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A Sign of Gratitude Or an Attempt to Lure the Belarusian Army into the War in Ukraine? Brief Notes on Vladimir Putin’s Visit to Minsk

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The end of last year was quite difficult for Western leaders, concerned about the scenario in which the Belarusian army would enter the war in Ukraine. Their fears have been amplified by the arrival in Minsk, after three years of absence, of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His visit to the Belarusian capital was preceded by a reunion attended by several representatives of the Belarusian and Russian elites, including Prime Ministers Roman Golovchenko and Mikhail Mishustin, the foreign and defense ministers, Sergey Aleinik, Sergey Lavrov, Viktor Khrenin and Sergey Shoigu. During the meeting, the officials agreed to step up bilateral cooperation and adopt measures necessary to counter the sanctions imposed by the West.

At the beginning of the meeting with his counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko noted that the rapprochement of the two countries over the last year was a normal reaction, as a result of the pressure to which both Belarus and Russia, had been subjected by the West. Moreover, the Belarusian president urged European officials to return to the negotiating table and to try to solve the security problems in the region (thus, ending the war in Ukraine), as well as to discuss the shaping of a new world order. The Belarusian leader obviously perceives the Russo-Ukrainian conflict as a new Cold War in which the alliance between Belarus and Russia was forced to fight with the global evil personified by the EU states. Moreover, in line with the same narrative, the Belarusian president insisted on reshaping the international order so that Russia would regain its status as a great power and Belarus would remain in its sphere of influence. Later, Alexander Lukashenko admitted that in the coming years, the country would remain in Russia’s sphere of influence since. In his own words, “along with Russia, Belarus has managed not only to survive as a state but also to develop its economy.”

In fact, during the meeting, the two presidents’ mostly discussed economic issues, including those at the level of the Union State. The Belarusian president labeled the implementation of the 28 Union State integration programs as successful as they have been implemented by 60%. Paradoxically, however, at the press conference that followed the meeting, both presidents vehemently rejected the possible merger of Belarus and Russia, thus confirming that the State Union remained only an illusion with no chance of becoming a reality. Vladimir Putin claimed that “Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone.” Moreover, he described the rumors of a possible unification of Russia and Belarus as nonsense launched by Western leaders who wanted to block their transformation into countries that are too competitive for them on the international market. For his part, Alexander Lukashenko supported Vladimir Putin’s remarks, but with a slight difference. According to Belarusian president, the theses on the annexation of Belarus to Russia were initiated by the leaders of the opposition in exile who wanted to get rich.

Beyond discussing economic and foreign policy issues, the two heads of state avoided mentioning further details on other pressing aspects of the bilateral relationship. For instance, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin confirmed that the prime ministers of the two countries had signed agreements on the supply of Belarus with natural gas for the next three years but did not specify the price at which the Belarusian officials would purchase the Russian gas. At the same time, the Russian president claimed that starting in 2023, Russia and Belarus will intensify their cooperation in the nuclear (for defensive purposes) and space industries. Vladimir Putin has admitted that Russia intends to complete the construction of the second reactor of the Astravets nuclear power plant, as well as to train the Belarusian cosmonauts so that they carry out, together with their Russian colleagues, a flight to the orbital station.

At the end of the press conference held after his meeting with Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Russian president mentioned the efforts made by the two countries in order to strengthen the Union State’s security in the event of an attack by the West. Vladimir Putin recalled that Russia and Belarus agreed to create a regional military task force and a joint air defense system. Moreover, he claimed that with his Belarusian counterpart, he agreed to continue the practice of regular joint military exercises and mutual shipments of weapons. For his part, Alexander Lukashenko thanked Vladimir Putin for completing the transfer of S-400 and Iskander-M air defense systems and for extending the training of Air Force pilots so that they could fly Su-25 aircraft capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

On December 19th, the Belarusian president wanted to prove to the West that the Belarusian-Russian relationship is a normal one, in which mutual visits of the two presidents take place. That is why Alexander Lukashenko strove to portray Vladimir Putin’s visit to Minsk as an official one, in which the talks took place both in an extended and in a restricted format. In reality, however, it had only been a one-day working visit, a fact also demonstrated by the diplomatic ceremonial (which lacked both the singing of the national anthems of the two countries, upon the arrival of the Russian president at the airport and the military honors). The illusion of normality in the Belarusian-Russian relationship that Europe’s last dictator tried to maintain at all costs in front of the international community was shattered however, a few days later, when he made two more flights to Russia in order to visit the Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow and to attend the informal summit of CIS leaders in St. Petersburg. At the end of 2022, the ratio of bilateral meetings was 9 to 1 in favor of Russia, which again confirms Alexander Lukashenko’s dependence on his counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Apparently, through his visit to Minsk after three years of absence, the Russian president wanted to show his gratitude to his last ally for the support he had offered since the beginning of the “special military operation” (allowing the Russian army to use the Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine, as well as the creation of a regional military task force and of a joint air defense system). That is why Vladimir Putin chose to make a series of concessions to Alexander Lukashenko, to whom he transferred the S400 and Iskander-M anti-air defense systems, promised to continue the training for Belarusian Air Force crews in Russia, as well as to purchase natural gas at preferential prices. During his visit to Minsk, the Russian President hesitated to talk about Ukraine which suggests that he did not intend to persuade his counterpart to send the Belarusian army to fight in the war, but only to raise concerns among officials in Kyiv, Brussels and Washington about the chance of carrying out such a scenario as soon as possible. However, it is not excluded that Vladimir Putin will implement it in 2023 if the Russian armed forces continue to suffer significant losses on the ground. To win a decisive victory in Ukraine, he needs Belarus, including its military hardware and equipment, its logistical hubs, as well as trained Belarusian soldiers. Therefore, although initially Vladimir Putin seemed to seek the deepeninig of economic and military ties with Alexander Lukashenko, visiting the Belarusian capital, he might have another goal in mind: increasing the dependence of his counterpart and thus, preparing to lure the Belarusian army into the war when he deems it necessary. Only then, Alexander Lukashenko may have to make this final concession to Vladimir Putin, who guarantees his political survival. Meanwhile, the Russian army continues to bomb Ukraine’s cities. The war is far from over.

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