BelarusAre the Russians Coming?
Nikola Mikovic assesses the chances Putin will intervene militarily in his turbulent neighbour given the dangerous precedent of Ukraine
Russia has reportedly formed a police reserve force to intervene in Belarus if necessary, although such an option does not seem very realistic at this point. The Belarusian security apparatus is still loyal to President Alexander Lukashenko and continues to arrest dozens of protesters, journalists and opposition activists on a daily basis, even without direct Russia’s involvement.
According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke with his Belarusian counterpart several times after the disputed Belarusian presidential elections on 9 August, Russian forces will not be deployed to Belarus until the situation there gets out of control.
“We have agreed not to use it until the situation starts spinning out of control and extremist elements acting under the cover of political slogans cross certain borders and engage in banditry and start burning cars, houses and banks or take over administrative buildings,” Putin said.
Although some analysts interpret Putin’s statement as a message to Western leaders that Russia will save Lukashenko, his rhetoric should not be taken quite seriously.
The Ukrainian Precedent
In an interview published by Russian state TV in 2018, the Russian President openly admitted that, during the Ukrainian crisis in 2013-2014, his “dear Western partners” required him to put pressure on then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, asking him not to use force against violent Western-backed protesters. Putin agreed, and Yanukovych was overthrown on 22 February.
It is worth remembering that, in 2014, as the Ukrainian crisis erupted, Yanukovych reportedly sent a letter to Putin requesting that he use Russia’s military to restore law and order in Ukraine. Putin promised to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and even threatened the new Ukrainian authorities saying: “Let them just try to shoot at women and children!” Russia’s upper house of parliament approved Putin’s request for authorization to use Russian armed forces in Ukraine, but Russian forces never prevented Ukrainian leader from being ousted.
Instead, Moscow used its proxy forces in the energy-rich Donbas region to establish control over the coal mines. They are now effectively controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic who export the Donbas coal to Russia, and then Moscow sells it to Ukraine. In this lucrative business, oligarchs on both sides reportedly make significant profit.
Besides its activities in the Donbas, the Kremlin incorporated Crimea – with its natural gas reserves – into the Russian Federation. Since Belarus, unlike Ukraine, does not have any natural resources, it is not very probable that Russia will militarily intervene there to “protect its Slavic brothers”.
Even if Moscow eventually deploys troops to Belarus, their primary goal will be to protect Russian military facilities in the Eastern European country, rather than President Lukashenko.
Russia has two bases in Belarus; Hantsavichy Radar Station, which is designed to identify launches of ballistic missiles from western Europe, and the Vileyka naval communication centre that is seen as an important facility for transmitting orders to submarines in the very-low-frequency range.
According to some reports, Russia planned to open an airbase in Belarus, but Lukashenko rejected such an idea in 2018, while he was still at the mercy of the West. Now his position is weakened following the turmoil in the country, he will likely have to make some concessions to the Kremlin. It remains to be seen if hosting another Russian base will be on the agenda.
Given that the nationwide protests and general strike have already cost the struggling Belarusian economy $500 million, and that the country’s currency hit all-time lows, Lukashenko will not have much choice but to play the Russian card. As of 1 June 2019, Russia’s biggest individual debtor was Belarus with $7.55 billion, and now Moscow and Minsk hold talks on refinancing a $1 billion debt. According to Lukashenko, this year Belarus seeks to refinance $1 billion it owes to the Russian Federation.
“In other words, we will keep this billion dollars here upon the agreement with Russia. This will be a good boost for our national currency,” the Belarusian President said.
Last year Belarus had to borrow $600 million from China in order to repay debts to Russia. Due to the crackdown on protests, it is unlikely that Belarusian authorities can count on the International Money Fund (IMF) loans in the foreseeable future, which means that the country’s economy will become even more dependent on Russia.
If Lukashenko eventually gets overthrown, and Belarus goes Westward, Russia will most likely never get its money back. Just like Ukraine refuses to pay its debts to Moscow, a new Belarusian government is expected to radically change its policy vis-à-vis Russia.
On the other hand, the Kremlin may get rid of another “energy vampire” that constantly seeks cheap energy, primarily natural gas and crude oil. However, from a political perspective, a potential loss of Belarus would be interpreted as another defeat for Russia, even though the Kremlin propagandists would try to portray it as a huge geopolitical victory.
For the time being, Russia’s role in the Belarusian crisis grows, as Lukashenko’s political survival heavily depends on Moscow. The opposition, backed by the West, has so far managed to sustain from criticising Moscow, but if the Kremlin really deploys its forces to Belarus, the anti-Russia sentiment in the country will grow exponentially.
That could be the beginning of the “decoupling” process between Russia and Belarus.