A Problem for Putin: Belarus Is Not Ukraine Either Now or If Moscow Annexes It

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 124

Russian-Belarusian border (Source: eurasia.expert)

Belarus is not Ukraine either now or should Moscow try to annex it, Russian analysts are warning. It is far more integrated as a society than Ukraine is, with far fewer regional, linguistic or even religious divisions than exist in Ukraine; and it is far more European because so many of its people have visited Poland and other neighbors or even gone there to work for a time. As a result, Moscow has little hope of repeating the strategy it used in Ukraine to play one region or linguistic group against another (see EDM, August 13; Krizis-Kopilka, September 9; Sovershenno Sekretno, August 30).

That argument accounts for much of the Kremlin’s present halting approach toward Belarus, where it has not been able to use the playbook Vladimir Putin employed in Georgia in 2008 or in Ukraine since 2014. And it also helps to explain why a growing number of Russians fear that while Moscow could annex part of Ukraine more or less successfully, it would face disaster if it sought to annex Belarus as a whole. In that event, Belarusians within Russia would link up with anti-Moscow protests like those in Khabarovsk, change the demographic balance in the Russian Federation, and confront the Kremlin with a challenge the latter would find difficult if not impossible to deflect.

Belarus is far more homogeneous ethnically and linguistically than is Ukraine. One-fifth the size of the Ukrainian nation, Belarusians are far less divided by language than Ukrainians are. Most speak Russian but do not see speaking Belarusian as a problem; whereas in Ukraine, language remains a divisive issue that splits the country regionally, with western Ukraine overwhelmingly Ukrainian-speaking and people in the east, including the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea, predominantly speaking Russian. Those linguistic divisions reinforce cultural differences, given that the western Ukrainians look back to their historical legacy as part of Austria-Hungary while the eastern Ukrainians more often look to the Russian state. Moreover, the regional borders within Ukraine in many cases follow these divisions, unlike in Belarus. Not surprisingly, Moscow exploited such cleavages in Ukraine in 2014 and continues to do so now.

The situation in Belarus differs fundamentally. Because of Soviet nationality policies that wiped out much of the Catholic, Belarusian-speaking west, differences linguistically and regionally are, today, far smaller (Kasparov.ru, September 4). Language is a much less neuralgic issue, even though many Belarusian nationalists would like to promote their native tongue. And because of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s insistence for most of the last two decades that Belarusians are a distinct nation different from Russians, most of them have accepted that idea—whether or not they support the long-serving autocrat. In contrast, Putin still believes the Belarusians are a branch of the Russian nation (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, October 8, 2019).

Over recent months, there has been talk in Moscow and speculation in the West that Russia might pursue a Ukrainian strategy in Belarus by promoting secession in one or another region (Topcor.ru, August 25, 2020); but Russian observers have shot down these proposals as impractical or even counterproductive. Moscow will certainly continue to support the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus against Catholics and Protestants; but even that strategy does not promise the dividends it did in Ukraine, where church membership more strongly follows regional lines than in Belarus (Current Time, September 4).

All these diverging opinions about what Moscow should do now are obfuscating the reality that—all of Putin’s bravado notwithstanding—the Kremlin will have to give up, at least for the foreseeable future, any plans to integrate Belarus fully into the Russian Federation. Sergey Belanovsky, the Moscow sociologist who has attracted widespread attention for his successful predictions related to the Russian protests, is among those making that argument. Absorbing Belarus into Russia would be “a very big error” for Moscow, he asserted in a recent interview, because Belarusians, who are now angry at Lukashenka, would redirect their anger at Moscow. Moreover, an annexed Belarus would become yet another unstable region, like the North Caucasus or Khabarovsk, within the Russian Federation’s borders. He posited it would be far better for the Kremlin to work toward the replacement of Lukashenka in such a way that Belarus would remain a separate country but be prepared to cooperate with Russia on the most important issues (Biznes Online, September 2).

Increasingly, the sociologist suggested, Russians understand that the two countries have lived separate lives for too long for Belarus simply to be absorbed. It has a different social, economic and political experience than Russia, and it would not fit easily into the matrix Putin has created in the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, he contended, there is “an aggressive group” in Moscow, led by people like State Duma chairperson Vyacheslav Volodin and RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, who want Moscow to send in troops and seize Belarus. Such a step, Belanovsky says, “would be “insanity and a catastrophe.”

“We would obtain in place of Belarus a large and unstable region,” adding to Moscow’s problems, whereas a Belarus without Lukashenka could remain an ally sympathetic to Russia, the sociologist said. Importantly, Belarus is not Crimea. It has not been subjected to government efforts to change its ethnic identity as Russians in the now-occupied Ukrainian peninsula were. Instead, it has grown used to being “a separate nation and state.” While unification might have been possible in the 1990s, it is not something today’s Belarusians want, he argued.

Russia has not yet lost the war for “the hearts and minds of Belarusians,” Belanovsky noted. “The Rubicon has not yet been crossed, as far as the Belarusians are concerned. They are still fighting with Lukashenka rather than with Russia. “But if [Moscow] backs Lukashenka, anti-Russian slogans will arise”; and if it absorbed them, Belarusians within Russia will add their voices to the Khabarovsk protesters. Today, Moscow might be able to counter such a development. But it is an open question as to for how long that would remain the case.