Belarus-Russia: Integration or imitation

This summer was quite eventful. One such event was the meeting of the presidents of the United States and Russia, which took place on June 16.

Minsk followed this meeting with particular attention. According to the USCC’s sources in the Ukrainian special services, the illegitimate President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, feared that he might be traded between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin during the talks, and even demanded assurances from the Russian president that nothing alike would happen.

At the same time, the special services expressed the opinion that if Belarus’s political bosses don’t change by the fall, Lukashenko may stay in power for a long time. As we can see, no change has taken place, but the illegitimate president of Belarus has made some concessions to the Kremlin.

“Union State”

On September 9, a regular meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin took place.

As a result of this meeting, 28 integration cards were agreed upon . They were approved by the governments on September 10, and are to be signed on November 4 at a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the “Union State”.

This is the fifth meeting between Putin and Lukashenko over the last year. Each of those meetings was amplified by the propaganda of both states as “emergent”, “historical”, “decisive”, etc. But nothing happened by large as a result of those meetings. The number of integration maps is constantly changing, but their full content is unknown to the general public.

Similarly, the main actors of “integration” do not clarify the meaning, limiting themselves to general phrases “strengthen”, “deepen”, “improve”, “harmonize”, etc.

On September 9, at the press conference, Lukashenko looked quite confident, thanking Putin and Russia and criticizing the West, “which is on the verge of collapse”. The head of the Russian Federation looked a little sick, often coughing, but in general, he also seemed confident in the success and timeliness of the process of creating the “Union State”. By the way, on September 14, it became known that Putin went to forced self-isolation “due to the identified cases of coronavirus within his entourage”.

At the same time, there was no coat of arms of Belarus at the rostrum from which Lukashenko spoke, unlike Putin’s rostrum with Russia’s coat of arms on it.

At the end of the press conference, answering a journalist’s question about the stage of the “rapprochement” process that has been ongoing for more than 20 years, Putin said that it was necessary to start exactly what was agreed now – to create an economic base – the foundation of the relationship, and everything else is a political superstructure. He also added that after these agreements are fulfilled, it will be possible to talk about the next steps. However, it will be a matter of the future, “because the situation is rapidly evolving”.

Although the economic agreements themselves provided for introducing a single currency of the “Union State”, it was decided to abandon this decision. The Kremlin has also rejected the issue of creating a single parliament, and the single market for electricity, oil, and gas is planned to be created by the end of 2023.

Lukashenko’s latest statements, made on September 9, only reinforce suspicions that Belarus’s integration with Russia under the union agreement in the previously planned form has no real prospects of being implemented.

“Now two generations have grown after that, and today it is impossible to make that integration happen”, – Lukashenko said.

Obviously, one cannot make any political predictions where politics depends solely on the decisions of two autocrats. However, it seems even more evident that Alexander Lukashenko is not interested in real integration and uses it exclusively as a tool for bargaining, getting funding from Moscow, and maintaining his very precarious position after losing the 2020 presidential election. The Kremlin, in turn, is using Lukashenko for its election purposes, selling its citizens a new geopolitical “victory” in the form of a de facto annexation of Belarus.

Internal situation

UN Special Rapporteur Anais Marin called repressions in Belarus worse than catastrophic. The Lukashenko regime is directing “terrible repression” against the Viasna human rights group, whose volunteers are gathering information about human rights violations in Belarus. Ultimately, this affects Geneva’s ability to monitor the situation and report repressive politics properly.

Belarusian human rights activists share the same opinion – in the summer of 2021 alone, another 236 people were arrested for political reasons.

The overall trend is that the illegitimate government of Belarus has moved from mass repressions against politically active citizens to terrorizing the whole society. A large number of cases in recent months have concerned ordinary citizens who somehow tried to disagree with the regime. People are arrested even for liking and commenting on social networks, and kindergartens and schools are declared the hotbed of the “color revolution”.

Military integration

Earlier this year, as part of the integration of Russia and Belarus, “military integration maps” were agreed upon. According to officials of both countries, it was about a joint air defense system, joint military training centers, joint command and control of troops, etc.

But even here, Lukashenko is probably bargaining for the best conditions for himself as he was in no hurry to give up his position.

Thus, at the end of the summer, he stated that there was no need to deploy Russian troops on the territory of Belarus.

Also, according to Russian media, despite Moscow’s attempts to agree on the operational subordination of any forces and the creation of a single military decision-making center, it did not manage to reach an agreement with Minsk. This was quite evident during the “Zapad-2021” exercise, which was commanded by the Chiefs of Staff of Russia and Belarus, and not by a single center.

However, just before the meeting between Putin and Lukashenko, the situation began to change.

On September 8, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense published information about the deployment of at least three Su-30SM fighters of the Russian Air Force, which will carry out a joint combat duty to protect the air borders of the “Union State”.

