Nightmare in Belarus

The economy and geopolitical position of Belarus are dominated by energy, and yet the country has no indigenous oil and gas resources. This curious anomaly is central to today’s geopolitical storm triggered by the recent Belarusian election — a storm decades in the making. In the aftermath of a disputed national election that propelled Belarus’ long-serving autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko to a sixth term, the country has been overtaken by protests that are both unrelenting in their tenacity and unexpected in their scope and scale. The result is a crisis that not only threatens to unseat Lukashenko after 26 years of uninterrupted rule, but has turned the landlocked Eastern European country into a battleground that pits Russia against a US/EU/Nato collective. This standoff over Belarus will, at a minimum, redefine Europe’s geopolitical relations or, at its most extreme, could escalate into direct military confrontation between Russia and Nato.

In the lead up to this month’s Belarus election, the invigorated political opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko compared him to a cockroach and compared the Belarusian people to a slipper that would squash him. Whether this metaphor was the invention of the opposition or the creation of an outside agency, as some believe, is not certain. What is known is that by June, US-backed media outlet Radio Free Europe was actively promoting the idea of a Slipper Revolution akin to the various color revolutions that transformed other former Soviet states, such as Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. This in turn increased the paranoia on the part of both Lukashenko and Russia that the August election could be used as a trigger for mass protests like those that ousted the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014.

Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She was a virtual unknown, the wife of a political blogger whose long-shot presidential bid ended when he was arrested on trumped up charges of corruption. Tikhanovskaya opted to run in her husband’s place and was able to capture the imagination of a Belarusian electorate tired of economic stagnation and angered by the ineffective response on the part of Lukashenko to the Covid-19 pandemic. On the eve of the August election, she was seen as Lukashenko’s primary opponent.

The rapid embrace of Tikhanovskaya by the EU, first a viable candidate and then, following allegations of electoral fraud, as the legitimate leader of Belarus, have further reinforced the concerns on the part of Lukashenko and Russia that the protests sweeping Belarus are being orchestrated by outside agencies. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov underscored this view, noting that Russia was “concerned about the attempt to use the internal difficulties that are facing Belarus, the Belarusian people and the country’s leadership, to interfere in these affairs and processes from outside. Not just to interfere but to impose on Belarusians those rules that foreign players consider beneficial for themselves.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin put muscle behind these concerns, declaring that Russia, at the request of Lukashenko, had formed a special police unit that was on standby to deploy to Belarus if needed. “We have agreed not to use it,” Putin declared, “until the situation starts spinning out of control and extremist elements acting under the cover of political slogans cross certain borders and engage in banditry and start burning cars, houses and banks or take over administrative buildings.”

Oil and Gas Linkage

The origins of the present crisis are tied directly to oil and gas. Energy has been the backbone of Belarus both before and after its independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though it has no oil and gas resources of its own. Instead, Belarus has benefited from an extensive petroleum infrastructure system created in Soviet times consisting of two major oil refineries and a network of pipelines designed to transport oil to Europe. These refineries — Naftan and Mozyr — have the capacity to refine more than 20 million tons of oil per year, or 400,000 b/d. When operating at capacity, they are responsible for nearly 20% of Belarus’ total export revenues. Both receive their oil from the Druzhba pipeline, which connects the oil fields of western Siberia to Ukraine, Belarus, and Europe. Russia exports more than a quarter of its oil production through the Druzhba pipeline, with some 24 million tons, or 480,000 b/d, going to Belarus yearly. About 40 million tons, or 800,000 b/d, is transported to other European customers.

Belarus also serves as a major gas hub, transiting some 39 billion cubic meters per year to European customers through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, while purchasing another 20 Bcm of gas for its own domestic use. A second gas pipeline, the Northern Lights, supplies an additional 7 Bcm/yr of gas to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, as well as Poland and the Baltic republics. Belarus has other major industries, including many involved in the production of military equipment that is primarily sold to the Russian Ministry of Defense.

This concentration of heavy industry and energy is a byproduct of the centralized economic planning of the former Soviet Union, which treated Belarus not as a self-sufficient independent entity, but as an integral part of the Soviet whole. This reality played a major role in shaping the post-Soviet character of Belarus, with its economic viability exclusively dependent upon Russia, which in turn compelled a similarly close political relationship. Managing this political-economic dynamic has been the central theme of Russia-Belarus relations, with Russia seeking a stronger union that would effectively absorb Belarus into a greater Russian federation, while Belarus — under the leadership of Lukashenko since 1996 — has resisting political union while reaping the benefits of economic interdependence.

The Russian Reality

This unique political and economic history of Belarus, coupled with its geographical position, give it strategic importance. Sitting in the heart of Eastern Europe, it serves as a physical buffer between Russia and less friendly former Soviet allies such as Poland and former Soviet republics such as the Baltic republics and Ukraine. This strategic importance comes to the fore in the relationship between Russia and Nato, where Belarus provides a land bridge between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the rest of the Russian Federation. Indeed, all scenarios involving an outbreak of fighting between Russia and Nato in north-central Europe require Russian forces to operate from the territory of Belarus.

Unlike other European former Soviet republics or former Warsaw Pact states, the close economic and political codependence of Belarus and Russia mitigated against Belarus being subsumed by the EU and Nato following the demise of the Soviet Union. This prospect only existed as a bluff, with Lukashenko sometimes using the possibility of closer economic ties with the EU as leverage for more Russian investment on terms beneficial to Belarus. Russia was largely inclined to underwrite the Belarusian economy through extensive subsidies and favorable trade deals for heavy industry, in exchange for Belarus agreeing to enter a formal economic-political union.

This reality held largely true until 2012, when Putin began cutting back on Russian subsidies to compel Lukashenko to finalize a union treaty that had been in negotiation, in one form or another, since 1999. Lukashenko’s reluctance to enter such a union appears driven in part from a genuine concern over sovereignty and independence.

Lukashenko, ever the politician, was aware that most of the Belarusian citizenry was supportive of continued close ties with Russia, and less than enthusiastic about being drawn into the orbit of the EU. Lukashenko nevertheless played the EU card liberally, seeking to diversify Belarus’ economy to reduce dependency on Russia. The reality was, however, that Lukashenko was never seriously committed to either breaking relations with Russia or embracing the EU. As a result, Belarus became trapped in an economic quagmire of Lukashenko’s making, opening the door to the potential of a challenge in the August election.

What’s Next?

Belarus stands on the cusp of historic change. For Tikhanovskaya and her supporters, this change involves the political and economic migration of Belarus toward the EU as a free and independent state. For Lukashenko and Putin, the change involves a formal union where Belarus exists in name only after surrendering sovereignty to a Russian master. Ultimately, victory will go to the side that is willing to sacrifice the most to prevail. Currently, this better defines Lukashenko and Putin, who appear prepared to use physical violence to achieve their objectives. For all their rhetoric about freedom, neither the EU, Nato nor or the US are willing — or able — to intervene militarily in Belarus on behalf of Tikhanovskaya.

For Russia, retaining control over Belarus is central to its success and survival, and in the short term the threat of brute force trumps the perceived righteousness of Tikhanovskaya’s cause. This does not mean Russia will emerge victorious in the long run — far from it. A Russia-Belarus union built on the use of force in defense of a fraudulent election may succeed in preserving the geopolitical status quo. But such victory may not prove lasting. It will face the inevitable onslaught of economic sanctions and political isolation, making it harder for any Russia-Belarus union to prosper and further escalating tensions between Russia and the West.

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