Relationship between Russia and Belarus Encountering Turbulence
According to a Moscow Times report, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stated after a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 15 that Belarus “could unify [with Russia] tomorrow, no problem.” Putin further stated that “there are simply no fully independent states in the world.”
The idea of unification between Belarus and Russia dates back to the Union State agreement signed in the 90s, which was intended to create a confederation of two states, each of which would retain sovereignty but share a legislature, currency, and head of state. However, the Union State treaty has remained a primarily nominal agreement.
Lukashenko’s comments are notable because recent years have seen Minsk explicitly distancing itself from Moscow and pursuing increasingly autonomous domestic and foreign policies.
In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Lukashenko threatened in 2015 to pull out of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, whose members had been sharing the burden of Russia’s economic woes.
Other measures by Lukashenko to reduce Russian influence include a doctrine treating irregular troop presence as a “declaration of war” to prevent forceful annexation of Belarusian territory via the so-called “little green men” employed by Russia to seize control over Crimea, and a de-Russification policy promoting the Belarusian language, currently spoken by only 23 percent of the population, in schools.
Recently, however, it appears that Putin may be trying to force Lukashenko’s hand and pull Belarus back into the Russian sphere of influence. Lukashenko’s latest alleged comments come at the heels of bilateral talks with his Russian counterpart regarding a new tax regime introduced in Russia on energy exports.
Previously, Russia provided Belarus with generous oil and gas subsidies in exchange for its role as a buffer state with the West. However, the Belarusian president accused Moscow of trying to “incorporate” Belarus by reneging on previous energy agreements at a December 14 press conference.
Moscow’s new tax regime is expected to cost Minsk between $8 and $12 billion by 2024—money the struggling state can’t afford to lose.
One possible explanation of Putin’s recent push for unification with Belarus is Russia’s presidential term limits. Currently, Putin cannot legally run for office again after his current term expires in 2024. However, should a union with Belarus occur, Putin could hypothetically become the leader of this new unified state while fulfilling his constitutional obligations.