Jan Claas BehrendsHistorian at the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History (ZZF), Potsdam
In his diaries, U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan noted that “(…) the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.” In 2022, his observation holds true for Belarus and Ukraine. While Kyiv has long chosen to become an adversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambition, Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko formally kept power but actually became a vassal of Russia.
The silent invasion and de facto occupation of Belarus might be Putin’s biggest triumph in the ongoing crisis. It gives Russia’s military long-desired strategic depth. For the Belarusian opposition it spells out the end of their democratic dreams. Russia has saved a fellow autocrat.
For the West, especially for the Baltic states and Poland, the consequences are dire. Russia has gained a strategic advantage by being able to operate and project power from Belarus. The country most affected by Minsk’s loss of sovereignty is, however, Ukraine. With Belarus firmly in Putin’s pocket, Ukraine is now encircled by Russian forces.
Belarus is no longer a buffer state. It is firmly anchored in Moscow’s imperial realm and Lukashenko, once a player, has been reduced to a pawn in the geopolitical game.
Ben HodgesPershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
Belarus lost its sovereignty the day Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner by 80 percent of the presidential election and began to crush the protestors in his own population—which appeared to be many more than the 20 percent of the population who allegedly didn’t vote for him. Most of the world immediately recognized Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the legitimate winner.
The Kremlin soon began to exploit the situation, enabling the hijacking of flights with opposition journalists on board and the manufacturing of a migrant crisis to put pressure on the EU as well as test response times along the border with three NATO allies.
The latest development is the recent unsurprising decision to keep Russian troops in Belarus beyond the scheduled end of Allied Resolve.
Moscow will soon complete the establishment of the Union State, Lukashenko will retire to Sochi, thousands of Russian troops will take up residence in Belarus, threatening the Suwalki Corridor, and Vladimir Putin will become “president for life” atop the Union State.
The selfish egos of a few men will extend the suffering and suppression of millions of their own citizens. Hopefully, Mrs Tikhanovskaya has the stamina and patience to match her incredible courage and heart so that she can assume the position of president someday soon.
Dominik P. JankowskiPolitical adviser and head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of Poland to NATO
The Russian-Belarusian military integration has considerably deepened since 2020 with the Zapad 2021 and Allied Resolve 2022 exercises being cases in point. In 2021 both countries also agreed to establish three joint combat training centers.
Indeed, for NATO the security trend has already been negative. Yet, the recent decision about Russian troops staying in Belarus indefinitely after the exercise is a game changer for NATO and the Eastern flank allies. It turns Belarus into a de facto new Russian military district. This could result in more Russian high-end capabilities—such as nuclear-capable Iskander missile systems—closer to NATO borders.
This should be coupled with the fact that Belarus is seeking to allow to host nuclear weapons on its territory for the first time since 1996. This move is undertaken through the constitutional changes that will be confirmed during the February 27, 2022 referendum. With all these developments, NATO will have to adapt both its military posture on the Eastern flank—that is, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—and defense planning to a new level of threat coming directly from Belarus.
Kamil KłysińskiSenior fellow at the Department for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova at the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW)
In reaction to the fraudulent presidential election in August 2020 and the numerous manifestations of repression against the rebellious Belarusians, the EU and then the United States introduced sanctions against the Belarusian regime. Thus, Minsk not only found itself isolated in the international arena but also deprived itself of the chance to resume dialogue with the West. The result has been an unprecedented rise in the importance of Russia for Belarus, which is now its exclusive and clearly dominant political, economic, and military ally.
The sovereignty of Belarus has become de facto illusory. With Alexander Lukashenko in such unfavorable circumstances, he has had to abandon his own foreign policy of creating an image of neutrality, distancing himself from Russia’s aggressive policy, including current pressure on Ukraine, and confrontation with the West.
Today, Minsk is expressing full support for the Kremlin’s strategy, assuring of its loyalty. In fact, Lukashenko’spresidency is guaranteed by his attitude toward Moscow’s actions, and the attributes of statehood are reduced primarily to formal matters and Minsk’s official rhetoric.
This creates a very convenient situation for the Kremlin, for which real domination over a formally independent neighboring state is much more beneficial than a politically risky and economically costly annexation.
Linas KojalaDirector of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, Vilnius
The current regime of Alexander Lukashenko can hardly be defined as a sovereign polity. It has neither the representativeness of its people, as the mass protests in 2020 showed, nor the capacity of independent decisionmaking due to its growing dependence on Russia.
