Russian influence in Belarus prior to invasion of Ukraine. Belarus Watch #21

March 2, 2022
Read a new issue of a bi-weekly newsletter with monitoring of Russian activities and influence in Belarus to know more.
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RECENT POLICY DEVELOPMENT

Will Lukashenka follow Putin in recognizing the Ukrainian separatist regions' independence?

In order to make the Russian invasion into the separatist territories in Ukraine appear legitimate, Moscow might decide to use the Belarusian dictator to recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Lugansk and Donetsk People's Republics, as well as Crimea.

On February 17, Putin and Lukashenka discussed the role of Belarus in the Russia-Ukraine conflict in Moscow, during the Belarusian dictator's visit to Russia to observe military exercises. "It is going to be our joint with Putin,source decision," — said Lukashenka, referring to the recognition of the occupied regions in Ukraine by Belarus. Before that, he also confirmed that he would recognize the Crimea and would visit it "as soon as he'll understand there is a need to".

Lukashenka commented on his possible leaving the presidency

"Now we will discuss it with 'older brother' [Putin - ed.] and will decide," — he answered a journalist's question in the press conference after negotiation with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 17.

A journalist from Kommersant news asked Lukashenka, "how does he assess the chances of Belarusian people to lose him?" The answer was quoted by Belarusian state media but was swiftly removed.

CIVIL SOCIETY

Before the vote on the constitutional changes that will push Belarus closer to Russia, the country has been covered by a wave of arrests and politically motivated lay-offs. Tatsiana Sinitsa, a professor of Journalism, has been fired from Belarusian State University and detained for 15 days. Also, professor of Maths and Mathematical Physics of BSU Alena Abrashyna-Zhadajeva and her colleague Maxim Shundalau have been dismissed from their jobs at the University because of their critical position to the authorities.

On the other hand, Governmental Belarusian NGO (GoNGO) like Belarusian Republican Union of Youth and pro-authority Union of Journalists are showing unusual activity. Pro-government NGOs launched several mobilization campaigns, including promoting the Referendum with state media support and attacking opposition leaders who live abroad.

ECONOMY AND ENERGY

Economic sovereignty

Belarus and Russia should actively develop import substitution to strengthen economic sovereignty, Vladimir Putin believes. "Today, it is important for us to raise the level of our economic sovereignty and be more capable, modern, give new impetus to the development of modern areas of the economy. These are digitalization, artificial intelligence, genetics, and so on. And the integration processes that we are engaged in are devoted precisely to this. The task is to increase our competitiveness," the Russian leader noted.

Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, trade between the Russian Federation and Belarus is growing. "In 2021, trade increased by more than a third — 34.4% — and grew to a significant amount — $38.5 billion USD," Putin said at a joint press conference following talks with Alexander Lukashenka. Putin noted that about half of all products manufactured in Belarus are exported to Russia. In turn, the Russian Federation is one of the leaders in investment in the real sector of the economy of Belarus, he added.

In 2021, foreign investments totalled $8.7 billion USD in the real sector of the economy. The main investors were business entities of the Russian Federation (42.6% of all investments received), Ukraine (15.2%) and Cyprus (13.9%). The inflow of foreign direct investment amounted to $6.6 billion USD, or 75.4% of all incoming foreign investment. Investments from the Republic of Belarus abroad totalled $5.9 billion USD in 2021. Belarus invested mostly in the Russian Federation (80.1% of all directed investments), Ukraine (4.9%) and Cyprus (2.4%). The share of direct investments accounted for 93.7% of all foreign investments.

Energy

The Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Belarus said that the first unit of the nuclear power plant accounted for 14% of the increase in Belarusian GDP last year. He stressed the importance of the common electricity market of the two countries. "Serious preferences were also given to Belarus in the field of gas supplies. After all, the price of gas at which these products were supplied in 2021 was $128.5 per thousand cubic meters of gas, and if we take the spot price in the markets, for example, in the Netherlands, it was from $230 to $1,900 per thousand cubic meters. We see that the economy of Belarus is based on the price of gas supplied to Belarus, which is about 10 billion and even more cubic meters, 10 billion for six months of 2021. Therefore, products manufactured in Belarus become competitive. This is very important," he said in an interview with Russia 24.

