Observations of an Expat: Russian Pivot

While the world public’s attention was focused on submarine rows between allies and the rising Chinese threat, Vladimir Putin was making disturbing diplomatic and political moves to change the security map on the European side of the Eurasian land mass.

The focus of Putin’s efforts is Belarus and the faltering regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Ever since his clearly fraudulent elections, “Europe’s last dictator” has suffered riots, demonstrations, defecting Belarussians and Western sanctions. All of this presents opportunities and problems for Vladimir Putin and headaches for everyone else. A Lukashenko/Putin summit plus a major military manoeuvre underscored both.

First the Military side of thing. Belarus is strategically vital. It has a 1,239 Km border with Russia. If it moves into the Western camp (which the Belarussian opposition may desire) then NATO forces could move forward along a wide front on the border with Russia. Alternatively, If Putin gets his way, he will be able to move his forces westward to confront NATO forces in Poland and Lithuania as well as threatening Ukraine which shares a 1,084 Km border with Belarussia.

At the moment the latter is more likely and Russia and Belarussia earlier this month held six-days of manoeuvres to demonstrate just that. Called Zapad 2021, the exercises have been taking place every four years since 1999. But this year’s Zapad involved 200,000 troops. It was the largest military exercise in Europe in 40 years.

Its stated purpose was two-fold: to demonstrate to NATO in no uncertain terms that an attempt to invade Belarus to effect regime change would be met with force, and, after years of rebuilding, that Russia is back—or about to be—as a conventional military force in Europe.

Almost simultaneous with the manoeuvres was the Putin/Lukashenko summit to discuss how the Russian leader can help his friend Alexander climb out of the economic and political hole into which he has dug himself with botched elections and his handling of the covid-19 pandemic. The Russian leader will, of course, extract a political price. Just how big it will be will not be clear until the end of the year, and even then, it may be obfuscated to avoid giving the West and the Belarussian opposition political ammunition as well providing a bit of all-round wriggle room.

Putin’s pet project—his dream—is the reconstruction of the Soviet Empire which was the Tsarist Empire before it was communist. He has repeatedly stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major disaster for Russia and the world. Bringing Belarussia firmly and decisively back into Moscow’s orbit would be a major building block towards a reconstructed Russian-dominated realm.

The first step towards this aim started in the Yeltsin years—The Union State of Belarussia. The stated aim back in 1999 was total integration. The West certainly opposes this and Lukashenko has been fighting it ever since because he knows that giving up total independence would spell the end of his reign and be opposed by most Belarussians. At the moment there is a sort of Common Market with a few attached bells and whistles. There is, for instance, a Supreme State Council which oversees relations between the two countries. There is common citizenship and cooperation on bank regulations, tourism, transport, money laundering and farming policies.

The 1999 agreement sets out the goal of total integration with a common currency, common flag, common anthem, and military and political integration. However, the Belarussian leader has balked at Russian proposals for a common currency and stronger military ties. There are, for instance, a mere 1,500 Russian troops on Belarussian soil and they are mainly involved in communications. However, the countries officer corps are integrated and Russia has military transit rights through Belarussia.

Moscow could easily turn the economic screws on Belarussia which is heavily dependent on the Russian market and for its manufactured goods and for cheap oil and natural gas (which it sells onto the West with a value added price tag). Belarussia also receives an attractive aid package. At the September summit it was agreed that Moscow would provide a further $630 million package of aid and loans over the next 12 months and that gas prices would be pegged.

The two men discussed the possibility of political integration. But Putin said afterwards that it was not seriously on the agenda “for the time being”. The details of what is on the agenda will become clearer when the State Supreme Council meets before the end of the year to rubber stamp the results of their talks.

Whatever details emerge, it is clear that there will be a shift in the European balance of power and that Putin will have used Lukashenko’s problems to re-establish Russia’s European security credentials.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Brad Barrows 25th Sep '21 - 11:16am

    I think it more likely than not that Belarus will become a constituent part of the Russian Federation within 5 years, though it may be given some unique status (such as sovereign republic) to make it appear something more than just another constituent part. The bigger concern on how this will impact on Ukraine’s mindset whose land border with Russia will increase massively – in particular, would it become less willing to risk confrontation with Russia over Donbass, Crimea or access to the Azov Sea? Putin is now 68 so will realise that time is running out for him if there are specific things he wants to accomplish before mortality catches up with him. The risks in the years ahead are considerable.

  • Laurence Cox 25th Sep '21 - 11:18am

    “He has repeatedly stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major disaster for Russia and the world.”

    He could be right about this, but perhaps not in the way he thinks. Had there not been the revolt against Gorbachev, resulting in the populist Yeltsin and the ogliarchs taking over, Russia might have gone down a very different path and even had Putin become leader he would have been rather more hemmed in by Gorbachev’s reforms which would have had another decade to bed in.

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