The Union State of Russia and Belarus originates from the immediate post-Soviet period and is the outcome of several years of negotiations and formal agreements between both countries. These were negotiated largely between Russian President Yeltsin and Belarusian President Lukashenko from 1995 to 1999. The legal basis of the Union State lies in a number of treaties that are accompanied by a multitude of more specific bilateral agreements.[3] The first significant step in the integration process was taken in 1995, shortly after Lukashenko rose to power, when Moscow and Minsk signed the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation, which sought ‘deeper economic integration’ and the ‘formation of a single economic space’, as well as the coordination of military activities between the two countries.[4] In 1996 both countries signed the Treaty on the creation of the Community of Russia and Belarus, which sought further integration in the economic and humanitarian domains, as well as cooperation in the field of foreign policy, security, border protection and crime prevention through the formation of a so-called political and economic ‘community’ (‘сообщество’).[5] In 1997 they further increased the level of ambition when they signed the Treaty on the Union of Belarus and Russia (‘Союз’), which stipulated the implementation of a coordinated foreign and defence policy, joint citizenship, and a common market for goods, services, capital, and labour. The process concluded in the final days of Yeltsin’s presidency with the Treaty on the Creation of the Union State (‘Союзное государство’), signed on 8 December 1999. [6] It was ratified by the Russian State Duma and the Belarusian Parliament on 22 December 1999 and 26 January 2000 respectively.[7]

Figure 1
Timeline of the development of the legal framework of the Union State and preceding Russian-Belarusian integration projects
Timeline of the development of the legal framework of the Union State and preceding Russian-Belarusian integration projects

Although both countries have been eager to present the ratification of these treaties as pushing the integrative processes forward, many of the legal provisions – particularly in the political and economic domains – have been merely declarative and symbolic in nature. A plethora of economic and political plans were either never implemented (e.g., the monetary union, the common energy market, a joint constitution) or were reversed soon after implementation (e.g., the customs union).[8]

Ultimately, integration in the military domain has proven to be most successful. Within six months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus and Russia signed their first military agreements. These were supplemented by agreements on the stationing of Russian forces in Belarus and the use of communication and radar facilities. In 1997 the signing of the first Union Treaty was accompanied by a bilateral treaty on military cooperation, while the 1999 Union Treaty contains provisions concerning a joint military doctrine and on integrating Belarusian forces and Russian forces from the Western Military District into a combined unit. Although, also in this sphere, the implementation of these arrangements has been incomplete, military cooperation between the two countries has proceeded relatively well, as will be further discussed in chapter 4.[9]

From the perspective of the Belarusian Government, the desire for further integration through the Union State framework was primarily driven by economic interests, as it was seen as an opportunity to extract financial benefits from their resource-rich neighbour. For the Kremlin, the Union State was mostly seen as a political prestige project and a way to retain control over its ‘near abroad’ in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Diverging expectations of what the Union State was supposed to bring for both member states have caused tensions from the very beginning, as will be further discussed in chapter 3.[10]

Road maps to where?

In 2019, Belarus and Russia started negotiations on the development of a set of 31 ‘road maps’ for further economic integration within a Union State framework. The exact content of the road maps has not been made public but they are said to contain plans for the further unification of the Belarusian and Russian economies, as well as plans for the creation of a de facto confederal state from 2022 onwards.[11] So far, Belarus and Russia have agreed on provisions related to closer cooperation between their countries’ customs services, as well as the coordination of industrial policies, which has resulted in a lifting of Russian restrictions on imports of Belarusian dairy products and meat.[12] However, they have been unable to reach a consensus on more contentious road maps concerning oil and gas prices, the coordination of tax policies, and the creation of a single currency.[13] More recently, the ‘road maps’ have been remodelled into 28 so-called union programmes. The union programme on oil and gas is said to contain plans to offer Belarus a lower gas price of $100 per 1,000 cubic meters instead of the current $128.5 per 1,000 cubic meters.[14] There is, however, one catch – the former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has previously contended that Belarus will only receive this discount once an actual merger of the two states has taken place. This has been referred to as the ‘Medvedev Ultimatum’, as further discussed by Artyom Shraibman in annex 1.[15]

Post-Soviet integration projects beyond the Union State

Concurrently with the bilateral integrative processes taking place between Belarus and Russia within the framework of the Union State, several other Russian-led integration projects with partially overlapping memberships have involved Belarus and the post-Soviet region at large [see figure 2]. The first step towards integration in the wider Eurasian sphere was taken with the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) through the signing of the Alma-Ata Protocol on 21 December 1991. Although the CIS provided a framework for continued dialogue and cooperation between the post-Soviet states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent countries were primarily concerned with the internal processes of state-building. As a result, deeper economic integration was low on the agenda.[16] The body’s Collective Security Council adopted documents on deepening military cooperation between member states and was instrumental in transferring the central command over former Soviet troops and strategic forces to the Russian CIS Commander-in-Chief Yevgeny Shaposhnikov. But from 1992 onwards, defence policy was more specifically dealt with through a parallel Collective Security Treaty, signed in 1992.[17] Cooperation on internal and border security still falls within the CIS remit, however.