Logistics

A port for trans-shipment of Belarusian fertilizers will be built in the Leningrad Region, Alexander Lukashenka said at a press conference following talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lukashenka confirmed that Mr. Putin ordered the construction of the facility at his request. "I asked the Russians to help us: there was no red tape, no bureaucracy. It's not about money, there is money for it, so that we can build our own port in our homeland near St. Petersburg and trans-ship millions of tons of cargo there. In my presence, orders were given to start this construction immediately," Mr. Lukashenka said. "Billions of tones of potash fertilizers and goods will be shipped sanctions-busting there," he said. Belaruskaliis is an industry leader close to the Lukashenka enterprise, and is suffering from US sanctions. Lithuania can refuse to provide transit of Belarusian potash fertilizers by its territory to shipment in the Klaipeda's port at any time. That would result in a collapse of the business that covers 8-10% of the budget of Belarus.

The PortNews news agency sent a request to the administration of the Leningrad region asking for an update on developments on the Belarusian terminal in the Russian port. The response was: the possibility of building a port terminal in the Leningrad region by Belarusian companies was discussed in 2021, but no final decision on the implementation of the project was made; this year, the Belarusian side did not take the initiative to build port facilities.

Banks

The governments of Russia and Belarus are finalizing the draft agreement on the mutual recognition of bank guarantees in public procurement. This was announced on Tuesday, February 15 by Deputy State Secretary of the Union State Vladimir Amarin. According to him, the introduction of uniform rules for access to state orders and public procurement will ensure equal access to them and eliminate existing restrictions. "The dovetailing of the draft agreement between the government of the Republic of Belarus and the government of the Russian Federation on the mutual recognition of bank guarantees in the implementation of state and municipal purchases is nearing completion," Amarin said. He did not specify the timing of completion of the agreement.

Finance

Russia sees the need to support the refinancing of Belarus' debts to external creditors, primarily of the Russian Federation, and is ready to consider proposals from the Belarusian side. This was stated by Finance Minister Anton Siluanov at a briefing on February 16, 2022. Siluanov noted that, first of all, the two sides can talk about refinancing the body of debt to Russia and the EFSD to the amount of about $1 billion a year. "This year, the obligations for the principal debt, for the body of the debt, to the Russian Federation and to the Eurasian Order Fund, are just below $1 billion. And we are working here with our Belarusian partners to assist in refinancing these debt obligations through credit interaction with our neighbor and partner," he said. In December 2021, First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Snopkov stated that against the backdrop of Western sanctions, the Belarusian government is working on a program with the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development with the allocation of a loan from the Russian Federation with a total amount of requested funds amounting to $3.5 billion for the purposes of refinancing of public debt.

Trade turnover

Belarusian trade with Russia and China went negative by 10.5 billion USD in 2021. The balance of deliveries from the Russian Federation and China worsened by $4.2 billion in 2021 compared to the previous year. Belarus' foreign trade with other countries consists of exports and imports. At the end of 2021, the Russian Federation took the first place in terms of the turnover of goods with the Republic of Belarus, with China taking third place. In 2021, the largest negative balance of commodity trade was formed with Russia — minus $7.268 billion USD. Compared to 2020, the balance for Belarus worsened by $3.9 billion USD. The fall in the balance of trade with the Russian Federation was due to the outstripping growth of imports of goods from Russia. According to Belstat, for 2021, Russian imports jumped by 43.3%, while Belarusian exports grew by 24.6%.

MEDIA

February 18, 2022 State Secretary of the Union State of Belarus and Russia Dmitry Mezentsev saidthat a new publishing project "Library of the Union State" will be launched this year. He explained that we are talking about the task of protecting historical memory, and here the position of the heads of Belarus and Russia is unchanged and unified. The Secretary of State noted that it is planned to highlight a number of iconic historical figures and historical events, including "telling in detail about the partisan movement on the territory of Belarus and the European part of Russia, and more carefully returning to the feat of the soldiers of the war of 1812."

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Putin and Lukashenka supervising Russian nuclear forces

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka supervised the strategic exercise of the Russian nuclear forces on February 19. Several days before, Lukashenka announced that Belarus was ready to host the Russian nuclear and "super nuclear weapons" in case of a Western threat. In this way, Putin and Lukashenka seriously intensify their nuclear blackmail of the West in a situation of unprecedented military escalation on the Ukrainian borders.

Lukashenka asks for more Russian weapons

Before his visit to Moscow (February 18-19, 2022), Lukashenka informed the media about his plan to acquire more Russian weapons. He came up with an initiative to set up the Iskander training center in Belarus in order to teach the Belarusian military personnel how to use these weapons. Lukashenka also spoke about a possible deployment of the S-400 missile complex near Minsk. In this way, Lukashenka hopes to receive from Russia these newest weapons.

