Belarus: Putin's Next Crimea?
After months of political unrest that shook Ukraine to its economic and political core, Victor Yanukovych the then president of Ukraine who was seen as a “puppet” to Russian interests fled the country in February of 2014. During this transition period the Ukrainian parliament appointed a new president and prime minister both of whom favored drawing the country closer to the European Union. With the Kremlin becoming weary of a potential NATO ally right on their eastern border and loss of political influence in the country it set the stage for Russian intervention. After the new political appointments in Kyiv, unmarked professional soldiers flooded the Crimean Peninsula taking control of key strategic points. Although, the soldiers were unmarked it is widely believed that these were Russian troops. Soon after the Crimean Supreme Council voted to secede and in mid-March of 2014, Crimean and Russian officials both signed the treaty of Accession, which formally but Crimea under the control of the Russian federation, and was ratified quickly by the Kremlin.
The events that took place in the lead up to military escalation by Russian federation forces in Crimea bare a strong resemblance to the political unrest that is grappling Belarus. On August 9th, the country held a presidential election where it was widely believed that Alexander Lukashenko would win a sixth presidential term. Although, Lukashenko claims he won more than 80% of the electorate international observers were quick to site the fraudulent nature of the elections. As a result, there was a massive outcry of support for opposition candidate Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya. With hundreds of thousands of protestors in the streets demanding democratic reforms accompanied by widespread worker strikes Lukashenko was forced to ask Russian president Vladimir Putin for assistance while security forces continued to lose control of the situation.
The question remains, will Putin seize on this opportunity to extend Russian influence further into Europe as he did with Ukraine or will he leave Belarus to its own devices?
To understand Lukashenko’s dependence on the powerful Russian leader one must look at the close intertwined relationship that is shared by both countries. Since Lukashenko took office in 1994, he pushed for Belarus to have a closer relationship with Russia. The former Soviet client state signed multiple deals which included an economic union agreement along with a Friendship and Cooperation pact, however this would not save the country’s economy.
As the turn of the century came Belarus entered a dire economic state that saw the likes of food rationing and the nation’s currency value plummet by half. For the next several years Lukashenko entered a game of diplomatic chess playing the West and Russia off of each other in order to keep Belarus a float. For years Belarus has received Russian oil and gas for a fraction of the cost that is normally charged of other European nations. However, whenever Lukashenko threatened to restrict the control of Russian energy companies, Putin countered by threatening to turn off the tap. Lukashenko would also turn to the west asking for loans to pay off debts but when EU member states asked about his human rights record Lukashenko turned back to the Kremlin. Lukashenko did not want to appear as weak to his own people, to avoid this he would go to both Russia and the west for help so that he did not appear as a pawn to either sides' game.
Similarly, the Ukraine also shares an extremely close relationship with the Russian federation. Historically, however, Ukraine has been dominated both entirely or partially by Russia. For centuries Ukraine was dominated by the Tsarist Russian Empire and then in 1917 switched hands to the Soviet Union. With a large population of ethnic Russians, Putin had seized on the opportunity to play on Russian nationalist sentiment in Crimea which provided increased support for annexation. However, Belarus does not share in Crimea’s fervent Russian national sentiment.
Although the current political turmoil that engulfs Belarus shares a stark resemblance to that of what Ukraine went through, Putin’s desire to expand his sphere of influence even further in to the European continent may be more challenging this time around. Before the annexation of Crimea there were an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Russians who supported annexation. According to census data from the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine ethnic Russians have dominated the demographic pool of Crimea since 1989. However, Belarus is a different story, according to the CIA World Fact Book only 8.3% of Belarus’s total population is ethnically Russian. With these numbers being so low there has been no major call for annexation.
Furthermore, from an economic standpoint, the Belarussian people would not be as enticed to join forces with a country that is struggling financially. The Russian economy has been heavily hit by a plethora of economic misfortunes ranging from drops in the price of oil to sanctions, which have cost the Russian economy billions, and the Belarussian people don’t see it palpable to make it their own problem. Aside from current factors, Putin also runs the risk of provoking a military response from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). With Crimea as a precedent, European allies would be heavily incentivized to not allow further incursion into Europe from Russia.
Back in 2014 when Russia made its incursion into the Crimea there was no prior precedent for how to deal with the annexation of an entire province. From a geographical standpoint annexing Crimea was an easy task for the Russians, not only was the peninsula isolated from the rest of Ukraine but the Russian black sea fleet had a heavy presence off of Crimea’s shores. In the case of Belarus, it is not a small geographically isolated province that is accessible by sea. Belarus is a landlocked country that is bordered by several other NATO aligned nations such as Poland and the Baltic states, so Moscow will not have the same maneuverability as they did in Crimea if they decide to go with annexation. There are a multitude of similarities that exist between Crimea and Belarus, from political unrest caused by a pro-European opposition candidate to a close relationship with Russia one may assume that Putin is ready to send in full divisions of Russian T-14 Armata tanks to Minsk but that simply isn’t the case. With NATO not willing to allow further Russian intrusion into Europe, the unfavorable geographical positioning of Belarus, and Putin facing mounting political opposition on the home front, an attempt at annexation could be disastrous for the Russian autocrat.