When the protests in Belarus started in August 2020, both the democratic opposition, the European Union and even the Russian Federation were at pains to stress that this was not another geopolitical crisis in Eastern Europe. They frequently and rightfully pointed out that there were no EU flags on the streets in Minsk. The situation is indeed radically different from Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests, which were triggered by Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. The contestation in Belarus is about domestic governance and particularly about the person of Alexander Lukashenko, not about a ‘civilizational choice’ of relations with Russia or the West. The population is not nearly as divided as the Ukrainians were prior to the 2014 crisis; in fact, opinion polls consistently show that most Belarusians would be content if their country would enjoy good relations with both Russia and the West.[19]

The crisis nonetheless has a strong geopolitical overlay, not least due to Belarus’ strategic location and significance to the security of both Russia and NATO – and Lukashenko’s own interest in blackmailing the Kremlin into supporting him by raising the spectre of a ‘Western takeover’. In turn, the more the Russian Federation manages to politically, militarily and economically integrate Belarus within the framework of the Union State, the more this entangles Belarus in the broader web of geopolitical tensions between the EU and Russia. This chapter therefore explores the different geopolitical aspects of the Belarus crisis by first outlining the pattern of pressure and accommodation in Belarus’ relations with both the EU and the Russian Federation over the last 25 years. It will then analyse the main domestic political interests, constraints and geopolitical objectives of the Lukashenko regime, the Russian Federation, the European Union and NATO. These then form the basis for the scenarios that will be further developed in chapter 6.

A pattern of pressure and accommodation by both the EU and Russia

As much as Lukashenko currently positions himself as a staunch defender of Russia’s interests against encroachment by the West and Belarus as Russia’s ‘western frontier’[20], the reality and his own track record are much more complex. Throughout his rule he has consistently tried to leverage his country’s strategic position by playing both sides against each other and by preserving Belarusian sovereignty, even if the overall drift has been largely ‘eastwards’. The EU and Russia have both accommodated and to some extent rewarded this behaviour by vying for influence and alternating between pressure and engagement [see figure 4].[21]

Figure 3
Timeline of EU-Belarus and RF-Belarus relations
Timeline of EU-Belarus and RF-Belarus relations

When Belarus gained its independence in 1991, its leaders initially flirted with eventual European integration but these overtures were halted when the former communist elite led by Lukashenko consolidated control. In his aim to preserve continuity Lukashenko largely went along with Russia’s efforts to salvage the remains of the USSR through its various integration projects as set out in chapter 2. At that point in time Yeltsin’s Russia was still largely content with symbolic integration and in turn heavily subsidized Belarus’ economy through discounted exports of hydrocarbons. It also thereby partially shielded Belarus from the economic shocks of other countries in the region, allowing Lukashenko to position himself as a force for stability and prosperity. Some analysts argue that Lukashenko’s initial enthusiasm for the Union State may also be linked to his aspirations to use it as a vehicle to gain control over Russian politics as well.[22]

The EU paid little attention to Belarus in the early and mid-1990s, being more concerned with integrating Central and Eastern Europe and stabilizing the Western Balkans. EU-Belarus relations started to deteriorate sharply in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it became increasingly apparent that Lukashenko was determined to consolidate his rule by authoritarian means and that he would resist all forms of ‘Western interference’. In this period the EU increasingly opted for a principled approach of ‘naming and shaming’ and sanctions as a mechanism to pressure Lukashenko into compliance with international human rights norms. A series of different EU sanctions were imposed in the period 1998-2006 as politicians and journalists started to disappear and the elections of both 2004 and 2006 were rigged by the man Europe increasingly - and perhaps overly optimistically – started to call its ‘last dictator’.

