Strengthening the axis of autocrats: Lukashenko’s new visit to the Russian Federation
While European leaders were meeting in Brussels to decide on granting EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, Aleksander Lukashenko paid another visit to Russia, the fifth since the beginning of this year, at the invitation of his counterpart, Vladimir Putin. However, the meeting was not an ordinary one, as it marked the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Belarus and Russia, nonetheless it was an opportunity for Lukashenko and Putin to reaffirm their hostility towards the West. The first two days of the meeting were dedicated to informal conversations at the Russian President’s residence in Zavidovo, Moscow, while the main issues of the countries’ bilateral relationship were discussed during the working visit to the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. At the beginning of the meeting, Aleksander Lukashenko thanked Vladimir Putin for the construction of the first Belarusian port on the Baltic Sea, and they discussed the possibilities of exporting grain and fertilizers on the international market in the context of the war in Ukraine. Later on, invoking the need to defend the Union State, he asked his counterpart to take reciprocal measures in order to stop the alleged flights of USA and NATO aircraft carrying nuclear warheads near the Belarusian borders. At the same time, Lukashenko requested that Belarusian planes be equipped with nuclear payloads and criticized the policy of his neighbours towards the Russian Federation. Specifically, he accused Poland of sending mercenaries to fight in Ukraine and condemned Lithuania’s blockade of the Kaliningrad train transport, calling it a “de facto declaration of war.” The Russian President agreed to transfer several Iskander-M tactical missile systems capable of carrying nuclear charges to Belarus, and to modernize in Russian aircraft factories the Su 25 aircraft used by the Belarusian military. Given the increased military aid the West has offered Ukraine, as well as Finland and Sweden joining the North Atlantic organization, Vladimir Putin has opted to use the last European dictatorship as a pawn. On the other hand, through his requests to Vladimir Putin, Aleksander Lukashenko continues his efforts to turn Belarus into a nuclear power, especially since the amendment of Article 18 of the Constitution, made several months ago, allows the country to regain possession of the 81 warheads ceded to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. For Aleksander Lukashenko, violating The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons will not matter, since Belarus regaining its nuclear status, including the Iskander-M missile systems from the Russian Federation, will ensure both the survival of its authoritarian-hegemonic regime and his status as Vladimir Putin’s last ally in the fight against the West.
Lavrov visits Minsk: the end of cooperation with the West?
The cooperation between Russia and Belarus was not affected by the statement of the G7 leaders condemning Russia’s intention to transfer Iskander-M missile systems. Five days after Lukashenko’s return from St. Petersburg, he welcomed a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during which he made new aggressive statements against the West. The Belarusian president argued against the way in which the US and the Western European countries perceived the relationship between the two states over the past two and a half decades (as one of the dominant-domineering type, in which there was always the risk of an imminent annexation of Belarus to the Russian Federation), insisting that despite the integrationist policy promoted since the early 90s, Belarus under his leadership remained independent. For his part, Sergey Lavrov condemned the policy of Western states towards Russia and Belarus after the invasion of Ukraine. Using a rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, the Russian foreign minister characterized it as ”a dictate through which the United States seeks to replace international law with another set of rules decided together with the EU member states, choosing to ignore the legitimate interests of Russia and Belarus on the international arena”. At the same time, Lavrov repeated the themes of Russian propaganda regarding the West: the successive expansion of NATO to the East, the support of the “coup” in Ukraine and its transformation into an anti-Russian bastion, practically stating the unspoken: the re-emergence of Russian revisionism in 2022. He continued the war of declarations against the West during the meeting he had with his Belarusian counterpart, Vladimir Makei, on the same day. Then, the Russian Foreign Minister noted the appearance of a new Iron Curtain in Europe, through which the West aims to isolate Russia and Belarus from the entire international community, then claimed that NATO’s actions near the borders of the Union State lead to the escalation of tensions in the ex-Soviet space and further reiterated that the Russian Federation will take all the necessary measures in order to minimize its dependence on the United States and the European Union. At the same time, Vladimir Makei stated that the Republic of Belarus will continue to coordinate its foreign policy with Russia, and would develop, in the current tense geopolitical context, partnerships with third-party countries such as India, Iran or Pakistan, thus confirming the existence of a divide in relations with the West.
