(Image Source: Photo by James Hill | The New York Times, modified by Nicholas Cook under Fair Use)
This November, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarussian “President” and strongman reached a new low in his regime’s sordid history. Exploiting the plight of migrants displaced by war and poverty from countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, the Belarussian despot funneled people desperate to find a better life to his militarized border with the EU Member States of Poland and Lithuania to create a crisis.
The regime in Belarus lied to migrants by telling them that they could achieve asylum in the European Union smoothly by flying to Belarus and crossing the border there rather than taking the infamously treacherous passage across the Mediterranean. While not telling them that once at the border, they would meet a mobilized and militarized Polish police force that would use any means necessary to prevent migrants crossing over from Belarus. Over the fall, agents of Lukashenko’s state offered hundreds of migrants visas to the country and free or discounted tickets with Belarus’s state-run airline, Belavia, until up to 10,000 migrants were left stranded at the border.
While the conditions at the Belarusian border are still a humanitarian nightmare. The status of thousands of migrants stranded inside Belarus remains unclear and a number have died. It is now evident that Alexander Lukashenko’s principal aim, to cause chaos and division in the European Union, has backfired. The EU posed a united front whereas Lukashenko assumed the issue of migrant passage would divide them. While Lukashenko initiated the crisis to get back at the European Union for sanctions imposed on the country during the hijacking of a RyanAir flight to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich in June, now Lukashenko’s regime faces a racket of sanctions harsher than it has ever faced before and at the same time as an increasing number of world leaders meet with preeminent opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Even more critically to Lukashenko’s long-term survival chances, this latest stunt could cause Russia under Vladimir Putin to look for a more reliable leader in Belarus. This blog post will explore why Lukashenko’s manufactured crisis may not just have caused permanent estrangement for him from The West, but Russia as well.
Russia is less willing to back Lukashenko to the hilt than in previous years.
Russia under Vladimir Putin has long been Lukashenko’s closest friend and partner. During this crisis Putin was willing to keep up appearances, sending the requisite number of paratroopers to Minsk for Lukashenko necessary for Lukashenko to sleep at night. But the relationship has not always been a rosy marriage. Putin has still not forgotten the period in the middle of the twenty-teens when Lukashenko began to warm himself up to The West and even went as far as to criticize Russia for its annexation of Crimea. In 2019, after years of subsidizing Belarus’ spend-heavy economy, Russia refused to refinance the nation’s debt. While Putin is willing to back Lukashenko if it means not having to deal with The West encroaching on his borders. Lukashenko’s recent erratic actions reminiscent of Nixon’s madman theory divert valuable Russian military and attentional resources away from Putin’s ultimate goal, the re-subjugation of Ukraine. Every SU-57 fighter jet and T-90 tank diverted to the border of Belarus is one that cannot be used to threaten Ukraine.
The Armenia solution?
Perhaps, not far from now, Putin will grow tired of Lukashenko’s constant unauthorized interventions into his greater strategic plans. Hélène Richard in Le Monde diplomatique wrote of similar parallels between the 2020 protests against Lukashenko’s latest rigged election and the 2018 protests that became a peaceful revolution in Armenia against their long-time Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. After the overthrow of the Russia-friendly Sargsyan, Richard noted how the Russian regime responded with diplomacy over the use of violent coercion like they did after the 2014 Euromaidan protests overthrew Russian aligned-politicians in Ukraine. Russia sent a team of diplomats to meet with the newly inaugurated pro-democracy government and came to an amicable arrangement where Russia would not retaliate against the new government so long that they did not blow up any of the established economic and military agreements with Russia.
Could something similar be arranged in Belarus? While I do not believe that pro-democracy forces are Putin’s No. 1 choice to lead Belarus. Especially one who now has explicit ties to The West. But Tikhanovskaya has tried to assuage some fears about the direction Belarus would take under her direction. Calling Russia Belarus’ “big brother”. And on Putin’s end, he has gone as far as to call for “dialogue” between Lukashenko and the opposition. A Belarus that remains neutral on the international stage is still a net benefit to Putin if it means not having to deal with threats to his ultra-valuable Yamal pipeline that runs through the country. Lukashenko, in a huff, threatened to cut it off in the midst of November’s migrant crisis. Something that Putin heavily criticized him for. Apparently he did not get the big man’s permission beforehand to say something so drastic.
In other signs of Lukashenko’s estrangement, Uzbekistan a fellow member of the CIS, Russia’s answer to NATO, with Belarus announced active cooperation with the EU to end flights to Belarus and halt the flow of migrants transferring from their country. Perhaps it’s another sign that Putin is growing tired of Lukashenko’s action and letting other members of his sphere act with their own discretion towards the increasingly more rogue state. What is clear is that the migrant crisis has permanently damaged Belarus’ standing on the international stage so long as Lukashenko remains in power. We do not yet know when he will go, but if Russia stands aside, it will not be long.