Alliance Or Annexation: What Are Putin's Ultimate Plans For Belarus?
Putin has stated in the past that Ukraine and Belarus should be a part of the Russian Federation. But his plans in Belarus have been postponed by war on the other neighbor, and the shrinking room for maneuver of Minsk's strongman Alexander Lukashenko
MINSK — A document was recently leaked to the press that was reportedly commissioned two years ago by the Russian presidential administration: "Strategic Goals of the Russian Federation on the Belarusian Direction."
This plan provides for the complete subordination of Belarus's political, economic, and cultural life by 2030. Belarusian laws are to be brought in line with Russian regulations, the Russian language is to dominate over the Belarusian language, and the influence of "pro-Western nationalist forces" is to be limited.
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A separate section is devoted to "passportization" — that is, the issuing Russian identity documents to Belarusians under a simplified procedure. At the final stage, the plan envisages forming a common legal system, introducing a single currency, total control over the information field, completely unifying the customs and tax space, and creating a common command system of the armed forces.
Interestingly, Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko did not deny the reality of the document, adding that he didn't see anything outrageous in the Kremlin's plans.
Instead, he accused his opponents of wanting to set Belarus and Russia at odds and assured that he has excellent relations with Putin: "We have relations, God willing, that will always be like this," he added.
New plans, same goals
The document described by the journalists is not Kremlin's final and unalterable plan for Belarus, since it was believed to have been written in the summer of 2021. The authors of the document had no way to predict Russia's upcoming full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and did not take this into account.
Otherwise, explaining why the Kremlin took a few days to invade Ukraine and nine years to take over Belarus is impossible. If Putin were able to take Kyiv in February 2022, it would lead to a new geopolitical reality that would imply a completely different pace of empire expansion.
But the ultimate goal remained unchanged. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters shortly before the Feb. 24 invasion, Putin told him directly that Belarus and Ukraine should not exist as independent states.
Long road to integration
Putin made it clear in the early 2000s that integration of Belarus and Russia could not be on equal footing. In the summer of 2002, he proposed that Lukashenko hold a referendum on the unification of the two countries, adopt a common constitution based on the Russian one, and then organize elections for a single parliament and president.
In essence, Belarus was proposed to become another federal district of the Russian Federation, and Putin proposed to complete the absorption process in the spring of 2004. Minsk categorically disagreed with this approach. "Even Lenin and Stalin did not think of this," said an indignant Lukashenko at the time. As a result, the Union State project was frozen for many years.
The Kremlin returned to the idea of union building only in 2018. At first, Mikhail Babich, whom the media called an "ambassador of war" and a "professional saboteur," was appointed ambassador and special representative of the Russian president in Belarus. He maintained a condescending tone in his speeches, openly criticized the Belarusian authorities, and generally behaved as if he was not a diplomat but the governor of a new Russian region.
Eight months later, after a series of scandals, Babich was recalled. Still, his appearance was part of a larger plan: Minsk should be careful before issuing an ultimatum for deeper integration. At the end of 2018, the Russian authorities announced that Belarus could now count on economic subsidies only if the treaty on creating the Union State were implemented.
A Russian army vest captured by Ukrainian troops
Aleksandr Gusev/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Lukashenko then accused the Kremlin of blackmail, intending to divide Belarus into regions and "shove" it into Russia. "This will never happen," he promised.
In 2019, Putin could not get concessions from Minsk, despite using oil as blackmail. The balance of power changed only after August 2020, when Lukashenko faced unprecedented protests in Belarus and international isolation after a contested election.
Yet even though his regime has become dependent on Russia, there is a paradox: Putin was in no hurry to squeeze his "little brother" too hard. A total of 28 different Union programs of deeper integration were approved only in the fall of 2021, and in a relatively moderate version.
In retrospect, it is easy to understand the Kremlin's desire to go slowly: the Belarusian issue was inferior in importance to the war against Ukraine. In 2020-2021, it was more important for Putin to use Belarus as a springboard for a future attack on Ukraine, which is what he did. The Union State itself may have been seen in the Kremlin as a platform for absorbing the conquered territories of Ukraine and formalizing a new empire.
Lukashenko's statements indirectly indicate this shortly before the invasion.
For example, in January 2022, Lukashenko promised to return Ukraine to some Slavic union during an address to the National Assembly. In early February 2022, in an interview with Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, where Lukashenko predicted Ukraine's defeat in three to four days, the dictator expressed confidence that Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries would eventually join the Union State.
Finally, a similar idea can be found in the programmatic article "The Offensive of Russia and the New World," published on the RIA Novosti website on the third day of the invasion. It stated that the Union State of Belarus and the Russian Federation is one of the possible forms of consolidating Russia's alliance with the new Ukraine.
Given the unsuccessful course of the war for the Kremlin, the idea of creating a USSR 2.0 on the platform of the Union State seems irrelevant, unless Abkhazia and South Ossetia are included instead of Ukraine (a State Duma deputy recently voiced a similar idea).
So rather than focus on a wider Union, the Kremlin can now aim for a "historical reunification" with Belarus that would make Russians forget about their defeats in Ukraine. Still, it is doubtful that Putin will take any active steps toward absorbing Belarus until the war ends. Attempting to forcibly incorporate a country of 9 million people, where less than 5% of the population supports the idea of joining Russia, is too expensive and risky, especially on the eve of important battles in the war.
There is no point in speeding things up. Lukashenko is pursuing a policy that fully meets the Kremlin's long-term interests. The unprecedented campaign of political repression that has been going on for more than two years is changing the face of the country. Nationalist forces have been declared enemies, independent media and the civil society have been crushed, and more and more people are imprisoned, exiled, or driven underground. Any manifestation of dissent can be a reason for persecution. (This week, Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize-winning pro-democracy activist Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in jail.)
Lukashenko's media have turned into an echo chamber of Russian propaganda. Security forces brutally persecute people for their pro-Ukrainian stance; some openly display Z-symbols and sometimes force detainees to apologize to the "people of Russia."
No Belarusianization, even mild, is possible under Lukashenko: the dominant position of the Russian language and the general approach to interpreting history are not questioned.
The national white, red, and white flag and the slogan "Live Belarus" have been recognized as "Nazi." Schools are trying to impose a hostile attitude towards the West onto children, and to form an exclusively positive attitude towards Russia.
At the same time, the Kremlin did not receive any new tools to help put pressure on the situation inside the country after 2020. Russia's influence in Belarus has snowballed over the past two years not because the Kremlin has formed its pocket groups of power in its military and political leadership. It is not because it has privatized large Belarus enterprises, creating powerful pro-Russian parties or media outlets that Moscow directly controls.
In 2020, Lukashenko realized that the continued existence of his regime was utterly dependent on Putin's support, so he gave up playing games and decided to make Belarus part of the "Russian world" himself.
"Russians do not need to take over Belarus. Being pro-Russian is already part of our homeland," Lukashenko said in an interview way back in 2014. Now, this "pro Russian-ness" that may be all he has left to save his regime.
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