At the same meeting, the two officials also adopted a joint declaration on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Belarus and Russia. In its preamble, Makei and Lavrov praised the cooperation between the two countries within the international organizations patronized by the Kremlin (including the State Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union and The Collective Security Treaty Organization), which they considered to be “an example to be followed by other states of the world.” Moreover, they commended the increase in trade between Belarus and Russia, as well as the efforts to combat the Coronavirus pandemic undertaken by both countries. Subsequently, the Foreign Ministers focused their attention on challenging the policy pursued by the United States and the EU member states in Eastern Europe, thus creating the impression of the emergence of a new Cold War on the continent. They accused them of violating the principle of multilateralism, of trying to change the balance of power in Europe and of turning outer space into a combat arena. Moreover, Makei and Lavrov deplored NATO’s build-up of forces in Europe, including the deployment of the US missile defence system, and denounced Western sanctions. At the same time, the two officials expressed their intention to combat attempts to rewrite or distort the history of the Second World War (known in the ex-Soviet space as the Great Patriotic War), as well as to destabilize the information space in the current geopolitical context. At the end of the joint declaration, the two Ministers of Foreign Affairs reiterated their desire to strengthen the two countries’ bilateral relationship, in an attempt to counteract any Western meddling in their internal affairs.
The Ninth Edition of the Forum of Regions
While Sergey Lavrov met with Aleksander Lukashenko and his counterpart, Vladimir Makei, in Minsk, the Ninth Edition of the Forum of Regions took place in Grodno, a city in western Belarus, a yearly event aiming at deepening the ties between Belarusian regions and the subjects of the Russian Federation in various fields: economy, education, agriculture, science and culture. During the two days of the forum, a series of meetings took place between the chairmen of the upper chambers of the Parliaments of Belarus and Russia, Natalia Kacianova and Valentina Matvienko, with representatives from authorities from both countries (such as Grodno, Mogilev, Novosibirsk, Tatarstan, Sverdlovsk). These were finalized by the signing of 6 interregional agreements, meant to accelerate the integration process of Belarus and Russia into the State Union. In fact, the leaders of the two countries used the event both to promote this international organization, as well as to launch new attacks against the West, keeping in line with the confrontational rhetoric seen especially after the invasion of Ukraine. In his speech, Aleksander Lukashenko described the forum as a symbol of fraternal ties between the two Slavic peoples, a peaceful initiative in contrast to the military build-up of NATO forces on the Belarusian borders. Moreover, the last European dictator urged the other states in the ex-Soviet space to join the State Union in order to preserve their sovereignty and independence in the event of a confrontation with the US and the EU. Just the previous day, he had praised his own type of leadership, which maintained Belarusian statehood in Europe. Through a video message, Vladimir Putin claimed that “the pressure exerted by the West together with the sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus forced the two countries to strengthen their cooperation within the Union State.” At the same time, the Russian President promised to take all necessary measures to complete the construction of the Astravets nuclear power plant by the end of the year, which could turn Belarus into a threat to the security of Europe. If we also consider the possibility of transferring nuclear warheads and Iskander-M missile systems from Russia, then Aleksander Lukashenko’s policy towards the West will be of serious concern.
Celebrating Independence Day in Europe’s last dictatorship
The war in neighbouring Ukraine did not disrupt the Independence Day celebrations in Belarus, the date on which the last dictatorship of Europe celebrated 31 years of existence as well as 77 years since the liberation of its capital Minsk from Nazi troops during World War II. The exhibitions of weapons and military technology, fairs with traditional products and anniversary concerts were all eclipsed by the activities in which Aleksander Lukashenko took part. Joined by his three sons – Viktor, Dmitry, Nikolay –, members of the government and several hundred supporters, the Belarusian president laid flowers at the Kurgan Slavy Memorial and then gave a speech in which he reaffirmed his support for Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko responded to the West, which had criticised his assistance to the Russian Federation in its conflict with Ukraine, citing the obligations arising from Belarus’ membership in the State Union, including the creation of a common army. He called Russia a brotherly state, the main bulwark in the fight against Nazism, and admitted that he personally decided on the participation of Belarus in the war effort against Ukraine from its first day – February 24 – in order to prevent the killing of Russian soldiers by NATO troops. Given this speech, where Lukashenko recognized the deliberate involvement of his country in invading another independent and sovereign state, his diplomatic isolation is practically a normality. In fact, no pro-Western leader has congratulated him on the anniversary of Independence Day this year. He has only received such messages from presidents considered as authoritarian as himself, such as Recep Erdogan, Ilham Aliyev, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, and, of course, his ally Vladimir Putin.