The Titanic is Sinking: is this the end of the Putin-Lukashenko tandem?9 min read
The relationship between the two longest-serving European presidents has always been riddled with not-so-inconspicuous power-wrestling, wrapped in a narrative of brotherhood and sprinkled with cosy photo-ops. Up until recently, both leaders enjoyed relative stability on their own political turf, allowing them to manage their bilateral relations from positions of strength.
However, last year’s mass protests following the presidential election in Belarus have hit Alexander Lukashenko’s regime like a ton of bricks (one could even say an iceberg), and the damage to his legitimacy among the people seems irreparable. Vladimir Putin is unlikely to maintain unconditional support for his problematic partner, who is spiraling down the path of an ever more relentless and unpredictable authoritarianism. The Titanic is sinking and we all know only one can be saved (I do hope Jack and Rose will forgive me the respective comparisons).
It is all about the Union
Ever since the current Russian president came to power in 2000, the key element of his cooperation with Lukashenko has been the eventual unification of Russia and Belarus. Putin inherited the project from Boris Yeltsin, who, in December 1999, just weeks before stepping down as president, signed the Treaty on the Creation of the Union State of Russia and Belarus with Lukashenko. Most notably, the treaty stipulated the future establishment of a common economic market, legal system, foreign and defense policy, parliament, cabinet of ministers, and constitution. While military integration between the two countries has progressed relatively well from the start, the political and economic areas have been sources of endless bickering between Putin and Lukashenko, with no substantial progress achieved.
One of the reasons for this stalemate is the fact that the Union’s success would inherently put Lukashenko’s position at risk. Back in 1999, the Belarusian president reportedly hoped to use the union as a vehicle to increase his own influence and ultimately lead the entire integrated state of Russia and Belarus. Alas, with Putin’s rise to power, that ship has sailed. With his ambitions unfulfilled, Lukashenko has no incentive to further advance the integration, which would only lead to a decline in his own status, as the leader of a de facto lesser entity within the Russian Federation. Instead, he has been dragging out the unification process, while also making the most of the preferential treatment given to Belarus by Russia in multiple domains, notably oil and gas supplies.
The generous energy subsidies offered to Belarus by Russia since Yeltsin’s times were one of the key factors which allowed Lukashenko to “divert the people from the [economic] abyss” in the mid-1990s. Billions of dollars earned from energy transit fees and the resale of processed oil facilitated Belarus’ economic growth and ensured the people’s support for their president. However, in light of Lukashenko’s persistent objection to deeper integration within the Union State, Putin eventually decided he had fed his partner enough carrots, and the time had come to use sticks instead.
A series of mini-energy wars ensued, with Russia progressively increasing gas and oil prices for its closest ally, and Belarus trying to counterattack with higher transit duties. Energy supplies were halted multiple times, usually just for long enough to force Lukashenko to sign a new, ever less beneficial, deal.
On the political side, it was also not all roses and sunshine. For years, Lukashenko tried to strike a balance between Russia and the European Union (EU), trying to get the best of both worlds. In the president’s narrative, Russia could serve either as an example of a strong and useful partner, or a potential troublemaker from whom Lukashenko was trying to protect his people. The latter most recently came to life right before last year’s election, when thirty-three Russians, allegedly mercenaries from the infamous Wagner group, were arrested outside Minsk and accused of plotting mass riots in the country.
No rest for the wicked
However, all the disagreements between Putin and Lukashenko seemed forgotten once mass protests erupted following what many Belarusians considered rigged elections, in which Lukashenko supposedly won 80% of the votes against his main rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s 10%. Despite Lukashenko’s forceful response, the protesters did not back down, and for months they continued to come out in crowds of up to 100,000 to demand new elections.
Whether he liked it or not, the relentless president had to turn to Russia for help. Five bilateral summits and a $1.5 billion loan later, Lukashenko’s position seems much better compared to last fall. The protests have died down, with the help of his repressive state apparatus, and relations with Russia seem as strong as ever.
However, Putin’s generosity hardly stemmed from his admiration for Lukashenko himself; it was rather an instinctive reaction to a potential revolutionary scenario in Belarus, and we all know what Putin thinks about revolutions. With this hurdle cleared, it is now time for both leaders to consider how to reinstate genuine stability in the country. For Lukashenko, there is no going back to being his nation’s caring batka (father) and thus, for Putin, he becomes a political and economic liability that needs to be handled sooner rather than later.
