With Russian troops now deployed through Belarus, the risk is growing of an invasion through Ukraine’s northern border. Vladimir Putin’s regional strategy and Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial demands are not always what they seem.
Ukrainians have a joke that started in the 1990s: Russia will never feel ashamed as long as there is Ukraine, and Ukraine will never feel ashamed as long as there is Belarus.
This bit of dark humor used to reflect the economic situation in the former Soviet republics. But somewhere in the interval, after the two democratic revolutions in Ukraine, in 2004 and 2014, we acquired a different vision of things, a sense of direction and demand from society. It was as if we broke away and swam in the opposite direction, away from where Russia was heading … leading Belarus by the hook.
People of my generation in Kyiv have always felt sorry for the Belarusians. Their situation aroused sympathy precisely because they were forced to follow Russia like a dog, without the right to make their own choice, to stand upright, to finally demonstrate to themselves and others that they were an independent state.
Putin and Lukashenko, it's complicated
Vladimir Putin, the region’s puppet master, needs Lukashenko. This past autumn, amid the migrant crisis and standoff with the European Union, the Belarus strongman threatened to shut down the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline in response to the possible complete closure of Polish borders.
Yes, that’s right, Russian gas also goes to Europe via Belarus. It is not Belarusian gas or Belarusian pipes, it's a company whose controlling stake is owned by the Russian government. That is, Lukashenko threatens Europe with Russian gas.
Ukraine has a very warm attitude toward the Belarusian people
Do you know how he was punished for threatening to block Russian property? He wasn't. In a subsequent interview with a Russian TV channel, Putin actually apologizes for the situation: frankly, this is the first time I've heard something like this from the Russian leader.
And now, war games. While Ukraine has tried to shore up its border with Russia, after the Kremlin deployed troops for what looks like a possible invasion, Russia has turned to Belarus.
Russian troops in Belarus for a joint response force exercise in January 2022
Moscow has spent recent days deploying a massive arsenal and thousands of soldiers across Belarus, while Lukashenko has publicly warned of his readiness to go to war if Russia is attacked. And Kyiv is ever more encircled on all sides. Indeed, its northern border is much closer to the capital than its eastern border where Ukraine has been battling with pro-Russian forces for years.
“As a result of Russia taking control over Belarus, 1,070 kilometers (665 miles) of our border with Belarus became a threat,” said Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. “This is not a threat from Belarus — Ukraine has a very warm attitude toward the Belarusian people — but a threat from Russia moving through Belarus.”
Yet Russian troops deployed throughout Belarus is not necessarily a Putin imposition on Lukashenko. The Belarus strongman has repeatedly demonstrated his independence vis a vis Putin, having previously made statements to make the Russian leader look weak, while mocking his speeches in Parliament and in the Belarusian media.
Not long ago, a journalist from a Belarusian TV channel went so far as insulting Putin on air, calling him a wimp and accusing him of using Botox, unlike the brave president of Belarus, whose aging face supposedly shows the sacrifices he’s made for his country.
But Lukashenko gets away even with it because Putin knows he is responsible for those he’s tamed. By dreaming about the reunification of the USSR, the Russian president help create and sustain a mad autocrat who is now too expensive not only for Belarusians living in a cage but also for Russians who will pay taxes for the sanctions imposed on Russian companies working with Belarus.
His own man
Hiding behind big Russia and its eccentric leader, the ambitions and cockroaches in the head of the Belarusian president have grown larger than expected. It is one thing to have a well-controlled puppet at the helm of a well-controlled country. It's quite another when this plaything starts to feel impunity for any action. Then the master starts to pay for his mistakes.
nothing is at it seems, and old jokes don’t seem so funny anymore
And this is how they have been living for more than 20 years: Putin creates the illusion of being in control of the situation, while Lukashenko always seems to be utterly dependent, and therefore utterly controllable. He survives only on Russian financial, political, and military support. However, for all that, it is now clear that Putin is not always the leader in this strange relationship at all.
The stakes today are multiplying with each passing day — the geometry more triangular than ever. From the outside, Belarus seems to be following Russia’s orders while Ukraine is busy preparing to defend itself from invasion. But nothing is at it seems, and old jokes don’t seem so funny anymore.
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