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The Russo-Belarusian “Union State” and its Security Threats to Europe

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko with Russian President Vladimir Putin | Credit: Office of the President of Russia, Wikimedia Commons

Since the Orange and Maidan Revolutions in Ukraine, the possibility of a similar turn of events in Belarus - after years of repression, a state-run economy, and attraction towards the Western free market and values - have revitalised Putin and Lukashenko’s need for a reformation of the “Union State'' between their respective nations. As Moscow’s war on Ukraine intensifies, it proves how Putin’s war of choice leaves no exit strategy for the Kremlin's shrinking options for the future. Consequently, puppet dictator Lukashenko blurted out the latest effrontery to regional and, indeed, global security by promising to bestow nuclear weapons on potential new members to the infamous Russo-Belarusian “Union State”.


The loosely institutionalised 1992 treaty-based Union has long signalled a slow but sure descent of Belarus into vassal status to Russia in its resolve to blackmail and pressurise Europe while extending the hold over the country as a logistical base in the war of aggression. Belarus’ Trojan Horse has organically functioned as an outright vassalization tool since the sham 2020 elections that sparked protests quickly quelled by regime authorities with the help of Moscow. The sanctions imposed on the regime have stiffened the Belarusian dictator to drop past reticences to the proposal of furthering the Union and de facto sped up the total subservience to the taxing demands of a cornered ally. The collective West should intensify the pressure on Belarus by deploying hard and soft power tools and not commit the same mistake of trusting the dictator and his kleptocratic regime.

The Russian Way


In plain Russian fashion, the Union’s institutional backbone is quite approximative. It suffices to mention that the Supreme State Council headed by Lukashenko and comprising the heads of State are in charge of keeping the Union safe from external threats. The other relevant bodies are the Council of Ministers, the Union of Parliament, the Court of the Union, and the Accounting Chamber.


As with the CSTO, the EAEU, and CIS, the Union entails customary and trade benefits along with the rights to movement, residence, study, and work. The economic integration proceeds, albeit hardly, in the face of massive sanctions imposed on the two allies and the chronic backwardness of Russian economic clou and historical record of institutions. This feature has been a permanent trait of any ad hoc alliance with former Soviet satellite states that the Kremin has sought to create. Over the years, the Kremlin has understood the relations between not just opponents but former colonies as strong-weak ones in the face of its incipient institutional backwardness and state economy reliant mainly on natural resources and ad hoc trade deals. The militarist and mafia-like factors have been increasingly a sore point in the eyes of its allies seeking to be part of the more remunerative Western system of multi-level alliances.


The most crucial feature is, arguably, the Regional Forces Group that, in a purely generic comparison to NATO’s Art 5, is covered by the 2021 Russian Military Doctrine stating that an attack on Belarus is an attack on Russia. Military integration (or threat) is the sole strong point of Moscow’s idea of integration and a threat to any state and non-state defectors and dissenters. The concern of a possible, yet today unlikely, rapprochement, as hoped for with the 2002-2003 NATO Partnership Programme for Belarus, has set the Kremlin on the course of accelerating the vassalization of the country. However, the democratising aspirations and resentment over the kleptocratic system rising from Belarusian society and vibrantly on display during the protests after the rigged 2020 elections constitute a threat not just to Lukashenko’s tenure but to Putin’s and the omnipresent oligarch and mafia system linking both countries.


The “Framing” Strategy: Underestimating the Belarusian Regime


Since establishing military bases in Belarus in 1995, Russia has signalled the strategic need to rely on a relief logistical base to Kaliningrad and a hybrid tool to deploy at will towards the Baltics and Poland and, by extension, to the NATO alliance. Today, Belarus’s complete loss of sovereignty by strengthening the Union militarily is a threat to regional security and a tool for Moscow’s long and short-term destabilising strategy following the sanctions applied and the Ukrainian blunder. The threat to the Nato member states is present as the Kremlin has questioned both the Baltics’ sovereignty and Poland’s increasing importance as a logistical hub of deterrence.


However, the EU short-term approach to Moscow’s steady encroachment and Minsk's subservience did not raise concerns before the 2022 war of aggression on Ukraine. Thus it did not produce serious work with domestic opposition in the country to bring about a collapse of the regime, failing to foster a new chapter. Many have questioned France and Germany's trust in Russo-Belarusian goodwill despite the appalling record of the dictators at home and abroad with interlocutors and third parties. Thus, the Minsk Agreements, saluted by France and Germany as a peace and stability harbinger, have constituted a strategic mistake precisely because of the loss of long-term security considerations in favour of energetic business has given Moscow, once again, the opportunity to use Belarus in a purely framing way to legitimise the dictator Lukashenko, as oxygen to the Belarusian regime, and a chance for its anti-Ukrainian strategy.


Moreover, with Ukraine relentlessly striving for its Western future of politico-economic and military integration, Moscow will further use Belarus as a hybrid and nuclear threat to Ukraine and as a crossroad to other rogue states in the world aiming to emulate. Within the Ukrainian case, the Belarusian variant is organically designed today as the third front to the war of aggression on the country after the one within it proper and the other currently raging in the Black Sea. This configuration tests the Ukrainian counter-offensive as it demands the troops' deployment to the border with Belarus aside from the Donbas and the South of the country.


