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OPINION

The Minsk “zugzwang”. Vladislav Inozemtsev on how both Russia and the West grew weary of Lukashenko at the same time

EU sanctions against Belarus should impact sectors close to Alexander Lukashenko, such as the potash industry. According to Bloomberg, the United States is discussing restrictions for Belneftekhim, as well as for manufacturers of fertilizers, tires and dyes. If the West coordinates its efforts on sanctions, Lukashenko's departure will become inevitable, believes Vladislav Inozemtsev, because the meeting in Sochi showed that Moscow is not ready for abrupt escalations.

The sharp aggravation of the situation around Belarus, which followed the hijacking of a Ryanair jet, can perhaps be attributed to a “surge of emotions”, as Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko asserted before their meeting in Sochi last Friday. But events seem to have taken a turn, which is far too serious and which has not been fully grasped in Moscow.

The «formal» and «informal» communication in Sochi (I put these words in quotation marks, since there was nothing really official in the meeting) generated much comment. Yet another $500m Russian loan to Belarus and the expansion of Belavia's flight network in Russia were perceived as significant evidence of Moscow's support for Minsk, although in my opinion this news speaks more of an impasse in mutual relations. The money would have been given to Belarus anyway under an agreement signed last year, and the increase in the number of airports served does not mean anything in itself: the demand for flights from them may turn out to be negligible, causing additional losses for the carrier (unless, of course, the Kremlin decides to route all flights from Russia to Turkey through Minsk). I may be wrong, but it seems the talks in Sochi once again did not bring Lukashenko what he was striving for - although today the situation looks much more dramatic than before.

The results of the meeting between Putin and Lukashenko indicate an impasse in their relations

Today the fate of Belarus strongly depends on Russia. The Kremlin can easily provide any necessary economic assistance to its neighbor: total budget expenditure planned for this year in Belarus does not exceed 43.8 billion Belarusian rubles ($17.4 billion, € 14.1 billion) with a deficit of 4.2 billion Belarusian rubles ($1.7 billion, €1.4 billion); the country has to pay about $3 billion on foreign-currency loans obtained earlier, and the negative balance of trade is about $200 million after the first three months of 2021.

If we assume that the reduction in tax revenues and the growth of expenditure necessary to «solve social problems» have tripled the budget deficit, and extrapolate the size of the negative trade balance until the end of the year, we arrive at Lukashenko's «dream money» - about $7-8 billion, or 500-600 billion rubles. A hefty sum, but not too cumbersome for Russia. But instead of at least one third of it, the Belarusian dictator left Sochi with what was already «owed» to him - and with nothing else promised.

Instead of the required $7-8 billion, Lukashenko left Sochi with only $500 million, which was due to him anyway

The latter, in my opinion, is understandable: although until recently many observers expected (and many still expect) a rapid unification of Russia and Belarus, this course of events seems very unrealistic. For Lukashenko, Belarus is a personal asset, with which he will part only at gunpoint (or maybe not even then). And Moscow, for which Belarus is not at all critical, is trying to put the Belarusian leader in a position where he will be forced to make economic (for example, in the form of selling the country's largest enterprises to Russia for debts) or political (such as the recognition of Crimea, where Belavia's planes still don't fly, and the signing of a common currency agreement) concessions. But Moscow is doing so without taking into account the significant changes which have occurred «on the western front.»

On the same spring and summer days of 1944, the planning of Operation Bagration, the elimination of what was then called the “Belarusian balcony”, a huge salient still controlled by the forces of the German Army Group Center, was being finalized in Moscow. The plan thoroughly developed by the High Command, coupled with an overly optimistic assessment of the situation by Field Marshal Busch, led to one of the largest defeats of the Wehrmacht in World War II. What is happening now before our eyes suggests that the «we can repeat» ideology, albeit creatively reworked, has almost been adopted by the Russian leadership as a way of thinking. You don't even need to look at the map to realize: the new “Belarusian balcony” has long been formed, only now it points in the opposite direction.