The EU’s approach of isolating and pressuring Lukashenko through sanctions did not make him significantly alter course. Instead, it was the deterioration in relations with Russia, in response to increased pressure to make real headway in the integration process, that made Lukashenko worry about his lack of geopolitical and economic options. After Vladimir Putin took office the Kremlin’s impatience with Lukashenko’s procrastination and the ‘integration deadlock’ steadily grew throughout the early 2000s. Russia began leveraging its economic weight and adjusting its energy subsidies to reduce the costs of Belarus to the Russian economy and to extract more concessions. This culminated in the ‘milk wars’ and ‘gas wars’ of 2004-2009 and sharply fluctuating levels of energy subsidies (see figure 4). Lukashenko, whose hopes for a prominent role in Russian politics were dashed by Putin’s ascent to power, nonetheless resisted Russian pressures to reform Belarus’ largely state-led economy and began diversifying oil imports, including from the United States. While he still went along with military integration, he particularly dragged his feet on all political aspects of the Union State, resisting all forms of Russian encroachment on Belarusian sovereignty.[23]

Figure 4
Russian energy subsidies for Belarus (% of Belarus' GDP)
Russian energy subsidies for Belarus (% of Belarus' GDP)

Source: Finansowy.pl[24]

Roughly at the same time the now enlarged EU and NATO started to develop a more geopolitical and active approach towards their new ‘eastern neighbourhood’, spurred on by the new member states from Eastern Europe. Especially after the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 the EU developed its Eastern Partnership and began its ‘critical engagement’ with Belarus, in order to offer it a geopolitical alternative to dependency on Russia. Lukashenko cleverly made use of the increased tensions between Russia and the West and stopped short of joining Russia in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He also clearly enjoyed being courted by Western politicians, some of whom even offered him large-scale financial assistance in the run-up to the 2010 elections. It would not last long, however: the brutal crackdown that followed these elections led to a sharp deterioration in Belarus-EU relations, characterized by new EU sanctions and the departure of EU diplomats from Minsk. It would not be the last time that European hopes to woo Lukashenko were dashed as his primary domestic concern, to preserve power at all cost, trumped his geopolitical interest in a multi-vector foreign policy and reduced dependency on Russia.

The pattern would repeat itself a few years later, following the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Lukashenko again stopped short of fully joining Russia in its confrontational approach and began hedging his bets. He did so, among other things, by not recognizing the Russian annexation of Crimea, by positioning himself and Minsk as a neutral venue for negotiations, and by making largely symbolic concessions to the West such as the release of political prisoners. He also managed to preserve good relations with Ukraine, his large southern neighbour and strategic trading partner, despite its bitter confrontation with Russia. For the first time since independence, he actively started to play the Belarusian culture card, emphasizing the cultural and linguistic distinctiveness of Belarus and positioning himself as the main defender of its sovereignty.

Once again the EU tried to make use of this geopolitical window of opportunity. It lifted most sanctions in 2016, doubled its financial assistance and actively began courting Lukashenko within the context of the Eastern Partnership – although it remained apparent that he was not genuinely interested in making actual concessions in the sphere of the rule of law and democratization. The cancelled visit of the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Federica Mogherini, in October 2019 was indicative in this regard, even though Belarus finally did sign a visa facilitation and readmission agreement with the EU in January 2020.[25]

An increasingly frustrated Russia, in turn, ramped up the pressure on Lukashenko to fall in line and to stop profiteering from Russian subsidies while not delivering on political, military and economic integration within the Union State. Both the bilateral relations between Belarus and Russia and the personal relations between Lukashenko and Putin sharply deteriorated in 2014-2020; Russia’s ‘tax manoeuvre’ on oil exports to Belarus threatened one of the key pillars of the Belarusian business model, and Russia even briefly halted oil exports altogether in 2019. The lowest point came when Lukashenko accused Russia of trying to incorporate Belarus into the Russian Federation and even of sending mercenaries to meddle in the Presidential elections of August 2020. Days before the election Lukashenko was still openly claiming that the Kremlin was trying to overthrow him and that Russia was working with opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.[26]