On September 12, while at a training ground near Baranovichi, Lukashenko hinted at a “threat” allegedly coming from the West and recalled the experience of 1941, when Belarus was captured by Nazi troops:

“You can see how they are behaving. This is why we cannot relax, given the experience of 1941, when we pacified and calmed everyone down, to not respond to provocations and so on, only to receive a stunning blow and lose Belarus in a couple of months”.

Lukashenko also announced his intention to deploy Russian C-400 anti-aircraft missile systems on the border with Ukraine. According to him, part of the conversation with Putin covered this issue. In total, Belarus plans to buy weapons from Russia for a total of over $1 billion.

“We discussed this matter with Belarusian and Russian generals. We are starting to feel the heat from the south. And what else could happen… We should get ready. Our border with Ukraine is 1200 kilometers, and we will have to cover this perimeter too. And we said that S-400 systems would come in handy. Vladimir Putin instructed the defense minister to get in touch with ours so that these systems could be delivered to us”, – Lukashenko stated.

Lukashenko mentioned Ukraine and the Belarusian-Ukrainian border again on September 27 during a meeting with security officials. This time the reason was the “U.S. bases” that are allegedly being created in Ukraine under the guise of training centers. At the same time, Lukashenko is again publicly tying Putin to Ukraine, either to reinforce his words or because a new “threat” to Belarus has been imposed by the Russian leader.

“You see, they are pulling NATO troops there, in Ukraine. Under the guise of training centers, they actually create bases. US bases are being set up in Ukraine. It is clear that we need to respond to this. The President of Russia and I have held and are holding consultations on this issue and have agreed that some action should be taken there. Otherwise, tomorrow we will have an unacceptable situation right on the border between Belarus and Russia, “Lukashenko said.

“You see, they are dragging NATO troops there, to Ukraine. Under the guise of training centers, they are actually creating bases. The United States is creating bases in Ukraine. It is clear that we need to react to this. The Russian president and I have held and are holding consultations on this issue and have agreed that some action should be taken there. Otherwise, tomorrow we will have an unacceptable situation right on the border between Belarus and Russia”, – Lukashenko said.

“Zapad-2021”. Military aspects

On September 10-16, Russia and Belarus officially held a joint strategic military exercise “Zapad-2021”. In addition to the organizers, military exercises of the armed forces of Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia, as well as a representative of the military delegation of Sri Lanka took part in the exercise. According to official sources, a total of about 200 thousand people, more than 700 units of military equipment, and more than 80 planes and helicopters were involved in the exercise.

The true number of participants is unknown, and NATO has previously accused Moscow of downplaying the actual number of participants during the 2017 exercise. This year, the Defense Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine also stated at the beginning of the exercise that more combat aircraft and artillery systems will be used than had been officially announced.

The training phases began in June. According to the Ukrainian special services, considerable attention was paid to:

– testing the actions of assault units in the city and densely populated area with the support of mechanized troops.

– many tactical episodes were performed by aircraft, including strikes on operational reserves, strategic objects, which are essential elements of the offensive operation.

Ukrainian intelligence believes that the scenario of capturing the eastern regions of Ukraine was actually worked out during the “Zapad”. Moreover, Russia and Belarus are working to form three joint training and combat centers, one of which will be located in Belarus and is likely to be used for the permanent presence of Russian troops.

Also, this year’s exercise is characterized by the significant movement of troops. From March to April, powerful units moved from central Russia to the border with Ukraine. This indicates that Russia is actively working on the creation of groups, the movement of reserves, the development of standards for redeployment, and reducing time.

“Possible areas of future hostilities are being studied and units are being coordinated through the implementation of elements that are already inherent in operations in real combat conditions”, – representative of the Defense Intelligence, Major General Vadym Skibitsky noticed discussing Russian-Belarusian exercise.

This is confirmed by the words of the Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, who as a result of the exercise identified:

“Zapad-2021” has shown that we can create powerful interspecies groups in a short time, plan combat operations in any direction, stop any aggression, warn and sober up any enemy with a knockout blow”.

Therefore, it is impossible to say that the integration of Russia and Belarus takes place only on paper. At the same time, rapid steps in this direction are not expected yet, at least in political issues.

By creating internal terror in the country, Lukashenko seeks to block any possibility of his replacement, and although he publicly blames the West for these aspirations, he is likely to be afraid of Moscow’s intervention.

However, the Kremlin even benefits from this situation – the EU’s attention has shifted from Russia to Belarus, and the United States is occupied with Afghanistan and China. In addition, at this rate, Belarus can overtake Russia in the number of Western sanctions, and therefore Lukashenko will need Russian money. This is an additional opportunity to exert pressure on Minsk.

And although the unrecognized leader of Belarus is trying to keep power in his hands, Russia’s concessions in the military sphere are still happening. But NATO countries are unlikely to have anything to worry about but the influx of migrants. Russia will hold presidential elections in 2024, so the struggle between the two Kremlin “collectors of the Russian land”, Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu, will become tougher. And here the absorption of Belarus alone may seem a too small deal.

Authors: Oksana Kuzan, Borys Grachov

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