Scenario 1 – Motherland calling
It seems like there are at least three possible scenarios for Lukashenko’’s future, which are all worth considering. One of the crucial factors influencing upcoming events will be the Belarusian president’s willingness to give in on at least some key aspects of the Union State integration. However, it would be rash to assume that Lukashenko would ever go through with full unification, as although he is dependent on Russia and more vulnerable than ever, his pride and ambitions would never allow him to become Putin’s puppet. If pressured to give up his power entirely, he might choose to go down with the ship rather than surrender to Putin’s demands.
Moreover, there is no decisive support for complete unification among the Belarusian public. While a 2021 survey commissioned by OSW found that almost 55% of respondents were in favor of deepening the integration of Belarus and Russia within the Union State, a Belarusian Analytical Workshop survey published in February 2020 found that almost 75% of Belarusians believed Russia and Belarus should remain as two completely independent states, albeit with an open border and without visas and customs.
Thus, for Putin himself, the best choice might be to avoid pushing for an official and complete merger, instead focusing on key domains which will give him the required influence over the Belarusian economy and the country’s internal political and security structures, without attracting unnecessary attention from the wider public. If Lukashenko agrees to advance with the integration, Putin is likely to continue supporting his leadership in the years to come, while simultaneously weakening his ally’s actual power. For Lukashenko it could be a way to stay afloat, maintaining his status and at least some level of independence, without needing to choose between an open fight with Putin and the icy waters of surrender.
Scenario 2 – Goodbye, Sasha
The remaining two scenarios assume that once he feels confident again, Lukashenko will go back to playing cat and mouse with Putin regarding the Union State, which will eventually incentivize the Russian president to switch off his Belarusian counterpart’s life support.
The first possibility is that Putin himself would initiate the process of removing his ungrateful partner from power. This could take multiple forms, from staging a coup in the Belarusian security apparatus to sending a couple of “tourists” to take care of the matter. However, none of these solutions would be easy to execute. Any successful operation would require deep infiltration of the Belarusian state system, including securing internal and, eventually, popular support for whoever would replace the president, in order to avoid plunging the country into chaos. Lukashenko has had a quarter of a century to create an efficient and fiercely loyal security network, so the chances of him remaining in the dark regarding any potential mutiny are minimal. Still, if I were him, I would keep a watchful eye on my underwear.
Scenario 3 – Controlled chaos
The last scenario to ponder is one in which Putin waits until the Belarusian president drowns himself. Lukashenko’s methods of thwarting dissent are very much personal and public, which increases the chances of him going a step too far and making the whole country snap. Lukashenko’s increasing obsession with destroying the Belarusian opposition was demonstrated by the unprecedented move to force a Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight to land in Minsk so he could snatch Raman Pratasevich, a former editor-in-chief of oppositionist Telegram channel ‘NEXTA’. Protasevich’s subsequent appearances on Belarusian state TV and at a Foreign Ministry press conference, during which he declared his newly-found understanding and appreciation for Lukashenko, are unlikely to convince anyone on the side of the opposition to back down. Instead, it is a rather desperate move from someone who wants to preserve his own vision of reality, whatever the cost.
There is no telling what else “Europe’s last dictator” would do to hang onto power. Mass killings of protesters? Border clashes with neighboring countries? Assassinations of oppositionists hiding on EU soil? Putin might not only sit and watch as the events unfold, he might also further fuel his hitherto partner’s paranoia until it reaches its tipping point. When that happens, the Belarusian state structure is likely to be in disarray and any of the possibilities included under scenario 2 could more easily come into play. Putin could then enter the scene as “the mediator”, “the stabilizer”, coming to the aid of his brother nation in its darkest hour. This could allow him to steer the ship in a direction that ensures the next leader of Belarus retains a close relationship with Russia and does not drift toward the EU.
Timing is key
Does it all depend on Lukashenko and Putin though? What about the protesters, and the imprisoned and exiled oppositionists, one could ask. Are they completely irrelevant? Not quite. Although the opposition has lost its momentum and it is difficult to envisage it being able to regain it anytime soon, it still has significant control over one crucial factor – time. The longer the protest movement stays alive and the more it manages to infuriate Lukashenko, the faster it will force the beleaguered president to make a fateful mistake and the faster Russia might need to act. Putin will be wary of taking any radical steps before the Russian Duma elections scheduled for September, however, when push comes to shove, he will need to prioritize. And while he is very unlikely to lose Russia anytime soon, he might well lose Belarus if he waits too long.