In April 2014, a month after annexing Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared himself the defender of the Russkiy Mir—a “Russian world” dominated by ethnic Russians and encompassing most of the territory of the former Soviet Union. Observers in Russia and abroad had long interpreted the Kremlin’s interest in Eurasian integration as a thinly veiled effort to re-establish Moscow’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. The seizure of Crimea was supposed to function as a demonstration of Russian resolve and a message to Moscow’s neighbors about the risks of resistance.
Three years have passed since Russia annexed Crimea. How is the “Russian world” project proceeding? Not well: In fact if anything it has gone in reverse. Putin himself has shelved the term. Excluding the Donbass and Crimea, Russian influence in Ukraine is at its lowest ebb since Catherine the Great. The Kremlin’s efforts to build the Eurasian Economic Union into a functioning trade bloc have scored mixed results at best. But the best evidence of the Kremlin’s failure to enhance its influence in the former Soviet space is its deteriorating relations with the country that long seemed the most natural candidate for entry into the Russian world: Belarus.
Relations between Moscow and Minsk have always been close yet complicated. Over the past several years, however, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has reasserted Belarussian sovereignty, repaired some ties with the West, and demanded more benefits from Russia in exchange for preserving the two countries’ tentative friendship. Minsk and Moscow are now in the middle of a contentious negotiation over gas, which Russia has historically provided to Belarus at below-market levels. Subsidized gas is the price of Minsk’s willingness to tolerate Russia’s Eurasian integration agenda. But Belarusian demands keep increasing. The cost of retaining influence in Minsk has increased even as the Kremlin’s budget for buying friends has shrunk.
The main factor obstructing Russian influence in Belarus is Lukashenko’s self-interest. He funds his rule primarily by extorting subsidies from Russia. His ability to get cash handouts depends on his control over Belarus. For nearly 25 years he has played a clever double game, selling influence to Russia, especially when it comes to Minsk’s foreign policy agenda, while ensuring that Russia lacks sufficient power to sideline him entirely.
Since 2014—when Russia seized Crimea and the price of oil slumped—Lukashenko has offered reduced influence to Moscow but demanded more cash. There are three reasons why. First, rather than incentivizing obedience, the Crimean example gave Lukashenko a reason to hedge against Russian influence and defend Belarussian sovereignty. Second, the West responded to Crimea in part by reopening ties with Belarus, giving Minsk diplomatic options besides Moscow. Third, the oil-induced economic crisis hit Belarus as hard as Russia, so Lukashenko now needs extra Russian cash to address discontent at home, as the recent protests showed. He is driving a harder bargain with Russia, leading to the sharpest disagreements between the two countries in a decade. The cost of maintaining Belarus’ participation in the Russian world has gone up.
Compared to all other former Soviet republics, Belarus did the least to develop a unique national identity after independence in 1991. Russian is spoken far more widely than Belarusian; even Lukashenko usually speaks in Russian. The cultural links between Russia and Belarus motivated a movement to merge the two countries, though no progress was made beyond visa-free travel and extensive economic integration. Still, Belarus is more closely linked with Russian than any other post-Soviet country.
The annexation of Crimea, however, changed how the Belarusian elite approached the question of sovereignty. Suddenly cultural similarities with Russia represented a threat to the ruling regime in Minsk, lest the Kremlin use the pretext of defending Slavic brethren to unify the two countries by force. In 2014, Lukashenko started giving speeches in Belarusian. He refused to recognize Russian rule in Crimea, and positioned himself as a neutral mediator during peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv rather than a Kremlin lackey.
When Russia demanded access to airbases in Belarus, Minsk refused, even though the two countries ostensibly have a joint air defense system. After months of negotiations, Moscow has quietly shelved the issue, admitting that it lacks the tools to compel or coerce Belarus into handing over an airbase. Despite Lukashenko’s refusal to allow the basing of Russian planes in his country, Moscow agreed to give Minsk new military technology that it had previously refused to transfer—a concession from Moscow, and a victory for Minsk.
The second factor that increases Lukashenko’s leverage over Moscow is Belarus’s improving ties with the West. Before the war in Ukraine, U.S. and EU sanctions had diplomatically isolated Belarus. Condoleezza Rice famously criticized Lukashenko for being “Europe’s last dictator.” The Western powers demanded that Lukashenko roll back autocratic measures in exchange for better ties.
Here, too, Crimea transformed Minsk’s outlook. Facing a Russia willing to use force to change borders, the West concluded that democratization in Belarus was a secondary goal; more important was the objective of forging better ties with Minsk to balance against Moscow. In February 2016, the European Union lifted sanctions on Belarus, ignoring Lukashenko’s continued authoritarian rule. The U.S. government has softened its position on Belarus, too. Minsk also reopened talks with the IMF about a financial aid package. Arrests of hundreds of peaceful protestors in late March in Minsk brought only a mild reaction from Western governments.
As ties with the West improved, Minsk gained leverage with respect to Moscow. In the past, Russia argued to Lukashenko that improving ties with the West put Belarus at greater risk of a “color revolution.” Now, the West is willing to work with Lukashenko more or less on his own terms. Moscow can no longer compete simply by being the only power that tolerates Lukashenko’s authoritarianism. Russia increasingly must offer positive benefits to win Minsk’s allegiance.
The economic crisis that accompanied the oil price crash has made it more difficult for Moscow to buy influence in Minsk. The Kremlin has fewer resources than in the past, thanks to a sharp fall in tax revenue. Lukashenko, meanwhile, faces his own economic crisis, as Belarus’ key oil refining industry has also been hard hit by the oil slump. Minsk’s demands for cash from Moscow have increased even as Russia finds itself less able to pay.
Given Russia’s financial constraints and Minsk’s new focus on preserving sovereignty and maintaining improved relations with the West, ties between Lukashenko and the Kremlin have spiraled downward. In 2016, Belarus began paying only a fraction of the price that Gazprom demanded for gas imports, accumulating half a billion dollars in debt. Then, Minsk offered limited visa-free travel to foreigners visiting Belarus, allegedly without consulting Russia, even though the two states share a joint border. In response to these moves—and as a demonstration of the pain Russia is capable of inflicting—Moscow began imposing border checks on the Russian-Belarusian border where previously there were none. Lukashenko has been declining to attend Eurasian Economic Union summits and obstructing some of the organization’s goals. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, announced in early March that any country that leaves the Eurasian Economic Union will face sharply higher gas prices. And the Eurasian Development Bank has again declined to extend new credit to Minsk. Tit-for-tat reprisals between Moscow and Minsk are continuing to drive relations downward.
The most likely outcome of the current spat between Minsk and Moscow is a new compromise over gas prices and military cooperation. The Zapad 2017 military exercises, for example, will likely go ahead this fall, temporarily bringing Russian military forces onto Belarusian territory. Minsk is unlikely to leave the Eurasian Economic Union, if only because it continues to hope for new loans.
But Moscow’s plans to make Belarus a cornerstone of its Eurasian integration project look increasingly unsuccessful. Minsk may be a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, but from Russia’s perspective it has also become the most frustrating member, constantly demanding new funds while simultaneously improving ties with the West. Strong-arming Minsk ought to be easy, but Russia has discovered how few tools it has to coerce Belarus, especially when the Kremlin’s budget is tight. Given its culture, history, and economy, no country is a more natural member of the “Russian world” than Belarus. Over the past two years, no country has done more to demonstrate the weakness of Russian efforts to reestablish hegemony in the post-Soviet space.