Ukraine crisis: What does Belarus have to gain, and lose?
Lukashenko could benefit politically and financially by siding with Putin, but observers warn his friendship could backfire.
Kyiv, Ukraine – “The implementation of the Minsk accords” is the phrase one hears quite often these days when politicians and pundits discuss the spiralling confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.
Minsk I and II are two sets of peace accords struck between Moscow and Kyiv in the eponymous capital of neighbouring Belarus in 2014 and 2015.
But the forested nation of 10 million – that looks to many outsiders like a mini-USSR preserved in amber – is a lot more than just a suitable venue for Russia-Ukraine summits.
Its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has had a hand in the political games between Moscow, his main backer and sponsor, and Kyiv, for years – reaping enormous political and economic gains.
On Tuesday, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised breakaway Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, Lukashenko urged Ukrainians to “stop” their confrontation with Russia – and abandon their US “masters.”
“Stop! Shoo away these masters from over the ocean. They won’t bring you any happiness. As soon as they can’t use you any more, they will dump you at the junkyard of history,” said the moustachioed 67-year-old, clad in a military uniform, while addressing Belarusian top brass.
On Saturday, Lukashenko sat next to Putin observing military drills and launches of ballistic and cruise missiles from the giant screens in the Russian Defence Ministry’s Moscow headquarters.
And on Sunday, some 30,000 Russian soldiers “extended” their drills with Belarusian servicemen that began in southern Belarus on February 10 next to the Ukrainian border.
The troops stand close to Ukraine’s poorly guarded Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, an area of 2,600 square kilometres (1,000 square miles) contaminated by the 1986 nuclear disaster.
And just 100km (62 miles) south of the zone lies Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital and home to two million people.
But what does Lukashenko gain from all of this?
“This is a matter of money. When talking about the dangers [of war], he can always negotiate some funds either for updating the military or simply for financial support,” Ihar Tyshkevich, a Belarusian expert based in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.
And there is also a matter of staying in power.
In the late 1990s, Lukashenko, a hyperactive strongman already dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to create a Union State – a merger of Russia and Belarus.
Lukashenko hoped to replace the ailing and alcoholic Yeltsin, but the latter chose Putin.
Lukashenko stalled the merger, but used it for more than 20 years to milk the Kremlin for multibillion loans, trade preferences and perks for hundreds of thousands of Belarusian labour migrants toiling in Russia.
He also used Ukraine’s falling out with Russia as a way to fill his coffers.
After the 2014 Maidan protests that overthrew pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Kyiv limited trade with Moscow — and Belarus started repackaging and reselling Ukrainian and Russian goods to both sides.
As Moscow repeatedly increased prices for natural gas sold to Ukraine, Lukashenko boosted the export of electricity and petrol to Kyiv.
So far, the current escalation that may or may not evolve into a full-scale war is a boon to Lukashenko – as long as a solution or peace settlement is nowhere in sight.
“In the current situation, it is extremely beneficial for Lukashenko to talk about the war, [but he] would face a catastrophe if there is a war – or a catastrophe in case of a prompt peace settlement,” analyst Tyshkevich said.
The main reason Lukashenko needs the crisis next to Belarus is the “full transformation” of its political scene he is finalising this Sunday, he said.
In 2020, Lukashenko weathered the biggest political crisis of his presidency – weeks-long protests that followed the August 20 presidential vote he claims to have won.
Large numbers of protesters were arrested, and many left for Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.
To cement his grip on power, Lukashenko amended the constitution – and also removed the concept of “neutrality” from it – to allow deployment of Belarusian troops abroad.
Russian troops can be handy
The presence of Russian troops could be handy in case of rallies during and after the February 27 referendum.
And Lukashenko’s battle cries help him rally his core supporters – the workers of state-owned plants and factories and the farmers of Soviet-era collective farms.
“The mobilisation of his electorate through war rhetoric is good” for him, Tyshkevich said.
But siding with Russia may backfire economically, observers warn.
“The [Belarusian] economy is slowing down, as well as the sales of potassium, the key Belarusian export, and the Ukrainian market may be lost” because of Kyiv’s possible sanctions, Ukrainian analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
“It would take several years to diversify these risks – to look for new markets and to develop the logistics of potassium trade via Russia,” he said.
So, the “mobilisation” of the Belarusian economy on a war footing stabilised by Russian funds is Lukashenko’s only way out, he said.
The current crisis might also create an opportunity for Russia to further subjugate Belarus – and, possibly, annex it according to the stipulations of the Union State.
“Behind the concentration of troops along Ukraine’s borders, the escalation in Donbas and harsh rhetoric on all sides, no one questions any more to what extent Russia is planning to boost its military presence in Belarus,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
And the West is too preoccupied with Ukraine these days to pay attention to Lukashenko’s political escapades.
“It looks like the West agreed with its own absence in the [resolution of the] Belarusian affair,” Luzin said.