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The Aftermath of the Helsinki Summit: The Belarus Angle

Emily Ferris
Commentary, 1 August 2018
International Security Studies, Russia, Global Security Issues
As the dust settles on the 16 July Helsinki summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the discussion continues to focus on whether Putin or his US counterpart came out on top, exactly what was said in the closed-door session and whether there will be another summit. One significant European angle, however, continues to be overlooked: what the summit revealed about Russia’s relationship with its neighbour, Belarus.

On 23 July – a week after Helsinki – President Putin called Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. An announcement on Lukashenko’s presidential website indicates that Putin initiated the call, and that the two discussed, among other matters, the ‘nuances’ of the Helsinki Summit, particularly nuclear weapons agreements. Putin subsequently invited Lukashenko for a face-to-face meeting, likely to be held in the southern Russian city of Sochi. In the days following the summit, Putin also spoke to the leaders of Armenia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but there was no specific mention of the Helsinki summit on the agenda of these phone discussions.

Putin’s actions had a clear demonstrative element: they were designed to indicate that Russia has political allies and countries under its tutelage, whom it briefs following an important summit. The fact that, on this occasion, President Trump did not to brief the US allies after the summit only makes Putin’s action even more striking. But more importantly, Putin’s discussion with Lukashenko is likely an attempt to bring Belarus into closer political alignment with Russia.

The phone conversation comes against the backdrop of a series of long-standing disagreements between Russia and Belarus, as Belarus attempts to pull away from Russia’s influence and cultivate a deeper diplomatic and economic relationship with the EU. This frustrates Putin, who periodically reminds Lukashenko of his place as a junior partner in the relationship, either by using carrots, such as loans, or sticks, such as reducing Russian oil exports. But Putin’s latest conversation with Lukashenko is a signal that the Russian leader still considers Belarus a political ally that shares Russia’s world view and should be kept in the loop about other serious diplomatic engagements.

Where Did They Go Wrong?

Officially, Belarus and Russia are close political and security allies; their militaries train together and share intelligence. Since 1996, Belarus and Russia have been part of a semi-formal Union State that, in principle, links their foreign and economic policy objectives. However, Russia has always considered Belarus the junior partner, a status that Lukashenko resents.

Lukashenko’s most serious public divergence from Russia’s foreign policy line was his modest criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Belarus also hosts the Minsk peace agreements – the only diplomatic solution currently on the table to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine – which has further stoked tensions with Moscow.

Another contentious issue is Russia’s attempt to construct a military base in Belarus. Lukashenko has resisted this for more than three years, chiefly because this would damage Minsk’s fledgling relationship with the EU and jeopardise the country’s official military neutrality. Notwithstanding their close military relationship, when Belarus and Russia conducted large-scale joint military exercises in September 2017, known as Zapad, Lukashenko and Putin chose to take separate tours of their troops instead of appearing together; the two appeared to be out of sync.

A continuing source of risk for Belarus is the country’s high economic dependency on Russia, to the extent that the economic downturn in Russia in 2014 – owing to a combination of fluctuating oil prices and Western-led sanctions – prompted a knock-on recession in Belarus. Belarus is also heavily reliant on Russian gas exports, which led to a well-documented spat over gas prices in 2016–2017, with Belarus refusing to recognise a $720 million debt to Russian state-controlled company Gazprom, an event that damaged the two neighbours’ relationship further. Lukashenko has proven difficult for Putin to manage in public. Following the gas price dispute Lukashenko snubbed a summit of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – a Russia-led integrated free market – and has also threatened to withdraw Belarus from it altogether.

Belarus is uncomfortably aware that, if necessary, Russia could cut off the gas supply pipelines – which it has temporarily done before, notably in 2010 over unpaid bills. With all this in mind, Lukashenko has in recent years been courting Western creditors, such as the EU, as well as China, much to Russia’s disapproval.

Courting Other Sources

Given the country’s repressive political environment, the EU has approached Belarus with caution. Sanctions were introduced in 2004 in response to the disappearance of several Belarusian political activists, and these continue to be enforced on individuals thought to be involved in such cases. There is also an arms embargo in place that the EU periodically extends. But in February 2016 the EU lifted almost all its most stringent sanctions on 170 Belarusians, including Lukashenko himself, as well as several Belarusian defence companies, citing some progress with political reforms in the country. Easing these sanctions provided Belarus with some international credibility, and opportunities to apply for funding; Belarus and the European Investment Bank signed a framework agreement on cooperation in May 2017.

China is another potential creditor. The Chinese government has invested in Belarus’s Great Stone, an industrial park designed to promote technology and Belarusian exports, and sees some potential in Belarus as a railway transit country into Europe, as part of its Belt and Road initiative. China also imports dairy products from Belarus, and Chinese soldiers, for the first time, joined Belarus’s traditional Independence Day military parade on 3 July.

Russia’s Shifting Engagement with Belarus

Despite frictions in the bilateral relationship, there are recent indications that Russia’s way of engaging with Belarus may be shifting. Russia’s Federation Council on International Affairs – a body that also oversees Russia’s relationship with its neighbours – appears in recent weeks to have nominated Mikhail Babich, a former intelligence officer and presidential envoy to the Volga region, as the new Russian ambassador to Belarus; the current ambassador has been in his post since 2006. Babich is thought to be well-connected and influential in the Russian political establishment and although the appointment has not been officially confirmed, a reshuffle could indicate that Russia is becoming more proactive than reactive in cultivating its future diplomatic relationship with Belarus.

Russia is likely to remain Belarus’s main trading and political partner for the coming years. As Russia is the primary source of FDI and accounts for almost half of Belarus’s annual trade, piecemeal investments from other sources are unlikely to replace it. Railway infrastructure in Belarus is not of a sufficient European standard and would require serious long-term investment from China for Belarus to link China’s trade relationship more closely with the EU. Another major sticking point in Belarus’s relationship with the EU is its refusal to issue a moratorium on the death penalty, despite repeated calls from human rights agencies. Ultimately, Lukashenko will refuse to undertake any reforms that would reduce his control over the political and economic environment, and loan agreements from creditors like the IMF usually come with those conditions attached. Lukashenko will instead continue to strike a balance between moving relations with the EU forward, while assuring his own grip on power. Maintaining this delicate equilibrium will ensure that Belarus remains under Russia’s influence for the foreseeable future.

Emily Ferris is a research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at RUSI. 

BANNER IMAGE: A long-term relationship. Russian President Vladimir Putin with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk in 2014. Courtesy of Wikimedia 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution. 

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