The Belarusian pendulum would soon swing back towards the east once more, again driven by Lukashenko’s overriding objective to retain power at all costs. Merely a few weeks after he accused the Kremlin of wanting to overthrow him, an embattled Lukashenko flew to Sochi to plead with Putin. He needed Russian political, financial and other support to cope with the unprecedentedly large-scale protests against the equally unprecedented levels of electoral fraud and repression that he had deployed to stay in power. The Kremlin obliged and propped up the troublesome autocrat for the time being, while the EU once again – initially grudgingly, but later more convincingly – imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his regime and this time refused to recognise his new mandate as President. Tikhanovskaya and other opposition leaders fled to EU countries and Western leaders threw their weight behind them. Lukashenko’s most recent and brazen move to force a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in order to apprehend critical journalist Raman Pratasevich led to further sanctions that isolated him even more from the West.[27] Lukashenko formally suspended Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership on 28 June 2021. This temporarily absolved the EU of the dilemma on whether or not to invite the Belarusian Government to meetings of the Eastern Partnership. At the same time it sparked a debate among EU member states as to whether to invite the Belarusian opposition as representatives of the country instead.[28]

Main strategic interests

The above pattern of events reflects the main but sometimes contradictory domestic and geopolitical objectives of the four main actors: the Lukashenko regime, the Russian Federation, the European Union and NATO. These clashing objectives are at the root of the geopolitical dimension of the Belarus crisis. Each will be briefly discussed in turn and in the order of priority.

Lukashenko’s strategic interests: retain power, sovereignty and economic stability

Throughout his reign Lukashenko has consistently pursued three main objectives. First and foremost he is intent on preserving his personal hold on power by any means necessary, without leaving any opening for the emergence of a real democratic opposition. Even now, with virtually no legitimacy left and a reliance solely on repression to stay in power, Lukashenko insists on a long, vague and pseudo-legal constitutional reform process that allows him to keep exercising control either upfront or behind the scenes. It is this objective that consistently puts him at odds with the European Union and its policy of promoting democracy and human rights. It makes him more dependent on Russia, given that it is primarily the Kremlin’s support that keeps him in power. However, it also makes him more of a headache for the Kremlin since he effectively blocks any alternative leadership from emerging, even if Russia would prefer to have someone else to work with. The stubborn refusal of the Ministry of Justice to register the pro-Russian ‘Soyuz’ party is indicative in this regard.[29]

Secondly and relatedly, despite his initial openness for at least symbolic integration within the Union State, Lukashenko has consistently aimed to resist relinquishing Belarusian sovereignty to the Russian Federation. This does not only concern political matters but also economic matters such as control over state-led enterprises and energy transport infrastructure, which will be discussed in more detail in chapter 5. This objective became more acute for Lukashenko as it became apparent from the 2008 Georgia conflict and especially the 2014 Ukraine crisis how far Russia was willing to go to consolidate control over its near abroad. It is also this objective that the EU has catered to with its ‘critical engagement’ approach, offering Lukashenko a geopolitical alternative. However, it is clearly subordinated to objective #1, even though it is still unclear how much de facto sovereignty Lukashenko is willing to relinquish in exchange for continued Russian support.

Finally, Lukashenko’s options are constrained by a third objective: to preserve economic stability, keeping the largely state-run economy functional. This objective has largely driven his policies since the 1990s but has become more acute in the last decade, especially since he could no longer fully rely on Russian energy subsidies. While Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia is one of its main ways to pressure Lukashenko, this objective also gives the EU a certain amount of leverage, given the growing importance of the European Union as a market for Belarusian exports, as further discussed in chapter 5 and in the contribution of Kateryna Bornukova to this report.

Russian strategic interests: gain more control over Belarus, avoid nasty surprises and cut costs

Since the turn of the century, Russia’s strategic interests have largely remained consistent. Some are more defensive and reactive in nature, others have more to do with economic and political objectives, and each has its own set of supporters within the Russian Federation.[30]

First and foremost Russia wants to retain control over Belarus for geopolitical and security reasons; it will go to great lengths to prevent Belarus from ever making a Ukraine-style ‘pivot towards the West’ and joining the EU and especially NATO. Ever since Lukashenko came to power this has never been a realistic prospect, given his disregard of the EU’s and NATO’s political norms and values. While a fully-fledged change of geopolitical course presently remains unlikely, Russia nonetheless wants to have sufficient control over current and future Belarusian governments to prevent this from happening. Lukashenko regularly plays on these Russian fears when he inflates the threat that NATO poses to Belarus and Russia’s western frontiers, and the wholehearted support of Western leaders for Tikhanovskaya contributes to these deep-rooted Russian apprehensions of plots to take over Belarus.