On the one hand, the Belarusian-Russian integration has been taking place for a while. For instance, more than 10 percent of Belarusian GDP has been dependent on Russian energy subsidies for years, even prior to the illegitimate election of 2020. Moreover, the Belarus military has been gradually integrated into the Russian military force.
However, the most recent developments have been highly worrisome. The recent confirmation that Russia’s troops will stay in Belarus indefinitely deteriorate the security situation of both Ukraine and NATO’s Eastern flank. The Minsk regime links the Russian troop deployment with NATO’s actions, suggesting the troops’ retreat is unlikely without the Kremlin’s approval. The so-called constitutional referendum will likely only add to that dependence.
Yet we should not underestimate Belarusian civil society. It surprised everyone two years ago and was only stopped by brutal force. It revealed the weakness, rather than the strength, of the Lukashenko system.
Linas LinkevičiusFormer foreign and defense minister of Lithuania
The direct answer to the question is yes. And it didn’t start yesterday. The Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus was signed on December 8, 1999.
However, after the rigged election of 2020, the process fell off a cliff with increased force and the “absorption” of Belarus is taking place without any resistance because the authority of the self-proclaimed leader depends only on the Kremlin.
Lukashenko not only stole the election but began to sacrifice the remnants of his country’s independence and sovereignty in order to prolong his time in power. This has become especially evident now, when Russia is threatening Ukraine in the most arrogant way and using the territory of Belarus as a bridgehead without any scruples. The so-called referendum planned for the end of the month will legalize the presence of the Russian army and even the eventual presence of nuclear weapons in Belarus.
On February 20, after drills Russian military units were supposed to return to their bases, but now their presence is extended indefinitely. We can thus consider February 20 as the date of the factual occupation of Belarus. The fate of Belarus, as well as the future of other frozen and active conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, will depend on Russia’s assertiveness and the ability of liberal western democracy to resist this unprecedented attack on our fundamental values and the world’s order. So far, our efforts, to put it mildly, are insufficient.
Barbara von Ow-FreytagJournalist and board member at the Prague Civil Society Center
Alexander Lukashenko has traded Belarus’s national sovereignty for keeping his personal power inside the country. In fact, the sell-out to Russia is the only reason Lukashenko is still in control of the country.
While all eyes are focused on Ukraine, Belarus has quietly become the first victim of Vladimir Putin’s project “USSR 2.0.” With 30,000 Russian troops indefinitely stationed in the country, new joint training centers and full economic dependence on Moscow, Belarusian experts speak of a de facto occupation. “We are becoming another ‘people’s republic,’ a young Belarusian analyst said during a private briefing and just after Lukashenko’s visit to Moscow on February 19, 2022.
In the West, many still underestimate the internal power logic behind the ongoing geopolitical shifts. Both Putin and Lukashenko subordinate wider national interests to their desire to stay in power. Their systems are now more intertwined than ever. Their common aim is to suppress ideas of freedom, democracy, and justice in their societies. Instead of modernization and development, they offer a future of repression, stagnation, and a return to the Soviet past.
With social discontent certain to rise, things will end up as unstable as in the USSR 1.0. Europe must brace itself for continued instability. The EU’s challenge is to stay connected to internal developments and to support embattled civil society, independent media, investigative journalists, and bloggers in order to keep exposing the criminal and failing nature of the Russian and Belarusian regimes.
Wojciech PrzybylskiEditor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM)
In short—yes. Belarus’s feeble sovereignty under Alexander Lukashenko has ended upon officially accepting an indefinite presence of Russian troops on February 20.
Lukashenko lost his grip over the country by reacting the way he did to the 2020 protests against the fraudulent election. He installed a military junta to remain in power and lost all authority.
He used to play a game of balancing between East and West, but now he is merely Moscow’s puppet. When sitting in the war room with Putin—an event reported officially as joint nuclear capabilities test exercise—Russian cameramen were keeping him off the screen, as if he was merely an unwanted distant relative. People in Belarus were watching mostly Russian coverage.
Belarus’ sovereignty is not going to be lost for long. The so-called “sovereigntists” do not deliver real sovereignty—of the people, by the people. Lukashenko, nicknamed bat’ka (daddy), has been the self-proclaimed defender of the imaginary people. The generation that emerged through the 2020 protests has created an undying memory of national self-awareness in defiance of the expansionist policy and identity narratives currently peddled by the Putin-Lukashenko tandem. Both rulers’ biological clocks will mark the end of the current arrangement.