Figure 2
Overlapping membership of Russian-led integration projects in the post-Soviet space
Overlapping membership of Russian-led integration projects in the post-Soviet space

The first real step towards deeper economic integration in the post-Soviet region was taken by Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in 2000, with the creation of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). Although the EurAsEC lacked the supranational institutions to truly integrate its member states’ economies, it provided an important foundation for further economic integration in the years ahead. The EurAsEC was transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015, which has so far proven to be the most ambitious attempt at economic cooperation in the post-Soviet space and is perhaps even more significant than the Union State in terms of economic integration (see chapter 5).

Alongside these processes of economic integration, Belarus has been a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This organisation is based on the abovementioned Collective Security Treaty, which, after alterations to its membership, acquired a charter and legal status in 2002. Apart from Russia and Belarus, the CSTO consists of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The CSTO’s original treaty contains a collective defence clause, not unlike NATO’s Article 5 provisions. Moreover, the CSTO prohibits its members from joining military alliances that act against the interests of other member states.[18]

Unlike most integration processes in Western Europe, all of the abovementioned Russian-led integration processes have taken place in a highly asymmetrical environment. A politically, militarily and economically dominant Russia has dictated most of the terms to its junior partners which in turn are continuously concerned about their sovereignty. The legal provisions are also often interpreted opportunistically or are suspended as a result of short-term political or economic concerns. They nonetheless offer both Russia and its partner countries a range of options to legalise existing practices, to institutionalise their leverage over one another and to align expectations. As such they also play an important geopolitical role, becoming legal embodiments of Russia’s sphere of influence. The specific geopolitical aspects of Russia’s relations with Belarus will be further examined in the next chapter.

For a good overview of the legal aspects of the integration process, see Yauheni Preiherman, “Treaty on the Establishment of the Union State of Belarus and Russia” Minsk Dialogue, 1 April 2019.
Dogovor o druzhbe, dobrososedstve i sotrudnichestve mezhdu Rossiyskoy Federatsiyey i Respublikoy Belarus’”, Informacionno-analiticheskij portal Sojuznogo gosudarstvo, 21 February 1995.
Dogovor ob obrazovanii soobshchestva Rossii i Belarusi,” Informacionno-analiticheskij portal Sojuznogo gosudarstvo ,2 April 1996.
Audrius Žulys, “Towards a Union State of Russia and Belarus,” Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, no. 15-16 (2005): 148-169.
The Customs Union was reinstated in 2010.
Ruth Deyermond, “The State of the Union: Military Success, Economic and Political Failure in the Russia-Belarus Union”, Europe-Asia Studies 56, no. 8, (2004): 1203
See also Alena Vieira, “A Tale of Two Unions: Russia–Belarus Integration Experience and Its Lessons for the Eurasian Economic Union,” Journal of Borderlands Studies 32, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 41-53.
Igor' Il'jash, “Chto takoye uglublennaya integratsiya Rossii i Belorussii — i pochemu sami belorusy eye opasayutsya?,” Meduza, 10 December 2019; Dmitrij Butrin, “Druzhba nalogov,” Kommersant, 16 September 2019.
Elena Kuz’mina, “Rossiya i Belorussiya: novyy format integratsii v ramkakh Soyuznogo gosudarstva,” Valdai Discussion Club, 17 December 2019.
Kommersant, “Aleksandr Lukashenko ne sidit slozha nogi,” 15 May 2021.
Valery Karbalevich, “Ul’timatum Medvedeva tolkayet Belarus’ v novuyu real’nost’,”, 14 December 2018.
Sean P. Roberts and Arkady Moshes, “The Eurasian Economic Union: A Case of Reproductive Integration?,” Post-Soviet Affairs 32, no. 6 (November 1, 2016): 543.
The initial signatories to this treaty were Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; in 1993 Azerbaijan, Georgia and Belarus would follow but later on several countries would withdraw their signatures. The CST/CSTO make-up always differed from the CIS membership.
COLLECTIVE SECURITY TREATY, dated May 15, 1992,” Collective Security Treaty Organization, 7 October 2002.