Questions remain after Putin welcomes Lukashenka

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Sochi on February 22. (Sputnik / Alexei Druzhinin / Kremlin via REUTERS)

They went skiing. They snowmobile. And they praised their “strategic partnership and alliance”, committing to deepen integration between their two countries.

But after Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin and Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka met for six hours in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 22 and spoke again by phone the next day, it was still not clear where this troubled and often dysfunctional relationship between the last two European dictators was.

According to an unpublished confidential report from the Minsk-based Center for Strategic Studies and Foreign Policy, the summit “did not yield significant practical results.” But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see here. In fact, quite the contrary.

The dynamic between Putin and Lukashenka, two men who would despise each other on a personal level, is extremely fluid, turbulent and opaque. But Russia’s geopolitical goals in Belarus remain constant, and Moscow will continue to pursue them, with or without Lukashenka.

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Belarus occupies a central place in Russian strategic thought and constitutes an essential part of what Moscow regards as “strategic depth”, that is to say the existence of dependent satellite buffer states on its western border ruled by flexible Kremlin clients. Putin has also long sought unhindered access to Belarusian territory as a military platform, which would bring Russian power to the borders of NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

That’s what Putin cares about. The rest is just details. In light of this, there are two key issues to watch in the aftermath of the Sochi summit.

The first question is whether Putin will finally get his military base in Belarus.

The issue of military bases was an important item on the Sochi summit’s agenda. Russia is currently seeking to extend its lease on two existing military facilities, an early warning missile detection system at Baranavichy in western Belarus and a Russian naval communications center at Viliejka in the Minsk region.

In 1995 the two countries signed a 25-year lease giving Russia access to the facilities that Moscow is now seeks to renew for another quarter of a century. According to the confidential, unpublished report from the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, the military utility of the two facilities is limited as Russia now has similar facilities on its own territory. Their real significance, according to the report, is political, as they show “Moscow’s intention to consolidate Belarus in the Russian sphere of influence for decades to come.”

The discussion of the Baranovichi missile detection system and the Viliejka Naval Communication Center also appears to be an alternative to the real problem, namely Putin’s long quest for a new permanent Russian air base on Belarusian territory.

The base would be located in Babruysk, in eastern Belarus, and would house SU-27 fighter jets piloted by Russian pilots. This is something the Kremlin is actively seeking since 2015 and Lukashenka had, until recently, resisted firmly.

The questions that await us now are: Has Lukashenka been so weakened by six months of protests, international condemnation and isolation that he has no choice but to give Putin what he wants? wants ? And if Lukashenka does not nod, how far will the head of the Kremlin go to achieve his goal?

The second big question on the Russian-Belarusian agenda is whether regime change is likely in Minsk.

Given the complex relationship between Lukashenka and Putin, all eyes were on the optics and tone of their interaction in Sochi. Lukashenka was openly deferential. He called Russia the “older brother” of Belarus and dutifully took notes when Putin spoke.

Putin offered Lukashenka a loan of $ 1.5 billion, which would be used to restructure Belarusian debts to Russia. But the head of the Kremlin often seemed bored during the public part of the meeting.

Significantly, Lukashenka seemed to visibly sweat when Putin urged him to implement constitutional reforms. Indeed, “constitutional reform” has become a code word for “regime change” in Russian-Belarusian relations.

In December, The initiate published reportedly disclosed Kremlin documents describing a policy of forcing Lukashenka to make constitutional changes that would establish a parliamentary republic in Belarus. Moscow would then seek to establish pro-Russian political parties and related information resources, including mainstream media, YouTube channels and Telegram channels, in order to secure Moscow’s control over the newly empowered Belarusian parliament.

Arsen Sivitsly, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic Studies and Foreign Policy, said the Kremlin appears to be considering what it calls an “Armenian scenario,” a reference to Moscow’s acquiescence to the 2018 democratic revolution. from this country.

Sivitsky told me that the Kremlin is increasingly willing to tolerate the democratic leaders of neighboring post-Soviet states as long as they remain within Moscow’s sphere of influence. In Belarus, Sivitsky said Moscow believes it can achieve its geopolitical goals through an increased military presence and constitutional reforms that will give Russia effective control through pro-Kremlin parties.

The fluid political dynamic between Russia and Belarus is very consistent. The Kremlin’s machinations threaten to hijack what has been a genuine democratic uprising in Belarus. They could also change the security dynamic on NATO’s eastern flank.

Brian Whitmore is a non-resident Principal Investigator at the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, Adjunct Adjunct Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and host of The Power Vertical podcast.

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