Kristi RaikDirector of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
While Ukraine is likely to remain too big a chunk for Putin to swallow, he has succeeded in fortifying his control over Belarus (as well as Kazakhstan). In the shadow of the latest dramatic turns in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the gradual suffocation of Belarus’s sovereignty has gained limited attention, although its implications are no less dramatic for Eastern European security.
It has become a more demanding task for NATO to defend the Baltic states and the alliance is already enhancing defense and deterrence on the Eastern flank.
What is happening to Belarus offers some important lessons for other neighbors of Russia.
First, it confirms again that Russia does not respect the neutrality of its neighbors (Finland during the Cold War was an exception, but even in this case neutrality was not the Kremlin’s preferred option and was very challenging to maintain).
Second, there is a strong link between democracy and sovereignty. Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus was of course never democratic, which partly explains the gradual erosion of its sovereignty over many years. Yet Lukashenko managed to constrain Russia’s influence as long as he enjoyed a considerable degree of support among the population. With the collapse of his domestic support, he became fully dependent on Russia.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)
By tinkering with the constitution and putting the amendments to a public vote, Alexander Lukashenko is making a vague attempt at aligning the constitutional parameters with his political needs. In a politically repressive environment, the carefully managed so-called referendum can only produce one result.
The price for Lukashenko’s political survival is Belarusian sovereignty with regard to Russia. The new constitution spells out what has become the reality already: Lukashenko depends entirely on close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Now Lukashenko officially forgoes the country’s neutral status and effectively allows for further integration with Russia, including an increase in Russian military presence in Belarus. It is noteworthy that it is seen as necessary to rewrite the constitution—after all, constitutions and political practice usually diverge in authoritarian settings.
Having a concrete constitutional reference point makes it easier for the Russian president to legitimize further integration. For the time being, the constitutional amendments are unlikely to be challenged by a new wave of societal mobilization. However, few will be fooled by the changes made. They are more likely to serve as a reference point at a future moment when discontent can be voiced—possibly at the next presidential election, if not before.
Ivan VejvodaActing Rector at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM)
Since gaining its independence in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the ascendance to power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has gone through a series of hopes for political openings followed by authoritarian crackdowns. Closed civic and political democratic forces have attempted several times to break the paternalistic model, most recently before, during and after the August 2020 stolen presidential election.
This European country has been under the authoritarian rule of Lukashenko for the past nearly twenty-eight years. It has and continues to teeter between independence and being taken into the stranglehold of Russia.
Russia sees it as a buffer country, the “near abroad” that supposedly should be in its sphere of influence. Russia has systematically tried to take it under its control. The creation of the Union State of Russia and Belarus in December 1999 is one such example.
Lukashenko depends on Russia to maintain his authoritarian regime, and yet he fears too strong a stranglehold by Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. He has made overtures and at times released political prisoners to demonstrate his willingness to show a more independent and sovereign stance toward his big neighbor. One such time was during the autumn of 2018, when Lukashenko hosted a number of Western guests. This was only another short-lived opening.
Notwithstanding, democratically minded Belarusians at home and abroad will certainly continue their long struggle against all odds—particularly severe at the moment—when Russia is stationing its troops on Belarusian territory.
Belarus will maintain its sovereignty, but it will be a limited sovereignty for a while to come.
Jakob WöllensteinDirector of the Belarus Country Office at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation
According to its preamble, the upcoming new constitution for Belarus aims to “preserve sovereignty” and article 3 states: “the bearer of sovereignty […] is the people.”
The regime’s practice to suppress the democratic majority by falsifying and postponing elections, crushing independent civil society, locking up opponents, censoring free media, and keeping the country in an atmosphere of total fear clearly undermines this sovereignty—from within.
The external repercussions are that Alexander Lukashenko’s growing political and economic dependency on Russia, exacerbated by Western sanctions, lead to foreign policy choices—like threats toward Ukraine—that Belarusians reject and the regime itself would have opposed two years ago.
Asked about his own political future, the alleged protector of sovereignty (article 79) has to consult with Putin. The sovereignty of Belarus is not gone beyond retrieval. But for the moment it is being eroded to a worrying degree.
For it to fully recover, Belarusians must solve the crisis at home, which seems hardly possible without a change of leadership. But sovereignty is also a matter of recognition. It is the international community’s task to keep Belarus on their mental maps and clearly signal their readiness for comprehensive cooperation with Belarus in the future.