In a February 20 interview for a Ukrainian media outlet, former secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Anders Fogh Rasmussen predicted that unless Belarus launches “reforms leading to democracy and freedom” it will fall victim to war and annexation by Russia. Rasmussen declared that Lukashenka should choose “either reforms or life under the Russian yoke” (Liga.net, February 20). Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei responded sharply to Rasmussen’s pronouncement saying, “No comment. How can you comment on the delirium of some retired officials who have not been working for a long time and who have lost touch with reality!” (Belta.by, February 21).
Delirium or not, there is no shortage of alarmist pronouncements regarding Belarus. In his interview with the Romanian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), George Friedman, the founder of the Austin-based, private intelligence firm Stratfor, said he now sees Belarus as “the most fragile country” in the region. He continued, “We know Russia will not encroach on the Baltic States. But an unexpected change of power in Minsk may cause an unacceptable situation. The West will not be at peace with the presence of Russia on the western border of Belarus. Whereas, Russia cannot put up with the presence of the [United States] near Smolensk” (Svaboda.org, February 20).
In a separate article, Yury Drakakhrust of RFE/RL asks, “Do the likes of Rasmussen and Friedman act like the sacred geese that valiantly saved the Republic during the first sacking of Rome (390 BCE) by the Gallic hordes?” His own response is negative. In part, he argues, such alarmist predictions are analogous to the ebullient prophecies on the Russian side, such as by the radical nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and anonymous authors posting on Telegram channels. Both Western alarmists and Russian jingoists proceed from the same assumption. Namely, that Belarus is dependent on Russia and will not resist Russian aggression; therefore, all depends on Vladimir Putin’s whim (Svaboda.org, February 21).
The situation, however, is more complicated, Drakakhrust believes. First, there is no correlation between internal reforms and being subject to Russian aggression. For instance, Georgia and Ukraine were invaded but Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan were not. Second, if Belarusians agree on anything, it is the value of their statehood. And that unity certainly pertains to Belarusian elites. Third, Belarus has its own trump cards in the resolution of its current predicament with Russia. “As a journalist, I realize that headlines like ‘Belarus Under Threat of Annexation’ elicit interest and lead many people to click respective hyperlinks,” observes Drakakhrust. “But if the sacred geese had been quacking and honking frivolously, and not only for good reason, they would have never saved Rome [because the Romans who have learned to ignore their non-stop clamor]” (Svaboda.org, February 21).
During his presentation at the Moscow Carnegie Center (Carnegie.ru, February 22), Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by actually outlined five trump cards or levers that Belarus might use to resolve its current stalemate with Russia regarding the so-called oil tax maneuver (see EDM, January 14, 15). Two of them should only be used as a last resort and pertain to a) two Russian military objects in Belarus (an early missile-detection station in Gantsevichi and a submarine-monitoring station in Vileika), for which Belarus can demand annual fees; and b) significant price hikes for oil and natural gas transit. The potential of the third lever, flirting with the West, has already been largely exhausted. The fourth one, cautiously sabotaging various aspects of Eurasian integration, has been and can still be used in the future. According to Russian Minister of Economic Development Maksim Oreshkin, this sabotage is currently underway (Vzglyad, February 1). The fifth lever, in the form of selling Russia a few exceptional Belarusian enterprises—like refineries or a military wheel tractor plant—still has potential, though it is definitely not supported by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Shraibman believes that, in the near future, overt tensions between Belarus and Russia will calm down. Yet, in the medium run, he predicts Belarus will likely distance itself from Russia as well as resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and undergo the structural reforms demanded by the IMF in exchange for low-interest loans.
Such distancing from Russia might be given a boost as early as this autumn, when Belarus’s three-year purchase contract for Russian gas is set to expire. And chances are that Russia will resort to unacceptable price hikes, much like it recently did on oil. During the meeting, Shraibman repeatedly downplayed parallels with Ukraine insinuated by the members of the audience; be that on ethnic nationalism or on would-be Russian aggression (Carnegie.ru, February 22).
In light of these parallels, a significant article by Fyodor Lukyanov, one of Russia’s most highly regarded political commentators, comes to mind. Lukyanov claims that the 2014 EuroMaidan in Kyiv brought Europe’s “liberal revolution” to its end. Presented by some Western thinkers, most notably Timothy Snyder of Yale University, as a “battle between democratic rule of law and authoritarian arbitrary rule, this dichotomy impeccably reproduced Cold War thinking, with only one qualification: the ideological conflict was no longer formalized and barricades have shifted 1,000 kilometers to the east,” Lukyanov writes (Globalaffairs.ru, February 22).
The Ukrainian crisis, Lukyanov believes, was significant on several counts. First of all, it turned out that neither Europe nor the US were ready to risk war for the sake of achieving their geopolitical goals. For Russia, the EuroMaidan victory and what followed also became a turning point: it meant the collapse of its policy vis-à-vis Ukraine, conducted since 1992. Moreover, it also resulted in a sharp confrontation with the West and, ultimately, the rejection of a common future with it. That this future would never occur was long clear to some people; but after 2014, it stopped even being considered a possibility in Moscow. Finally, the Kremlin’s Russian World concept emerged but quickly proved to be a failure as a political instrument (Globalaffairs.ru, February 22).
If these observations spell mutual exhaustion in the zero-sum game being played by external actors in both Ukraine and Belarus, then the geese that saved Rome may relax. As Artyom Shraibman revealed in his remarks at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Brussels Eurocrats had confessed to him in private conversations that Europe does not need another Ukraine (Carnegie.ru, February 22). It is, then, not entirely unreasonable to expect that Kremlin bureaucrats do not need it either. And if so, Belarus may be lucky, although it is working hard to earn that luck.