Secondly and relatedly, a bottom-up revolution in Belarus is itself a threat to the Kremlin’s overarching objective of preserving domestic political stability. The protests in Belarus coincided with a wave of protests against Putin and his ruling party across Russia; the images from Belarus were widely watched in Russia, and even if the protests were different in nature and scale, a degree of solidarity quickly developed between protesters in Khabarovsk and Minsk.[31] This raised concerns within the Kremlin, which clearly wants to avoid a precedent of a bottom-up change in power in Belarus. In addition, while Russia can clearly work with leaders who emerge from domestic political turmoil, such as in fellow CSTO members Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, it strongly prefers any transition of power to take place according to at least a pseudo-legal, formal and most of all managed process. This objective is arguably why Russia agreed to prop up Lukashenko in the first place, but also why it continues to insist on constitutional reform and an eventual political transition. Russia’s support for Lukashenko’s repressive policies is deeply unpopular among the Belarusian people; the Kremlin knows that the longer it supports his repressive policies, the more Russia’s generally positive reputation will suffer.[32]

Thirdly, and as further discussed in chapter 5, Russia is intent on reducing the costs that Belarus poses to the Russian economy and state budget by phasing out its economic subsidies and by gaining more control over Belarusian state companies and energy transit infrastructure. The ‘tax manoeuvre’ in particular is meant to ensure that a larger part of the oil revenue reaches the coffers of the Russian state budget. This objective gained in importance during the costly Covid-19 crisis, but still pales in comparison to the other two more political objectives. It still offers some leverage to the West, by increasing the costs for Russia to prop up Lukashenko.

Finally, and arguably last in the order of priority, Russia is not keen on another Ukraine-style confrontation with the West that only leads to further costly isolation. Despite its regular rhetoric of resisting Western interference in domestic affairs, Russia’s response to the crisis has been relatively muted. It has not engaged in sabre rattling similar to its snap exercises along the Ukrainian border in April 2021. In fact the unpredictable Lukashenko poses a risk to Putin’s recent efforts to make the relationship with Europe and the US more ‘stable and predictable’. This last Russian objective is effectively the only one shared with the EU’s objectives, which will be further discussed below.

The EU’s strategic interests: promote values, offer an alternative, and preserve stability

Ever since the late 1990s the EU has been confronted with a ‘Belarus dilemma’ of isolation versus engagement, and different factions within the EU push for different objectives.[33] The first and most visible objective is the EU’s insistence on the promotion of its norms and values in its immediate neighbourhood. Lukashenko’s reliance on repression directly clashes with the EU’s emphasis on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. As the brief overview in this chapter shows, every time Lukashenko has cracked down on protesters, opposition politicians or the free press, the EU has responded with concerned statements full of indignation and sometimes new sets of sanctions.

However, it also often lifted those same sanctions a few years later due to its second, competing objective: offering Belarus a geopolitical alternative to the Russian Federation. This objective gained in prominence with the development of the Eastern Partnership and the rise in tensions with the Russian Federation over Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The EU has tried to square the circle of this ‘Belarus dilemma’ through the formula of ‘critical engagement’ and by making use of the geopolitical window of opportunity of the deteriorating Belarus-Russia relationship post-2014, but with little success.[34]

The third overarching EU objective in this crisis overlaps with Russia’s objective to avoid another major geopolitical crisis in Eastern Europe. At a time when EU-Russia relations are already strained, several EU member states are wary of a new showdown over a country that is so closely linked to the Russian Federation, where the EU has limited leverage and where the population itself is not asking for a decisive shift towards Europe. European countries have come out strongly in support of the democratic opposition but were relatively muted in their response vis-à-vis Russia’s support for Lukashenko. Ultimately, the more Belarus integrates into the political, economic and military space of the Russian Federation and the more EU-Russia relations deteriorate, the more this accommodating stance becomes problematic to maintain.

