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The Zapad Hangover

The party didn't go so well. And now comes the hangover.
The party didn't go so well. And now comes the hangover.

The emperor sees the relationship as imperial. But the gamer views it as transactional.

The emperor expects unconditional loyalty. The gamer takes his money, professes fealty, but then does pretty much as he pleases.

It's a strange alliance that often resembles a dysfunctional marriage -- one that has survived on co-dependency, mutual convenience, and inertia.

It has lasted for more than 17 years, but whether it will survive into its third decade is anybody's guess.

If there is one thing that last month's Zapad 2017 military exercises clearly illustrated, it was that the so-called strategic partnership between Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin and Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka is coming under increased strain.

As Fredrik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson wrote in a recent report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Putin had intended to use Zapad as "a case of Russian heavy metal diplomacy" that aimed "to signal Russia’s military might to NATO and to keep its immediate neighbors on edge."

But while the Kremlin saw Zapad as a big psy-op to intimidate Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine, Belarus wasn't interested in a conflict with the West.

And Lukashenka appeared to go out of his way to rain on Putin's military parade.

"Moscow had long insisted on the offensive character of the exercises, Belarus had nevertheless invited several international observers, especially those from Ukraine, without coordination with Russia," Grigory Ioffe wrote in the Jamestown Foundation's Daily Monitor.

And by most accounts, the Kremlin wasn't pleased.

Snubs And Counter-Snubs

Strikingly, neither Putin nor Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Belarus during the exercises.

Russian military commanders also did not stay for a ceremonial dinner after the drills.

For his part, Lukashenka returned the snub, cancelling plans to make a joint appearance with Putin at a Russian military installation.

Moreover, almost immediately after the Zapad exercises concluded, Lukashenka publicly stressed his desire to improve relations with the West.

And this week, reports emerged that for the first time the European Union intended to invite the Belarusian leader to participate fully in the bloc's Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels on November 24 "without restrictions."

As Wesslau and Wilson note, "Minsk has been testing the limits of how far it can distance itself from Moscow and rebuild relations with the West."

The tension over Zapad was just the latest -- and most dramatic -- manifestation of this test.

By most accounts, Putin and Lukashenka don't care much for each other -- but they do need each other.

Lukashenka needs subsidies from Russia in the form of cheap energy imports that allow him to keep his Soviet-style command economy afloat. And an increasingly isolated Putin badly needs reliable allies, particularly to the West.

But each also wants more than the other is prepared to give.

Putin wants to cut back Russia's subsidies to Belarus, but still demands unconditional loyalty and gets deeply suspicious when Minsk seeks investment from the West.

And Lukashenka wants the Russian subsidies to flow even as he flirts with Europe and seeks to maintain an independent course in foreign affairs.

So, has Lukashenka gone too far? And what will Moscow do about it?

'Still A Dictator'

Lukashenka is scheduled to attend this week's summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Sochi, where TASS reports that a one-on-one meeting with Putin is possible.

Whether a bilateral meeting happens or not, the optics of any Putin-Lukashenka interaction at the CIS summit should be quite telling.

Vilnius-based political analyst Jan Jacek Komar told Charter 97 that he had been told by multiple sources that the Kremlin was increasingly looking to replace Lukashenka "with a younger and more loyal politician."

Moreover, a well-connected Belarusian political analyst has told me that Lukashenka suspects this is the case and is considering a restructuring of the security services to root out and diminish the power of pro-Moscow elements.

And as tensions with Moscow become more acute, the Belarusian ruling elite is becoming fractured.

A faction of technocrats including Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey, Security Council Secretary Stanislau Zas, and Deputy Prime Minister Vasil Matsyusheuski is pushing economic reform to reduce Minsk's dependency on Russia.

Another group, led by Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich and KGB Chairman Valery Vakulchyk remain staunchly pro-Moscow.

Russian media, meanwhile, have been increasingly attacking Makey as a malignant pro-European influence on Lukashenka who could turn Belarus into a "second Ukraine."

Nevertheless, Lukashenka's estrangement from Moscow and his flirtation with the West can only go so far.

As Wesslau and Wilson note, "Lukashenka is still a dictator and his priority is his own survival."

They add that Lukashenka "is not about to break with Russia" and that Moscow is unlikely to "depose him or destabilize Belarus unnecessarily."

But the Zapad exercises, which were supposed to illustrate strategic unity between Russia and Belarus amid Moscow's escalating conflict with the West, instead highlighted how troubled this partnership has become.

The party didn't quite go as well as planned. And now comes the hangover.

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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