Something unusual happened in Moscow yesterday (April 30), and it has dominated media coverage in Russia and Belarus over the last 24 hours. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin never wants to appear to back down in the face of pressure, it seems the Kremlin leader decided he could only hope to further integrate Belarus into the Union State with Russia by sacrificing his ambassador to Minsk, Mikhail Babich. On multiple occasions, since being named to the post, Babich had offended Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as well as others in Minsk due to his efforts to cultivate groups supporting Russian-Belarusian unity (see EDM, March 19, April 17, 30). But now he has officially been recalled and replaced by Dmitry Mezentsev (Kremlin.ru, April 30).
From the outset, Lukashenka had opposed Babich taking over the Russian embassy in Minsk (Svaboda.org  , August 24, 2018; Eurasia.expert, August 23, 2018). And since his arrival, last August, the Belarusian government has repeatedly criticized Babich for his inflammatory statements and actions (Eurasia Daily, March 15, April 29). Lukashenka on several occasions asked Putin to recall Babich, including at their recent meeting in Beijing (see EDM, April 30). As recently as last week, however, the Russian foreign ministry signaled that Moscow would continue to stand behind their ambassador in Minsk (Ekho Moskvy, April 25).
Babich’s replacement, Dmitry Mezentsev, is a more polished and skillful diplomat than his predecessor. Some view this as a change in Moscow’s policy. But far more likely, the Kremlin’s new man in Minsk will pursue exactly the same policies as his predecessor, albeit in a less flamboyant and, therefore, presumably more effective way.
Despite the dozens of articles about the replacement of Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, almost all the available details can be traced back to reporting by Kommersant journalists Vladimir Solovyev and Elena Chernenko, who cite unnamed sources (Kommersant, April 30). According to their investigation, Babich was sent to Minsk because Putin wanted to promote the integration of Belarus and Russia into a single state. Babich worked hard in that direction, but he offended too many Belarusians along the way and, thus, had to be sacrificed to allow talks about the union of the two countries to proceed.
According to one of the sources the Kommersant journalists cite, Putin agreed to replace Babich and to avoid any further “interference” in the domestic affairs of Belarus for a year to allow time for negotiations on deepening the Russia-Belarus Union State. The outlet’s sources added that the change in Russia’s ambassador to Minsk does not mean a change in policy but only in approach. As such, Babich is not viewed as a failure and may soon be offered another senior position (Kommersant, April 30). Such an appointment, if it comes, will certainly please Babich’s supporters in Russia, who view him as someone who has had the courage to act boldly in expanding the Russian world (Iarex.ru,  , Rosbalt, April 30).
Some Belarusian experts agree with this assessment, and they do not expect any change in Moscow’s goals, only in the tone of its representative. For example, Andrey Yegorov, the director of the Minsk-based Center for European Integration, says the replacement of Babich by Mezentsev is neither a significant concession to Lukashenka nor a signal that Moscow has any plans to change its policy on Belarus. Babich in the past and Mezentsev in the future will do exactly what the Kremlin wants (Belarusianpartisan.by, April 30).
The differences between the two men are obvious. Babich had an exclusively domestic focus, served as a regional manager for Putin, and tended to treat Belarus as if it were just another Russian region (see EDM, March 25). Mezentsev is unlikely to repeat that mistake. But there is one important commonality that must be stressed: Like Babich, Mezentsev has both longstanding and close ties with Putin.
Mezentsev was born in Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) in 1959. Trained as a railway engineer, he was active in Komsomol work there and on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) project. His career took off in the northern capital around the same time as Putin’s, between 1990 and 1991. Mezentsev headed the press service for the city council when Anatoly Sobchak, also a patron of Putin’s, was its chairperson. After Sobchak’s defeat in 1996, Mezentsev moved to Moscow and occupied progressively more senior positions in media management and strategic studies initiatives for the federal government. He later served as a governor of Irkutsk and, until his ambassadorial appointment, a deputy in the Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) (Kommersant, April 30).
But perhaps the most important preparation for his new post came as a senior official in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and most recently, as head of the Russian-Chinese Friendship Society. In both positions, Mezentsev honed his diplomatic skills. Another possible indication of how he will behave as ambassador is suggested by the title of his dissertation: “The Psychology of the Influence of Mass Media on the Formation of Political Determinants of the Personality” (Kommersant, April 30).
All the focus on Babich and now on Mezentsev, however, ignores two significantly more important aspects, especially in the Belarusian case. First, neither man did or is likely to contradict President Putin. In the Russian system, ambassadors may set the tone but they do not make policy. And second, neither is alone in the Russian embassy in Minsk; unless there is a wholesale change in personnel there, much of what Babich has been doing can be expected to continue (Tut.by, April 1).
According to Minsk journalist German Pisaryev, the current number two in the embassy is Minister Counselor Aleksey Sukhov, a professional Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer who notably worked for Babich when the latter was presidential plenipotentiary in the Volga Federal District. Sukhov supervised the internal politics of the regions and republics within the federal district (Tut.by, October 2, 2018; Kommersant, April 17, 2013).
Another key actor in the embassy is Andrey Klintsevich, a son of Russian Senator Franz Klintsevich. Like Sukhov, Klintsevich also has a GRU background and supervised the military patriot clubs of the Young Guard. Later, he was honored by Putin for his service in Crimea during its annexation (Novaya Gazeta, June 15, 2014). In addition, Klintsevich gained notoriety for espionage and terrorist activities in Kyiv. As a result, he was declared persona non grata by Ukraine and expelled (Prm.ua, January 18, 2018).
Not all of these officers came in with Babich and, therefore, not all of them are likely to leave now. Indeed, three senior intelligence officers currently in Minsk arrived well before he did (Censoru.net, December 14, 2018; Ord-ua.com, July 14, 2014). A certain level of continuity between the policies of Babich and Mezentsev should thus be expected.