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Putin’s Favorite Neighbor Is Caving to the Kremlin

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Reuters

As a rule of thumb, the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has long tried to have it both ways. He has worked to gain both the approval and support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while also trying to maintain independence from Russia and keep up ties with the Western world.

It’s a delicate balancing act that he has navigated for years. But in the last several weeks, his ability to master the balancing act—and keep Putin at bay—seems to have all but disappeared, Lukashenko watchers and former diplomats who have worked with him tell The Daily Beast.

“He seems to think he has the option to cozy up to the West again, like he did in 2014. That option is gone forever, as far as I can tell,” Scott Rauland, the former chief of mission at the US Embassy in Belarus, told The Daily Beast. “He’s kinda stuck. He can’t say no to Putin now.”

In just the last several days, Lukashenko announced that he is willing to let Putin use Belarusian territory as a staging ground for attacks on Ukraine to the south. “I’m ready to provide territory again,” Lukashenko told reporters earlier this month.

It’s something he did in the early days of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine last year, too. Since then, his relationship with Putin has grown ever closer. Belarusian and Russian forces have teamed up in joint groupings and held combat readiness drills together. Belarus itself has ramped up military preparations sending troops to Ukraine’s border to pulling out armored vehicles from storage. And that willingness to help Putin, even as Russia barrels into a second year waging war in Ukraine, is likely one step too far, warned Kenneth Yalowitz, a former US ambassador to Belarus who served as a US diplomat for 36 years.

“The idea of ​​him appealing to the West, that clearly is an illusion right now,” Yalowitz told The Daily Beast.

Belarusian political circles have noted as well that Lukashenko’s wiggle room to squeeze out from underneath Putin’s control has been shrinking.

In a classic move for Lukashenko, he also made appeals in recent remarks that he wants a peace to be reached in Ukraine. But here, too, he argued for the Russian perspective. And while he has so far avoided sending in Belarusian troops to Ukraine himself—likely out of a fear of domestic pushback against involvement in the war—he also claimed that he would be willing to more directly join the war if Belarus is attacked.

Reading between the lines, Lukashenko’s latest public remarks indicate the Lukashenko-Putin relationship has reached a point where Lukashenko’s independence is petering out, and that he is likely just letting Putin walk all over him, said Valery Kavaleuski, a foreign affairs representative for Belarus’ opposition, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

“As it normally goes for Lukashenko, he is contradictory: He calls for peace [talks]… while threatening to allow Russians to use Belarus for another invasion—as if Russians need his permission,” Kavaleuski told The Daily Beast. “As they say in Belarus, he serves as Putin’s press secretary, delivering messages that Putin can’t afford to say himself.”

The warnings about Lukashenko’s seeming inability to wrest himself and his country out from under Putin’s control come amid signs that Putin might be edging closer and closer to working to entirely take over Belarus. The Kremlin’s Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation outlined plans in 2021 to take over and annex Belarus by 2030, according to a series of news outlets, including the Kyiv Independent and Süddeutsche Zeitungwhich recently obtained a related planning document.

For years, Belarus and Russia have been working on forming a “union state” with each other to tie the countries closer and closer together. They have agreed to blend together multiple sectors within Russia and Belarus, such as the countries’ militaries and economies. Interlacing them all together has always been the goal.

But for Lukashenko, losing his ability to win over the West, and totally giving up to Putin, might pose an existential crisis.

Through meeting Lukashenko over the years and working to pin down what makes him tick, a clear profile of Lukashenko emerged that showed a man hesitant to completely cede power to Russia, Yalowitz said.

“I remember in meetings with him he was always uncomfortable with Western diplomats. And his eyes—I just remember his eyes… he always seemed to be looking for how to get out of the room, how to escape. He just seemed uncomfortable,” Yalowitz told The Daily Beast. “I just always had the feeling that this is a guy who values ​​freedom—personal freedom—and didn’t like to be tied down or pinned down in any way.”

“I think that was, to me, that was the way I saw how the country was going, too. Never quite being tied down to the Russians,” Yalowitz said. “Being very close with them, but never wanting to lose some freedom of maneuver.”

“His ability is severely limited” to work with the West moving forward, Kavaleuski told The Daily Beast.

While in the past, Lukashenko has worked to curry favor with the West, by releasing prisonersfor instance, that does not appear to be on the agenda any longer for Lukashenko.

“He could do these humanitarian gestures, but he never does,” Kavaleuski said. “He is unable to do this. Partially because he is afraid that this could be perceived as a sign of weakness… but also because he is afraid to trigger any reaction from Russia… to whom he is completely subservient.”

That should serve as a key indicator that Lukashenko has gone belly-up for Putin.

“He is not that brave to be independent. This is part of sovereign decision-making and he has lost this ability for sovereign decision-making,” Kavaleuski said.

Belarusian opposition figures have warned previously that Russia has designs on Belarus beyond just forming the “union state.” Fears are growing among the opposition that Putin considers Belarus another country to conquer after Ukraine. as The Daily Beast reported.

“Russians are looking at us in the same light as they look at Ukraine,” Kavaleuski said at the time. “‘This is a state that is temporarily dependent. This is the nation that does not deserve to be next to Russia, so they all have to be ‘Russified.'”

As the thinking goes, taking over Belarus, too, could provide Putin easier access to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, for other potential territorial expansion plots.

In an attempt to get ahead of the possibility that Belarus might be next on Putin’s target list—despite the close relationship with Lukashenko—Belarus’ opposition proposed forming an alliance with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to guard against potential takeover and efforts to further envelop Belarus into the Russian fold.

Lukashenko’s ability to resist Putin’s influence could come to a head soon. It is not clear what kind of attack would convince Lukashenko to join the war directly and send troops into Ukraine. But following his remarks, there are signs already that Moscow may be plotting a false flag attack against Belarus in order to drag it into the war, according to the Ukrainian Northern Operational Command.

“Most likely, the goal is to accuse the Ukrainian defenders of violating territorial integrity. This is evidenced by intelligence data, which recorded the movement of columns of military equipment in the area of ​​the border with the Chernihiv region without identification marks and manpower dressed in a pixel, similar to the uniform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. the command said on Telegram.

Belarus’ military has already taken note of alleged Ukrainian forces near the border and stated this week that the risk of escalation is “high.”

“The armed conflict in Ukraine has significantly aggravated the situation on the southern border of the Republic of Belarus,” Colonel Valery Revenko, the Head of the Department of International Military Cooperation and Assistant to the Minister of Defense for International Military Cooperation, said earlier this week “Periodically… there are violations of the State Border of the Republic of Belarus in the airspace.”

Lukashenko doubled down this week on his suggestion that Belarus is ready for military action should it become necessary, as well.

“Militarily, we stood ready to respond. We stood ready to give the toughest response,” Lukashenko saidaccording to Belta, adding that he doesn’t want war.

Lukashenko warned watchers that his words reveal in the back of his mind, he might still maintain some hopes that he can play both sides somehow.

“In his mind it is not a settled situation yet,” Yalowitz said. But “his movement and his ability to appeal to the West is gone.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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