus. He prods Mr. Lukashenko into actions that are effective in spooking the West but would be expensive for Russia itself to implement.
In an especially egregious stunt, Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk. The purpose was to arrest one of its passengers, Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. When the West cried foul, Russia provided support. In a comment on the EU decision to block Belarusian carriers from entering its airspace and advise European airlines to avoid flying over Belarus, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the moves as “utterly irresponsible and threatening passengers’ safety.”
President Putin, most likely consulted before the incident, had every reason to be pleased about the outcome. It entrenched Mr. Lukashenko’s standing as an international outcast, thus cementing his dependence on the Kremlin’s goodwill. It also sent a strong signal to opposition figures in Russia that there is no place where they can feel safe from being targets of special operations.
Beyond his crackdown on the domestic opposition, President Lukashenko has retaliated against the imposition of sanctions from the West by cranking up Belarusian intelligence’s old rogue operation of pushing illegal migrants from Iraq, Iran, Syria and, more recently, Afghanistan, into Europe. Migrants in growing numbers are brought to Minsk from Africa and the Middle East. Upon arrival, they are taken to the border with Lithuania, where they cross and apply for asylum.
Caught unprepared, Lithuania, Poland and Latvia have scrambled to secure their borders with Belarus. This activity recalls Hungary being the first to raise razor-wire fences to solve the migration challenge. Now, the news media give the reenactments ample coverage. The situation adds fuel to the toxic controversies over the EU’s failing asylum and migration policies. The Kremlin again has reason to be pleased.
An even more provocative step was Mr. Lukashenko’s July 6, 2021, call on Belarus’s authorities to block the transit of goods from the EU to Russia and China. Given that around 80 percent of current rail freight capacity between Europe and Asia passes through Belarus, making good on such a threat would bring enormous disruption to trade flows. While Moscow surely is not going to allow that to happen, it again has reason to be pleased with how Minsk is responding to the Western sanctions.
Brussels makes a new overture. One possible scenario looking forward is that Brussels manages to reconnect with Minsk, undermining Moscow’s advances. The EU has so much prestige at stake that simply giving up on Belarus would be embarrassing. It is hardly surprising that in late May 2021, the European Commission offered Belarus an economic aid package of 3 billion euros, provided the regime made moves toward “a democratic transition.”
It is symptomatic of the absence of a strategy that communication around this offer has been deeply conflicted. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has called for regime change, telling President Lukashenko that “[N]o amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime.”
When leading EU figures voiced outrage over his handling of the migrants, Mr. Lukashenko responded by recalling his envoy to Brussels and by suspending participation in the Eastern Partnership. Unperturbed, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, tweeted that the program would continue: “Despite the decision by the Lukashenko regime to suspend Belarus participation in the Eastern Partnership, we are ready to continue working with the Belarusian people to strengthen bonds, foster regional cooperation, and tackle joint challenges.”
All this talk is apparently for internal EU consumption. Any belief that sanctions will have a meaningful impact on the current regime in Belarus borders on improbability. What they may do is simply increase the price tag for Russian support. However, the Kremlin has already demonstrated that, when Russia’s national security is at stake, it is ready to reach very deep into its pockets.
Lukashenko’s removal. A more tantalizing scenario is that President Putin decides he has finally had enough of Mr. Lukashenko’s shenanigans and moves to replace him. Doing so would certainly be well within the Kremlin’s reach. The procedure could bank on hints by Mr. Lukashenko himself that once a new constitution has been adopted, he may be ready to stand down. The rationale would be to offer the West a package deal. In return for an easing of sanctions over Ukraine and a de facto, if not de jure, recognition of Crimea as part of Russa, Moscow would be ready to allow regime change in Minsk.
Two problems make this scenario unlikely. One is that attempts at deals to win recognition for the illegal annexation of Crimea have taken place before, both in the war in Donbas and in the Syrian quagmire. And they have not met with success. Little indicates that the Western powers would be more inclined now to trade their acceptance of the Crimea takeover for a reshuffle in Minsk.
Even more troublesome is that it is hard to construe an outcome of regime change that would be acceptable to all sides. The political opposition would be bound to demand far-reaching concessions that would inevitably upend the country’s political landscape. And a Russian move to install a new leader who remains malleable to the Kremlin would not be acceptable to the opposition.
Status quo. The most likely scenario is that the Kremlin decides it is better to leave Mr. Lukashenko in place. He has proven he is in no danger of being ousted, and he serves a valuable role as a spoiler in relations with Europe. Most importantly, the role of Belarus in Russian foreign and security policy has been clarified. As part of its psychological warfare against Ukraine, Moscow may rely on Minsk to escalate the pressure by issuing threats and allowing heavy Russian forces to be stationed along its border. These services will surely be sufficient for the Kremlin to decide in favor of the status quo.
Stefan Hedlund is Professor and Research Director at the Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, at Uppsala University, Sweden.
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