Main Image Credit Eager to please: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at a meeting of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization on 16 May 2022. Image: kremlin.ru / CC BY 4.0
The Belarusian president is being used as a mouthpiece for Moscow’s views on NATO expansion and the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced the exact scenario Moscow sought to avoid – further NATO expansion. As Sweden and Finland approach NATO membership, Russia’s response has been circumspect, with President Vladimir Putin maintaining that he will observe the nature of their integration into NATO.
But some of Russia’s strategic security concerns have been laid bare over a series of meetings in May, including the summit of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The summit raised important questions about the CSTO member states’ willingness to support some of Russia’s world views, but it also highlighted the growing dissonance between Russia and Belarus, and the other member states. And while Putin has been cautious with his wording on NATO, it has fallen to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to promote some of the more outspoken aspects of the Kremlin’s security narrative, perhaps revealing more about Russia’s intentions and in particular the future of its regional security role.
The 16 May CSTO meeting demonstrated the closeness of Belarus and Russia’s political positions. Since 2020, Stanislav Zas, former State Secretary of Belarus’s Security Council, has acted as Secretary General of the CSTO. Technically, the CSTO’s main objectives are to improve regional security and stability, and ensure the territorial integrity of its member states. But CSTO members tend to focus on the foreign affairs of other members only if it affects them.
After the summit, the six countries signed a collective statement. While it gave a laundry list of areas of deeper cooperation such as crisis response, there were no specifics. Very little of the statement even mentioned NATO at all except in a by-line, a surprise given the intense discussions about Finland and Sweden’s potential accession in the Russian media. As confirmed by many of the subsequent speeches, this omission suggests that for the member states, NATO expansion is viewed as more of Russia and Belarus problem, and not as a risk to their immediate security.
Much of the statement was devoted to the importance of countering Nazism – Russia’s pretext for initiating the war in Ukraine – but Ukraine was not explicitly referred to at all. The omission was strange, because Putin had explicitly stated beforehand that Ukraine was on the agenda, and it was clear from some of Zas’s statements that it was mentioned in detail in the closed door sessions. Putin also did not mention Ukraine explicitly in his own speech, and it befell Lukashenko to promote the Kremlin line, insisting that the situation in Ukraine is a threat to all CSTO members’ security. It appeared from this, and other subsequent statements, that Lukashenko has taken on the role of amplifying Kremlin messaging on the war, and increasingly on NATO.
Lukashenko’s outspokenness since the war began might be increasingly reflective of what the Kremlin would like to see
Perhaps unwisely, Lukashenko emphasised Belarus and Russia’s exclusion from international organisations and the injustice of Western sanctions (without linking it explicitly to their involvement in the invasion of Ukraine), maintaining that unless the CSTO strengthen its military ties, the same fate would befall them. Lukashenko also complained that the CSTO did not sufficiently support Belarus and Russia’s positions in international forums, juxtaposing their behaviour to NATO’s comparative unity. This is likely referring to various UN votes to condemn the war, revoke the recognition of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and exclude Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, in which most CSTO member states abstained.
But, speaking after Lukashenko, the Central Asian presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan failed to mention Ukraine at all, instead discussing Afghanistan as the security priority area, with Armenia focused on its own domestic affairs. In principle, this is not a departure from previous years, as most CSTO members tend to put forth agendas in line with their own interests. But this year, given the urgency of both Ukraine and NATO for Russia, it is likely that the CSTO summit was a test for political support, and Putin did not receive it.
Looking to Belarus for Answers?
To determine some of Russia’s views about NATO and its regional security concerns, we should look to its closest ally, Belarus. Since the war began, Lukashenko’s outspokenness might be increasingly reflective of what the Kremlin would like to see.
Putin’s tone on Sweden and Finland’s NATO bid has been tempered – he has claimed it does not pose a direct security threat to Russia, and while he did clarify that should NATO move military infrastructure to those countries, it would prompt a ‘military-technical’ reaction from Russia, it is not clear what that reaction would involve. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to explain this, maintaining that Russia has no territorial disputes with Finland or Sweden, in comparison with Ukraine, but this clarified little.
In comparison, Lukashenko argued at the summit that the West was ‘sabre rattling’ at Russia and Belarus’s borders, and that drawing Finland and Sweden into its ranks was an example of ‘whoever is not with us is against us’. At the summit he cast Belarus as the frontier and buffer zone between NATO and other member states. He also made it explicit that the ‘flames [of the war] may reach beyond it … if this is the idea, likely nobody will be able to sit it out’, strongly implying that the conflict could spill over into CSTO territory. Then in early May, following a meeting between Lukashenko and his senior military leadership, the Belarusian army engaged in snap exercises and mass inspections to determine its combat readiness. Without elaboration, Major General Viktar Gulevich, Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian armed forces, maintained ominously that the ‘threat’ from NATO has prompted certain decisions to be made.
Lukashenko is likely trying to remain politically relevant and curry favour with the Kremlin, ensuring that Putin considers him a reliable ally
In the context of their deepening economic and political integration, Putin and Lukashenko meet often and alone – most recently, on 23 May in Sochi. Again, only Lukashenko mentioned Ukraine publicly, offering Belarus’s unequivocal support and promoting conspiracy-theory style concerns about the potential ‘dismemberment’ of Ukraine by NATO and Poland following President Andrzej Duda’s visit to Kyiv, suggesting this could spill over into western Belarus. Belarusian opposition media has accused Lukashenko of parroting Russian propaganda, but this and General Gulevich’s comments could be a potential call to arms, laying the groundwork for Belarusian troops to officially join the war.
Lukashenko could be acting as the mouthpiece for Putin’s regional security concerns. But Lukashenko does not always get this right, and it is clear Russia is watching him very closely to make sure he does not stray too far from the party line – when Lukashenko commented in early May that the war in Ukraine was beginning to drag on, Peskov contradicted him, responding by saying that the operation was going to plan.
All of this is likely part of Lukashenko’s attempts to remain politically relevant and curry favour with the Kremlin, ensuring that Putin considers him a reliable ally. The Kremlin may indeed find some of his outspokenness unwelcome, whether or not it is in line with Putin’s views. But for now, Putin appears content with allowing Lukashenko to air politically difficult views, to determine the likely reception. This time, it was clear from the CSTO meeting that they did not go down well.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security