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On December 19, Vladimir Putin visited Aliaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk, Belarus. This was Putin’s first visit to Belarus since June 2019 when he attended the closing ceremony of the 2nd European Games.

The announced agenda of the meeting included a wide range of issues in the area of military and economic cooperation with a particular focus on further integration within the Union State. Bilateral negotiations consisted of two parts and were first held in public and then behind closed doors.

Although the Russian side officially rejected claims that it intended to swallow its neighbor through any kind of merger, this meeting can be interpreted as the Kremlin’s attempt to further tighten its grip over Belarus by strengthening economic and military ties with its “main ally in the region”. Overall, the negotiations can be considered as a win for the Kremlin.

A major positive result for Russia from the bilateral talks in the sphere of military cooperation with Belarus includes agreement to continue joint military exercises, to collaborate on producing new military equipment and to provide support to train the crews of Belarusian warplanes that already have been modified for using nuclear warheads. During the negotiations, Russia also raised an important issue of forming a unified defense space with Belarus – something that it will most likely try to push for more aggressively in the coming year.

The Russian side also emphasized the need for closer economic cooperation with Belarus to withstand Western economic pressure. The war in Ukraine has substantially increased the significance of Russia as the top trading partner for Belarus, and both countries are currently moving towards a record trade turnover of 40 billion USD. Special attention during the negotiations was paid to launching joint substitution projects in Belarus in mechanical engineering, electronics and other spheres for which Russia has allocated 105 billion Russian rubles. This economic component of bilateral cooperation will further increase the asymmetric dependence of Belarus on Russia and make it difficult to diversify its trade portfolio in the future.

The two sides also discussed the implementation of the 28 Union State Programs for integration, noting that over 60 per cent of the tasks defined by these Programs have been completed, in particular in the area of customs and taxation.

At first glance, the main win for the Belarusian side from the negotiations with Moscow appears to be a reached agreement on favorable prices of energy supplies from Russia and the prospect of creating a single gas market. However, the real cost of these economic benefits can become much higher in the future as Putin can demand additional concessions in the coming year which would include further ceding of Belarus’s sovereignty.

Putin’s visit to Minsk took place in the aftermath of important recent developments in Belarus.

First, the sudden death of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Uladzimir Makei on November, 26 led to a flurry of speculations, including the Kremlin’s involvement in his demise. Makei was considered the main channel of communication between Belarus and Western countries, and he died the day after he met with the Pope's envoy Ante Jozić with whom he reportedly discussed a secret peace plan over the war in Ukraine. He was also scheduled to travel to the OSCE Ministerial Council in Poland at the beginning of December.

Second, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Belarus on December, 3 and held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Viktar Khrenin straight after landing at Machulishchy Air Base. They signed a rushed classified protocol on regional security amending the defense and security part of the treaty on establishing the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Shoigu also met with Lukashenka to discuss bilateral military cooperation between Russia and Belarus.

Third, on December, 13 the Belarusian Defense Ministry announced a snap inspection of its armed forces’ combat readiness. The drills envisaged implementing engineering equipment of designated areas, conducting bridge crossings and temporary restriction of the movement of citizens on certain public roads and areas. The move made Ukraine increase its defensive positions along the border, strengthen a video surveillance system and deploy drones to monitor the situation.

Although Lukashenka and Putin did not openly discuss the possibility of Belarus’s involvement in the war, many analysts interpreted their meeting as the Kremlin’s attempt to exert more pressure on the official Minsk to agree to deploy Belarusian troops and start a new stage of war with Ukraine. 

This scenario might not be likely in the near future based on the assessment of the Institute for the Study of War. One of the main reasons is that Russia is currently not in a condition to launch a new offensive due to heavy losses it has incurred since the start of the war. Thus, the heightened military activity in Belarus can be rather aimed at blunting Ukraine’s offensive by diverting its troops to the north from active fronts in the east and south of the country. In addition, any direct involvement of Belarus in the war can cause a political risk for Lukashenka, as over 90% of Belarusians have clear anti-war sentiments, including supporters of Lukashenka and the pro-Russia part of society.

However, the option of Belarus’s direct involvement in the war on Russia’s side cannot be excluded in the longer perspective. To win in Ukraine, the Kremlin needs Belarus, including its logistical hubs, military hardware and equipment as well as trained Belarusian soldiers. Therefore, although Putin currently seems to focus on strengthening economic and military ties with Belarus, he might have a bigger goal in mind – to further increase Lukashenka’s reliance on the Kremlin, weaken his bargaining power and prepare to drag Belarus into the war when the right moment arrives.

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Victoria Leukavets

Research Fellow (SFP)

Research Fellow (SFP), Project leader

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