More questions were raised than answered after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka met in Moscow on September 9.
Following their fifth face-to-face meeting this year, the two spoke of further economic, energy, and military plans to integrate Belarus and Russia, but the results they described fell short of forecasts and remained vague in many cases, with details apparently left unstated or left for further negotiation.
Here are five takeaways from the talks.
1. Uncertain State Of The Union
Putin and Lukashenka had been expected to sign off on a series of “road maps,” the key documents to implementing a Union State treaty that the two countries signed in 1999 and have been negotiating off and on since then. Lukashenka, in power since 1994, had long proved a wary -- and perhaps wily -- partner, seemingly fearing that deeper integration would leave him as nothing more than a regional governor in a Moscow-led superstate.
But Lukashenka has appeared ripe for a deal now that he is more isolated internationally than ever -- the result of his sweeping, persistent crackdown on Belarus’s pro-democracy movement following his claim of victory in an August 2020 presidential election widely seen as blatantly rigged. Sanctions and opprobrium from the West have made him even more dependent on the Kremlin, potentially enabling Putin to push for harsher terms, which Belarusians fear would undermine what sovereignty the country still retains.
Ahead of the talks in Moscow -- tellingly, none of the five meetings has been held in Minsk -- Uladzimer Syamashka, the Belarusian ambassador to Russia, had said all 28 road maps could be ready for signing when Putin and Lukashenka met.
Similar statements by Lukashenka and his underlings in the past have not been born out, and this occasion was no different.
No documents were signed, a least in public -- although Putin suggested that all 28 items had been agreed, begging the question of why he and Lukashenka didn’t put pen to paper, as some observers asked.
But speaking to the press after more than three hours of talks, Putin suggested that work remained. Offering few details, he said he and Lukashenka had agreed to coordinate the countries’ macroeconomic policies, institute common tax and customs measures, and harmonize other financial controls.
Speaking alongside Putin, Lukashenka said the final signing of the 28 road maps could occur on October 29 -- a date that is weeks away, suggesting stumbling blocks may remain.
2. It's All About The Money
Calls for a single currency for the Union State, particularly if only one of the countries is authorized to issue the currency, have long been a sticking point, in part because printing money in Moscow alone could exacerbate Lukashenka’s reliance on Russia and leave him without a crucial lever of power: cash.
Lukashenka and Putin said more work on a single currency lay ahead, suggesting that the matter may have been put aside for now.
“When we examined this problem, the Central Bank of Russia and the National Bank of the Republic of Belarus unanimously asked us to leave it be. They said that neither the central banks nor our countries were ready for it,” Lukashenka was quoted by the state-run BelTA news agency as saying.
Putin added little clarity, saying that the two central banks must “harmonize the monetary management policy, ensure the integration of the payment systems as well as information security in the financial sphere.”
3. Energy As Muscle
Putin and Lukashenka also announced plans to integrate the energy markets of Belarus and Russia.
Under Lukashenka, cheap oil and natural gas from Russia has long been a lifeline for the Belarusian economy, which is still largely in state hands and largely inefficient. Moscow had supplied oil to Minsk with no export fee until 2019, when Russia amended its tax code to halt that arrangement. Minsk said the change cost it $330 million in 2019 alone. Most of the oil Belarus gets from Russia is sold on at higher prices further west either as is or as refined products.
The standoff over energy prices led to Russia first cutting and limiting oil deliveries to Belarus in early 2020, prompting the United States to make its first oil shipments ever to Belarus as Lukashenka sought out new energy partners.
On September 9, Putin offered Lukashenka a bit of relief on gas prices, announcing Moscow would leave its prices for natural gas unchanged for Belarus at the current $128.5 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2022.
“And we are not even going to index the price for Belarus in terms of dollar inflation, even though it is significant,” Putin added.
But that falls far short of the demands of Lukashenka, who has argued deeper integration under the Union State treaty should mean Belarus pays the same for energy as Russian regions. For the Smolensk region of Russia, which borders Belarus, the price for gas is about half the price that Belarus is paying.
Putin said Russia and Belarus would sign documents to create a unified gas market and conclude similar agreements for oil and electricity, offering Lukashenka the hope of lower energy prices for Belarus in the future. But Putin was vague on a timeline, only saying such an agreement would be signed by December 2023.
4. Murky Military Plans
Putin and Lukashenka also announced plans to form a “common defense space,” but they did not give details or a timeline.
Russia and Belarus are already linked closely militarily. They have an integrated air- and missile-defense system, plus a regional group of forces comprised of four Belarusian brigades and special forces and the Russian 20th Guards Army. Moreover, Belarus is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Earlier this year, the Russian and Belarusian defense ministers announced plans to establish three permanent joint military training centers -- in Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad regions and in Belarus’s western Hrodna region, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania. That came after the ministries signed a five-year strategic partnership agreement for the first time.
Putin has long pushed for a permanent air base in Belarus, and some analysts have said the training center in Hrodna could essentially serve that purpose. In 2015, Putin pushed the deal for the base for Russian Su-27 fighter jets, only to have Lukashenka balk.
After the talks with Lukashenka on September 9, Putin made no mention of progress on the base issue.
Russia has sent Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets to western Belarus to a joint military training center, to fly joint missions and patrol the two countries' borders, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said on September 8.
Lukashenka has recently spoken of being ready “if need be” to call in the Russian Army to defend Belarus, announcing the delivery soon of a big consignment of Russian military hardware.
Putin and Lukashenka met as Russia and Belarus were set to open Zapad-2021, quadrennial military drills that underscore Russia’s military grip on Belarus.
5. A Mixed Bag For Both
If nothing else, Lukashenka received reassurances that the Kremlin would not be pulling the plug on supporting him anytime soon.
Putin praised Belarus, saying the situation there had "stabilized" after months of political turmoil. He said that Russia would provide Belarus with around $640 million in loans by the end of next year and that restrictions on air travel between Russia and Belarus would be lifted.
For his part, Lukashenka may have been seeking to please Putin by saying that Russians and Belarusians are “practically one people.” But he seems to have returned home without giving Putin a deal he could hold out as an achievement ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections on September 17-19.