Russia maintains multiple military bases in Belars | Source: Informnapalm.org


The Threat


Whenever Belarus sought a greater margin of freedom in trade, business and foreign policy (the 2004 energy dispute, the Druzhba pipeline, and the 2009 Milk War), Moscow deployed economic and military blackmail to straighten up the ally and discourage new possible trade deals and alliances. Thus, the 2020 Druzhba pipeline dispute between Russia and Belarus has shown how Belarus’ vulnerability to Moscow for supplies is a tool for the latter to strengthen the Union and pose a threat to Europe. Moreover, the signs of the Kremlin’s paranoia have been displayed conceptually by Putin’s 2020 propagandistic and revisionist essay bestowing shambolic reasons why Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia itself form, to use the Rusky Mir jargon, the Holy Trinity and, essentially, denying their respective sovereignty and

self-determination. This prefigured the further weaponization of the Union and Belarus itself with the massive use of its territory for the Russian military and Wagner militia to stage provocations and false-flag operations at the borders with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.


The ongoing migrant crisis at the borders is a patent proof of the role of Belarus state and non-state actors to engineer a massive flow of illegal migrants from the Middle East to Western Europe with the duplicitous role as mastermind and, possibly, a peculiar ally in terms of migration control in the hope of having sanctions lifted and, were it not for the Kremlin’s watchful eye, a new chapter in the EU-Belarus relations.


The use of Belarusian territory for attacking Ukraine and logistical military support to Moscow makes Lukashenko’s regime a proxy in the war of aggression despite the high unpopularity of any involvement by the population. The economic burden to the State and the possible multiplication of sanctions by the West is stopping Lukashenko from fully allowing Putin to drag the country into the war. Moreover, the Belarusian partisans fighting for Ukraine testify to the slippery support the dictator enjoys despite the repressive state machinery.


However, Belarus complies with virtually any other demand as plainly shown by the risky provocations and militarization of the Siwalki passage border with Poland. Given Putin's record with limited junior partners, for example, Armenia’s Pashynyan’s decreasing appreciation of the costs and limits to Moscow's questionable support, it is unsure how long Moscow will be content with Belarus and will not exploit the internal vulnerabilities to his advantage.


The Western Approach


The approach the Allies should adopt consists of the skilled use of soft and hard power regarding Belarus’ reduced status and Moscow’s reckless escalation in the attempt to revert the disappointing results of its war on Ukraine.


As the 2023 NATO Summit stressed, the eastern allies support the augmentation of NATO presence in their territory that would serve as a deterrent to Moscow and its puppet and, crucially, should include the Suwalki corridor and Poland itself. The changed scenario and the hybrid war masterminded through Belarus should convince even the most reluctant to let go of past appeasing concessions such as the old 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act - mandating against any increase in military presence on the border. The further militarization of Belarus with the stationing of tactical nuclear weapons forever shattered Western ill-conceived perceptions of Moscow and Misk’s benevolence. Moreover, Poland's openness to join the NATO sharing nuclear programme should be agreed upon to foster deterrence and security. The same reasoning applies to Lithuania and Latvia about boosting NATO's presence.

The sanction instrument should be increased to pressure the Belarusian regime and the country’s already shaky economic outlook. Empowering and supporting the Belarusian dissidents and the opposition abroad is also part of the counter strategy to the illegitimate dictator and the goal of tapping the civil society to erode it. The goal is to make the patchy Union State more fraught with constraints and obstacles to show that Moscow’s alternative to the Western bloc is neither a reasonable nor remunerative option.


Moreover, Belarus should be included in the definition of a “state sponsor of terrorism” in that it has joined logistically, politically, and morally in the war on Ukraine and to the allies of Moscow such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea in the attempt at undermining regional security and the world order. Supporting Ukraine and ensuring Russia’s defeat will have a domino effect on the Belarusian dictator and put an end to the hoped-for incorporation of the country into Moscow as envisaged in a 2020 leaked memorandum where the emphasis was verbally on coercion rather than outright war much in the same fashion as with Armenia and Ukraine.


Conclusion


The “Union State” is Moscow’s long-term Anschluss strategy to expand, threaten and hybridly attack the EU. The decadent dictator Lukashenko has dropped the choice of independence and sovereignty to rely on Moscow’s help to stay in power and not to lose the support of his cronies in the same way Ukraine’s Yanukovich attempted. A piece of, albeit unwitting, propaganda heritage is France’s Bratislava 2023 Globsec Summit statement that claimed the West pushed Belarus towards Russia. However, before it appeared possible to draw Belarus into the Western orbit, the kleptocratic and authoritarian regime opposed attempts to build a free market and democratic state and possessed an unwillingness to diversify and disenfranchise, resulting in the increased militarisation of the problematic 1992 Union State.


Consequently, it is time to make up for the past obliviousness to Moscow’s destabilisation of the European continent and the disastrous Minsk diplomacy heritage in the face of the Belarusian regime’s strategy to undermine Ukraine and annex it into the Ruskij Mir. The chokehold should consist of soft and hard power, particularly more stringent sanctions crippling the economy, the military, the renewed deterrence system suggested by the Eastern allies and long-term support to Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron’s doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions are not credible in the face of a disastrous appeasement strategy by Western Europe that has enabled Putin to unleash his war on Ukraine. Without the containment policy on Belarus, the security of Europe will be put into question.


The Belarus dilemma that will haunt the continent for years demands the integration of Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic alliance to boost its self-defence and the security of Europe and avoid further grey zones that Moscow exploits to threaten Europe. That, of course, will include Belarus itself after the fall of the regime and the path to democratisation.



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