Putin currently sees Belarus as an ally in the opposition to the «collective West»; Lukashenko characterizes his role in exactly the same way. However, both politicians seem to be oblivious to how the strategic environment has changed since the lost elections of August 9 and the recent airplane stunt: the former deprived Lukashenko of legitimacy in the eyes of most of the world, and the latter launched a «war of annihilation.» Europe's sanctions, swift as never before, the beginning of the formation of new sanctions packages and the growing support from the West of the Belarusian protest movement are clear enough signs, and the EU's promise of 3 billion euros in aid to the republic if the leader is replaced versus the $500 million obtained in Sochi evokes the “Belarusian balcony” – the same ratio between tank forces and aviation of the warring sides as 73 years ago, but in a mirrored fashion.

Today the position of the “collective West” is strategically stronger than Russia's. By 2021, Belarusian society had grown weary of Lukashenko no less than Soviet Belorussia had grown weary of the German occupants by 1944 - we all saw the power of the new “partisan movement” last fall. The West is not invested in Belarus economically as it is invested in Russia, and therefore the destruction of the «people's economy» can be accomplished methodically and without losses for the attackers. At the same time, it seems that the blow to Belarus will become a kind of compensation for the West's inability and unwillingness to put pressure on Russia directly (as evidenced by the recent steps of the American administration). At the same time, Moscow repeats Berlin's mistake, when Busch was not replaced with Model until such a replacement could no longer be of help.

The West's blow to Belarus will compensate for its inability and unwillingness to directly put pressure on Russia

In my opinion, Russia currently has no Plan B in case of a «collapse of the front». Moscow may continue to provide non-public assistance to Minsk, but this will not smooth over the feeling of a huge gap between the East's support for Lukashenko and the West's support for Belarusian civil society. The Kremlin frankly does not understand how to respond to the sanctions policy (the ban on any flights to Moscow bypassing Belarusian territory lasted only two days). Large-scale economic support for Belarus, which at least could have been an attempt to make society think about «exchanging freedom for sausage», is not on the agenda, and neither is a «controlled color revolution»... As a result, I would suggest that the operation to free Belarus from the Soviet legacy will be a resounding success, if it is well planned by the West.

For two decades, Lukashenko methodically made Putin hostage to his politics, while proving himself to be an outstanding master of tactical games. Moscow fulfilled almost all his wishes, without regard to their economic and political cost, and received nothing in return. However, the Belarusian dictator has now become a victim of his own success - he seriously hurt the West at the time the East began pondering the price of the «great friendship». Moreover, today Europe and the United States, albeit for various reasons, have begun to doubt that giving aid to Ukraine, which is not quite ready for westernization, is the best way to spend money, so a shift in the «direction of the main strike» looks imminent.

Lukashenko seriously offended the West at the time when the East began to ponder the price of the «great friendship»

In the event of Lukashenko's departure, the transformation of Belarus into a normal European country will be much easier than a similar transformation of Ukraine - due to its closer ties with neighboring Poland and Lithuania, and the smaller size of the Belarusian economy which has remained unaffected by oligarchic «infection» that blocks the way of reforms. Therefore, today a « Belarus offensive» looks like the most reasonable scenario, especially if one considers that the «enemy» - like seven and a half decades ago, only on the other side of the «frontline» - is expecting the main blow in Ukraine. Lukashenko can only be saved by the indecision of Western countries or by differences among them.

Summing up, I would say that if the Kremlin intends to rectify the situation in Belarus to its benefit, a complete revision of the policy guidelines in that area is necessary. The status quo could only be maintained as long as Lukashenko remained a dictator, uplifting Putin's image as a “civilized” and “trustworthy” man, and provoked indifference rather than hatred in the West at the same time.

Now the situation is changing - and the Kremlin faces a difficult choice: either to refuse to save its hapless ally and «straighten up the front line» for the sake of a more effective defense, or to dramatically ramp up forces and join the struggle, which can become no less dramatic than in Ukraine, where on one occasion Russia already overestimated the stability of its allies and underestimated the decisiveness of its opponents.

The meeting in Sochi showed that Moscow does not intend to take decisive steps as yet, expecting concessions from Lukashenko and trying to make do with small financial handouts until they are announced. Every day I feel more and more convinced the tactic has no chance of success. And how much it is true, we will all see very soon...

This text is also available in Russian

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