MOSCOW – He may be the Kremlin’s closest ally, but his loyalty remains in doubt.
When Alexander G. Lukashenko, the eccentric and brutal leader of Belarus, Forced to shoot down a European airliner On Sunday, the arrest of an opponent, he ushered in a new and more fragile phase in one of the most complex and influential relationships in the post-Soviet region: the relationship between Mr. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two are increasingly leaning on each other in the face of conflict with the West, but they have sharply divergent interests. Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled for 26 years, is relying on his iron grip on his country to ensure his survival. Mr. Putin wants to expand Russian influence in Belarus, and to undermine Mr. Lukashenko’s authority in the process.
Now, as the summit meeting with President Biden approaches in June, Putin faces a choice about how much political capital to spend to continue supporting Mr. Lukashenko, whose control of Ryanair has complicated the Kremlin’s efforts to calm ties with the West. . Russian officials and pro-Kremlin news outlets have taken Mr. Lukashenko’s side in outrage, but key Belarusian opponents of Mr. Lukashenko believe that Kremlin’s support is just a skin deep.
“In the Russian Foreign Ministry, in the Kremlin, I think people cannot stand Lukashenko,” Franak Vyakorka, a senior adviser to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tekanovskaya, said in a phone interview. “But at the same time, since there is no one else loyal to Russia, they would rather keep Lukashenko for the time being.”
Some Western politicians, such as Senator Ben Sassi, a Republican from Nebraska, have called for sanctions against Russia over the Ryanair incident. “Do not use the bathroom without asking Moscow’s permission,” Senator Lukashenko said on Monday.
Lukashenko’s Belarusian critics say the reality is more complex. In a flurry of diplomacy this week, Belarus’ opposition urged Western governments to remain focused on Minsk – not Moscow – in their response, insisting that Mr. Lukashenko should not be seen as Mr. Putin’s puppet.
“Lukashenko does not listen to anyone,” said Mr. Vyakorka, dismissing the notion that the governor must have sought Kremlin permission before forcing the Ryanair plane to land. “He is a very unpredictable person. Rather, he is a somewhat impulsive person.”
Belarus is a country of 9.5 million people only the size of Michigan, but for Putin, it is an important ally and a huge headache at the same time. In Mr Putin’s worldview of Russia threatened by an expanding and aggressive NATO, Belarus is the last remaining friendly buffer state between his country and the West. In recognition of his own role, Mr. Lukashenko took advantage of that for years by playing Russia and the West against each other – demanding cheap oil and gas from Russia even as he began building closer ties with the European Union and the United States.
Then came the uprising against Lukashenko last summer, when the demonstrations that began in protest against the ruler’s scandalous fraudulent demand for re-election swelled to hundreds of thousands in anger over police violence against protesters. The Kremlin wavered at first, then threw its support behind Mr. Lukashenko, even offering to send in security forces.
Russian officials appeared to be similarly surprised by the events that occurred on Sunday, when Lukashenko sped up with a fighter plane and directed a Ryanair airliner flying between two European Union capitals to land in Minsk due to an alleged bomb threat. Then the Belarusian security forces arrested a defected journalist on board the ship. Roman Protasevic – He was on the Belarusian “terrorists” list because he participated in establishing a social media outlet that led to the mobilization and organization of last year’s protests.
On Monday, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, told reporters in his regular daily briefing that he could not comment on the Ryanair incident. “It is up to the international authorities to assess the issue,” he said.
The Kremlin took another 24 hours to craft its final message. Peskov said on Tuesday that Belarus’s actions “are in line with international regulations.”
By Wednesday, Lukashenko called for Russia’s sympathy. Repeating his repeated descriptions of the domestic uprising against him as a Western conspiracy, Mr. Lukashenko claimed that the real aim was to lay the foundation for a revolution within Russia. And he warned in a speech before Parliament that the result might be a “new world war.”
“We are a training ground for them, and a place for experiments before they rush east,” said Mr. Lukashenko. “After testing their methods here, they’ll head over there.”
European airlines canceled their flights to Minsk this week. As directed by the leaders of the European Union Those who expressed their anger at what they described as “the kidnapping of Mr. Lukashenko.” But Mr. Lukashenko was speaking in a marble-covered hall of the Minsk State Council, defiant, claiming that a bomb threat on the plane had arrived from Switzerland.
“do not blame me!” Mr. Lukashenko thundered, waving his finger in the air. “I have acted legally in defense of my people, and will be so in the future.”
In Moscow, Mr. Lukashenko is widely seen as a frustrated and fickle partner. Despite its dependence on the Kremlin, for example, it has yet to acknowledge the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which many Russians regard as Putin’s crowning in foreign policy.
“It is a huge mistake to think that Moscow can knock its fingers to solve its problems in Minsk,” said Pavel Slonkin, a former Belarusian diplomat who resigned last year in protest against Lukashenko’s policies. “Lukashenko will try to avoid further dependence on Moscow in every possible way.”
Andrei Kortonov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow research institute co-founded by the Russian Foreign Ministry, likened Mr Lukashenko to Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, another tough Kremlin ally.
After Russia supported Lukashenko in his hour of need last summer, the Kremlin’s long-awaited benefits were expected. Mr. Lukashenko could have signed an agreement to establish a Russian military base in Belarus or allowed Russian investment in major Belarusian companies on favorable terms. But despite three direct meetings between Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Putin since last September – the fourth meeting is expected in the coming days – none of this has materialized.
“You thought the system was saved, and it should have paid,” said Mr. Kortonov of Mr. Lukashenko. “But we don’t see that.”
Kurtunov warned that continuing to support Lukashenko could prove costly to Mr. Putin. As Mr. Putin prepares for a summit meeting with President Biden scheduled to take place in Geneva on June 16, Russian officials have sent a cable that they want to reduce tensions with the United States. One factor is domestic politics: Amid the protests and discontent over the economic recession, the Kremlin faces a general rejection of foreign adventures.
Describing Putin’s approach, Mr. Kortonov said: “The social contract of“ We will not give you a sausage, but we will make Russia a great power ”- it is no longer viable.” He understands that he needs to change the agenda. He will no longer win foreign policy. “
Lukashenko’s opponents are now pushing the United States and Europe to impose more sanctions against Belarus that would increase his isolation and potentially foment a split in the elite. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the opposition, spent nearly 40 minutes on the phone earlier this week with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, and her aide, Mr. Vyakorka.
“When the Belarus issue is discussed in the context of the Russian issue, it becomes impossible to resolve it,” said Mr. Vyakorka.