Any Russian policy towards Belarus should take into account the following considerations:
- Lukashenko is not an ally or a friend. This does not describe a person who has accepted $100 billion worth of Russian oil/gas subsidies over the past decade, to end up doing military exercises with the Brits while denying Russian an airbase it requested.
- The opposition are not allies or friends – and they don’t pretend to be. But while there are extreme Russophobe “zmagar” elements within them, they are not a dominant strain like they were in the runup to the Euromaidan in Ukraine.
- Considering that by some measures, Belorussians are even more “Russophile” than South-East Ukraine – which would have easily folded into Russia in the absence of the rest of Ukraine in 2014 – the only way in which an anti-Russian oriented Belarus can be maintained long-term is only through another dictatorship.
- The protests seem to be dying down in intensity, though whether this is permanent or not remains to be seen, considering the ham-fisted and gratuitously cruel conduct of the police. Belarus is no Singapore in the sophistication of its dictatorship. Conversely, sticking one’s neck out defending and rationalizing this tars you by association. Why do it – especially when Lukashenko has never given any cause for loyalty from Russia, anyway?
- However, the Belorussian elites do not appear to be fracturing, and so long as that remains the case, the Lukashenko regime can be assured of survival (even if in a weakened state). This means that an overt break in relations is even less desirable.
I reduced these considerations to a “decision matrix” of possible Russian actions and Belorussian outcomes on August 10, and see no need to cardinally revise anything here.
|Lukashenko wins||Opposition wins|
As we see, the “do nothing” option – for the time being – seems like the decidedly superior option to all the others. From the perspective of the Russian would, the best outcome will be a surviving but deeply wounded Lukashenko, internally discredited and externally sanctioned, who will have no choice but to accede to subsequent Russian integration proposals. For this to work smoothly, however, it is also desirable that Belorussians are not alienated by overt Russian profusions of support for their unpopular dictator.
This also seems to be more or less what Official Russia is doing.
On the one hand, the Kremlin recognized Lukashenko’s victory. However, it was not the first to do so (that was China, which has the best relations with Belarus of any major Power). Putin’s message was colder and more curt, emphasizing what Russia now expected of him:
I hope that your state activities will contribute to the further development of mutually beneficial Russian-Belorussian relations in all areas, deepening cooperation within the Union State, building up integration processes through the Eurasian Economic Union and the CIS, as well as military-political ties in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This undoubtedly meets the fundamental interests of the fraternal peoples of Russia and Belarus.
The Russian Foreign Ministry in its public communications has also taken care to discreetly distance from Lukashenko, choosing to instead emphasize ties between peoples, not leaders:
— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) August 13, 2020
Sovietistic formulation aside (Russians & Belorussians are not a brotherly people – they are one people), this is the correct approach.
Incidentally, many influential Russians who are unconstrained by the demands of diplomatic courtesy have been more forthright in their reactions. Konstantin Zatulin, one of the few nationalists within United Russia, has dismissed Lukashenko’s 80% result as a fake and called him a “deranged person.” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the nationalist LDPR party and unconstrained by the demands of diplomatic courtesy, was more forthright, asserting that Lukashenko has “betrayed his people”, that Belorussia has “risen up against him,” and predicting that he will be “forced to flee.” (However, unsurprisingly from a Sovietist, the Communists have supported Lukashenko’s crackdown). A number of Russians who have previously gotten awards of various kinds from Lukashenko have been handing them back in.