The atmosphere at the Friday (May 28) evening meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was strikingly businesslike considering the intensity of Western condemnations of the act of “air piracy” five days prior. It was up to Putin, who played host in his Sochi residence, to set the tone of the conversation, and he firmly downplayed the importance of the Belarusian authorities’ hijacking of Ryanair Flight 4978 and capture of journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian citizen girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. According to the Russian leader, there was plenty to discuss besides the “outburst of emotions” around these “events” (Kremlin.ru, May 28). Meanwhile, Lukashenka was keen to decry Western pressure and brought a case full of “documents” proving the legitimacy of his actions, but Putin suggested the pair should take a swim instead (Kommersant, May 29). Their talks lasted five hours and concluded past midnight; the next rainy day, the pair schmoozed on the presidential yacht instead of swimming. They refrained from a joint statement or a press-conference (Izvestia, May 30).
Putin specifically insisted on discussing economic integration in detail; and it is clear that the recession in Belarus, which is about to deepen further under the impact of Western sanctions, is hampering rather than accelerating this process (Znak.com, May 27). For years, Lukashenka had resisted Moscow’s demands that Belarusian state enterprises be opened up to “privatization” by Russian oligarchs, and the new quality of his dependency upon Putin’s support resulting from the interruption of ties with the European Union undercuts this resistance. Nevertheless, nothing resembling a Russian takeover of the Belarusian economy is happening (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 26). Taking control over Soviet-style enterprises certain to generate losses is, indeed, even less attractive than providing loans that cannot possibly be repaid (VTimes, May 24). Lukashenka has deliberately escalated the economic crisis so that Putin finds himself in an awkward situation, where he is obliged to come to the rescue of the “brotherly” regime (even as the Kremlin leader continues to nurse multiple grudges against the maverick ally). Yet Putin cannot take advantage of this patronage because he is loath to “own” the mess not of his making that keeps deepening every day (Forbes.ru, May 24).
What took Putin (but perhaps not Lukashenka) by surprise was the swift and resolute response from the European Union, which recognized the authoritarian regime in the middle of Europe as a direct security threat (Newsru.com, May 27). European leaders were content to postpone debates on countering Russian challenges but found it necessary to stop all air connections with Belarus and cordon off its airspace (Kommersant, May 25). Russia attempted to sabotage this consensus by canceling several incoming European flights that were rerouted around Belarus but quickly backed off this self-punishing “solidarity,” covering its back-pedaling with caustic criticism of the “irresponsible” EU sanctions (RBC, May 28). One way or another, Moscow will have to cover the mounting losses for an insolvent Belarus. But what irks the Kremlin even more is the EU’s decision to earmark an impressive 3 billion euros ($3.67 billion) for supporting democratic reforms in Belarus (Svoboda.org, May 28). A small consolation can be found in the clearer path to completing the Nord Stream Two project (see EDM, May 24), but that pipeline cannot deliver any increase in Russian natural gas exports to Europe (Novaya Gazeta, May 27).
Russia tends to shrug off the appeals in the European Parliament for tougher sanctions, assuming that there is no stomach to impose them, yet the proposal to include a censure of Russia’s “negative behavior” in the joint statement from the forthcoming European Union–United States summit is a sharp irritant (RIA Novosti, May 30). The Kremlin may not expect any breakthrough from the much-anticipated summit between Putin and US President Joseph Biden in Geneva. Still, the Russian side seeks to present it as confirmation of the country’s unique global status and Putin’s personal credentials as a key world statesman (Russiancouncil.ru, May 28). Moscow is carefully monitoring the tone and content of discourse adopted by Biden’s team, and the lack of any harsh criticism for the recent cyberattack on Microsoft by a gang of Russian hackers has been duly noted (RBC, May 28). Putin is ready to add Belarus as a minor entry to the list of topics for discussion, and his entourage has pointedly corrected Lukashenka, who had claimed that “apologies” were issued to him after the previous exchange of views between Russian and US leaders on the crisis that he keeps driving (TASS, May 27).
Pushing the talks on strategic stability as the main issue for the Geneva summit, Putin intends to establish that he cannot be ostracized in the international arena like Lukashenka, who can only claim an ability to inflict “unacceptable damage” to Europe (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, May 27). The Kremlin sees no need to moderate domestic repressions to improve the atmosphere for the pivotal face-to-face, and Alexei Navalny, the defiant leader of the Russian opposition, pointedly faces new criminal charges (Navalny.com, May 25). Police harassment makes it impossible for many non-governmental organizations (NGO) to continue their work: the Open Russia network has had to announce the closure of its offices (New Times, May 27). It matters little for the unaccountable siloviki (security services personnel) that the expulsion of three German NGOs resulted in canceling the traditional Petersburg Dialogue forum between Russia and Germany (RIA Novosti, May 28). Russian politicians expressed outrage at the statement by Polish President Andrzej Duda that Russia is not a normal country but an aggressor-state; however, they believe that the handshake in Geneva will signify US readiness to accept and to deal with Russia as it is (Izvestia, May 28).
The problem with the Biden administration’s proposition to build stable and predictable relations with Russia is not only the impossibility of any trust in Putin’s promises or the lack of mutual respect between the two seasoned politicians. The real dilemma is that Putin’s behavior on the international stage will necessarily remain unpredictable because this is the only way he can compensate for the power disparity in Russia’s inexorable confrontation with the West (see EDM, May 10, 20, 24, 26). He certainly commands greater military capabilities than Lukashenka, but the nature of the two autocratic regimes is much the same, so the crude demarches of the junior partner in the “Union State” offer a good clue about Russia’s possible proactive moves in the months to come. Biden may aim to grant Putin the desired status in exchange for the latter cutting down on transgressions, but Putin covets the upgraded status precisely as entitlement for new crimes.