NATO’s strategic interests: maintain a credible deterrence while avoiding escalation

While NATO shares the EU’s political objectives of promoting democracy and respect for human rights, it also faces a ‘Belarus security dilemma’ of its own. Its primary objective is to reassure its eastern allies that its deterrence policy remains credible and that the territory of the Alliance remains defensible in case of an increased Russian military presence in Belarus. Especially the Baltic States and Poland are understandably concerned about a potential further westward extension of Russia’s military posture and particularly about the vulnerability of the transport corridor through the Suwalki gap, as further argued by Michael Kofman in Annex 3.

At the same time NATO has a second objective of avoiding escalation in its relations with the Russian Federation, which harbours its own anxieties about a NATO build-up near its borders. In this way Belarus is becoming another case highlighting one of the core concerns in NATO’s deterrence policy: how to simultaneously remain credible and ambiguous in its signalling towards different audiences. This dilemma and the role of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence will be further discussed in Chapter 4.

Ryhor Astapenia, “Belarusians’ views on the political crisis,” Chatham House, 11 June 2021.
For a good overview of EU-Belarus relations, see Giselle Bosse, “EU-Belarus Relations,” in The Routledge Handbook on the European Neighbourhood Policy, ed. Tobias Schumacher, Andreas Marchetti, Thomas Demmelhuber (New York: Routledge, 2018), 290-302.
Matthew Frear, “Belarus: Player and Pawn in the Integration Game,” in Eurasian Economic Integration: Law, Policy and Politics, ed. Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013), 121–22.
For a detailed analysis of Belarusian strategic culture and Belarus-Russia relations, see Matthew Frear, “Evolution and Adaptation in Belarusian Strategic Culture,” in Strategic culture in Russia's neighborhood: change and continuity in an in-between space, ed. Katalin Miklóssy and Hanna Smith (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019), 229-257.
Aleś Alachnovič, "Belarus: economic dependence has its upsides," Obserwator Finansowy.pl, 15 April 2019.
Veranika Laputska, “Failed Expectations? Belarus and the Eastern Partnership,” New Eastern Europe no. 5 (2020), 134-139. The EU assistance to Belarus doubled to € 30 million per year in the period 2016-2020: “Facts and figures about EU-Belarus relations,” European Council, n.d.
Tatjana Melnichuk, “Lukashenko obvinil Moskvu vo lzhi i poobeshhal ne dopustit' revoljucii,” BBC Russian, 4 August 2020.
For a good overview of Russian-Belarusian ‘codependence’, see Maxim Trudolybov, “Russian-Belarusian Codependence Highlighted in Wake of Forced Jet Landing,” The Russia File, Kennan Institute, 2 June 2021.
Alexandra Brzozowski, ‘EU reproves Belarus’ walkout from the Eastern Partnership’, Euractiv, 29 June 2021
Ministerstvo justicii Respubliki Belarus, “Ministerstvom justicii otkazano v gosudarstvennoj registracii Politicheskoj partii,” 4 May 2021.
See also the contribution of Artyom Shraibman in Annex 1 to this report.
See for example Andrey Makarychev, “The Minsk–Khabarovsk nexus: Ethical, performative, corporeal,” New Perspectives vol. 29 (January 2021): 109-119.
Currently a third of Belarusians have very positive attitudes towards Russia, and 79% of the population generally feel positive about Russia. See Ryhor Astapenia, “ Belarusians’ views on the political crisis, ” Chatham House, 11 June 2021.
See Elizabete Vizgunova, “The Belarus dilemma,” EUISS Alert, October 2015.
Tony van der Togt, ‘T he “Belarus Factor”: From balancing to bridging geopolitical dividing lines in Europe’, Clingendael Report, January 2017, pp. 5-12.