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The Emperor Meets The Gamer

  • Brian Whitmore

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Sochi in 2015

Sure, they may be about to hold massive joint military exercises. But they're also arguing about milk, quarreling about customs and border regulations, and squabbling about ports and petroleum exports.

For two countries that are supposed to be allies, who are part of a "union state," and who preparing to showcase their armed forces together in the Zapad 2017 war games, Russia and Belarus sure do seem to be bickering a lot lately.

But then again, that's pretty much par for the course. The close relationship between Moscow and Minsk is actually among the most dysfunctional partnerships in the former Soviet space.

Despite the professions of unity between these two regimes, it is almost entirely a transactional relationship between two wary frenemies -- Vladimir Putin, the would-be emperor, and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the master gamer.

It's an asymmetrical dance between a powerful patron with imperial ambitions that needs to effectively bribe an unruly client to keep it in line, and a wily client willing and able to leverage this to extort as much from its patron as possible.

And as the Zapad 2017 exercises draw near, the relationship increasingly illuminates the limits of the Kremlin's imperial policies in the former Soviet space.

Putin, after all, has long been accused of trying to turn more recalcitrant neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia into doppelgangers of Belarus -- that is, pliant and obedient satellites that will do Moscow's bidding.

Well, guess what? Belarus already is Belarus -- and it's not all that obedient. Keeping Minsk in line has proven to be a huge -- and hugely expensive -- headache for the Kremlin.

Over the course of just four days last week, Putin publicly berated Belarus for exporting refined petroleum products via Latvian and Lithuanian ports rather than Russian ones; Lukashenk lashed out at the conduct of Russian border guards and customs officials for their behavior; and Russia banned some Belarusian dairy products, ostensibly for health and sanitary violations.

And then there's Zapad. Rather than showcasing unity between Minsk and Moscow, the exercises are instead highlighting discord.

Guns, Tanks, And Transparency

Next month's Zapad exercises have long been viewed warily in Belarus, with some suggesting that Russia could use the deployment of troops on Belarusian territory to stage a stealth occupation.

Arseni Sivitski, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, has suggested that Russia may attempt to use them as a pretext "to transform Belarus into an outpost for military confrontation with NATO. Specifically, Russia may use Belarusian territory in order to generate security threats and challenges to the Baltic states."

And Belarus has apparently decided that sunshine is its best defense.

And as the exercises draw near, Minsk appears to be trying to bring at least some level of transparency, both to protect itself and to reassure its Western neighbors that the drills won't be used as a platform for mischief.

Belarus has invited observers from seven countries -- Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway -- to monitor the portion of the Zapad exercises that are taking place on Belarusian territory.

Minsk has also invited representatives of the UN, the OSCE, NATO, the Red Cross, and other international organizations.

Lukashenka has also gone out of his way to assure Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, as well as the Baltic states, that he would not allow Belarusian territory to be used to attack or intimidate their countries.

Chatham House's Kier Giles notes that "Belarus finds itself in the difficult position of being officially an ally of Russia's but not sharing Moscow's antagonism toward the West and wanting instead to remain neutral in the confrontation between Russia and NATO."

Minsk's push for openness, Giles adds, "will also help ensure that Russia does not take the opportunity to deviate from the exercise scenario to launch some kind of unfriendly action."

Russia, on the other hand, appears intent on using the war games as a psyop, seems to be enjoying Western anxiety over the exercises, and has done little to assuage fears Zapad is causing among its neighbors.

Weeks after Belarus announced its intention to invite Western observers, Russia said it would grant some limited access to the portion of the exercises on its territory, allowing military attaches accredited in Moscow to attend a two-day event at the Luga training area in the Western Military District.

As Dzmitry Mitskevich, an analyst at Belarus Security Blog, notes, Russia "benefits from being perceived as a threat" and is "the only regional actor interested in the deterioration of relations between Belarus and the West: It wants to demonstrate its exclusive influence in Belarus and diminish Belarus’s role in the international arena, showing it to be part of the Russian military system."

Ports, Petroleum, And Milk

As Russian troops were arriving in Belarus for Zapad last week, discord between Minsk and Moscow manifested itself in another area, as well -- economics.

Speaking at a transportation conference in Kaliningrad Oblast, Putin delivered a stark message to Minsk.

Belarus, the Kremlin leader said, must stop exporting its refined petroleum products via ports in Latvia and Lithuania and use Russian ports instead.

Andrei Aksenov, an economist and political analyst for the Belarusian NGO Nash Dom told RosBalt that Putin's comments represented "an ultimatum" and that it was "very significant" that he made them "as Russian troops entered Belarus" for Zapad.

Importing Russian oil and then exporting refined petroleum products is, along with the export of potash fertilizers, one of the pillars of the Belarusian economy.

And for the past quarter century, Minsk has been exporting its refined petroleum products via Latvian and Lithuanian ports.

Belarusian officials say this makes sense due to proximity, better infrastructure, and the more advantageous transit tariffs offered by Baltic rail services.

It also fits with Lukashenka's strategy of gaming Moscow's conflict with the West to gain maximum advantage.

Siarhei Bohdan of the Minsk-based Ostrogorski Center notes that "to survive as a sovereign state, Belarus needs good relations with all its neighbors, not just Russia."

The dispute over ports came just months after Moscow and Minsk resolved another dispute over gas prices and the volume of oil deliveries, which Moscow was threatening to cut.

Belarus largely got its way in that dispute, which was resolved in April. And it appears to be standing its ground in the current dispute over the ports.

And so it is not surprising that last week, Russia deployed one of its tried-and-true tactics for pressuring its neighbors: banning the import of some Belarusian dairy products.

And amid all this, Lukashenka used a televised interview last week -- on the Kremlin-controlled Rossiya-24 channel, no less -- to lash out at Moscow, saying that the recent behavior of Russian border guards and customs officials was causing "a loss of trust."

Welcome to the new Russian Empire.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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