"Prolongation" of the Union Resolve drill

But on February 20, when the Belarusian-Russian Union Resolve exercise was officially planned to end, the Belarusian Defense Minister Viktar Khrenin announced that the "testing" of the joint forces would continue "due to increased military activities along the borders of the Union State". In this way, it appears that the Russian troops will continue staying in Belarus under the excuse of an inspection" of the Union State military forces. According to the Belarusian Army, this "inspection" will last as long as the political leadership of Russia and Belarus decides.

Russian troops staying in Belarus

For the first time in post-Soviet history, Russian troops have remained on the Belarusian territory after the formal end of the joint military exercises. Before, the Belarusian and Russian officials ensured that the Russian forces would be withdrawn from Belarus after the end of the drill. On February 16, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei stated that "not a single Russian soldier would stay in Belarus" after the drill. On February 17, Putin's Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov also spoke about the complete withdrawal of the Russian units from Belarus upon the completion of exercises. Despite these statements, before his visit to Moscow, Lukashenka announced that the Russian troops would stay in Belarus "as long as it is necessary".

At the present moment, it is clear that even if the Russian units leave Belarus in the nearest weeks, they may quickly return to this country at any time in future.

February 20, 2022 as the beginning of the direct Russian military occupation of Belarus

It is possible to claim that the Kremlin started the direct military occupation of Belarus on February 20. As it appears, the Russian troops may stay in this country for an indefinite period of time even without having a formal excuse such as joint military exercises. Moreover, on February 20, the Belarusian Defense Minister spoke about the establishment of the "joint grouping of troops" in order to resist external threats. This "joint grouping" may result in significant progress in the incorporation of the Belarusian Army into the Russian military machine. From now on, the Russian Army may explain its presence in Belarus not with official military exercises but with the activities within the "joint grouping of troops" with Belarus.

In this way, Lukashenka might have fully lost his control over strategic military issues in Belarus. It seems that the Kremlin is already able to take all the key security decisions involving Belarus even without asking Lukashenka for his formal agreement. In this way, Belarus may not only stay under the Russian military occupation, but it may be dragged by Moscow into large-scale aggression against Ukraine.

The direct military threat to Kyiv from the Belarusian territory

The official end of the Union Resolve drill may result in further strengthening of the Russian Army grouping deployed in the Homel region of Belarus, which poses a direct military threat to the Ukrainian capital. The Union Resolve drill took place at the training grounds in western and central parts of Belarus, which are situated relatively far away from the Ukrainian border. After the end of this exercise, the Russian units may be deployed much closer to Ukraine in order to intensify the Russian military pressure against this country. Besides Ukraine, the Russian grouping in Belarus is a serious security threat for Poland and the Baltic states.

Belarusian Constitutional Referendum under the "supervision" of the Russian Army

The upcoming Constitutional Referendum in Belarus (February 27) will take place in conditions of unprecedented Russian military presence in this country. The large-scale presence of the Russian Army in Belarus is the ultimate guarantee for Putin and Lukashenka that the "voting" will take place without any public protests and unpredictable political developments. This "referendum" will be already the second public vote in the region organized under the "supervision" of the Russian Army after the Crimean "referendum" in March 2014.

Referendum on the Belarusian Constitution changes: Macron warned Putin against nuclear weapon placement in Belarus

Emmanuel Macron visited Russia on February 7 intending to de-escalate tensions in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Presidents discussed the situation with Belarus and the upcoming referendum of constitutional amendments. The new version of the Constitution would exclude the Art. 18 where it is mentioned that Belarus "set the goal to make its territory a nuclear-free zone and strive to the neutral status of the State". It concerns European countries since it can mean open doors to host Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. At the meeting in Moscow, Putin ensured Macron that nuclear weapons would not be placed in Belarus.

The vote on the new Constitution is scheduled to be held on February 27. The campaign will be conducted in a highly repressive climate and total state control of the voting procedure.

Belarus get involved by Russia in the conflict in Syria because of the Union State military agreements

Belarusian military personnel is supposed to be sent to Syria in the context of Russian war activities in the region. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on February 7 said an agreement will be signed with Belarus on this matter.

The decision has to be approved by the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. However, the news about 200 Belarusian troops to serve alongside Russia in Syria has been widely spread by world-leading media and criticized by Svetlana Tsikhanovskaja, the Belarusian opposition leader who lives abroad.

Aliaksandar Lukashenka reacted to the news about sending Belarusian troops to Syria calling it a fake. "We have nothing to do there," — Belarusian authoritarian leader said.


This newsletter does not reflect the current situation in Ukraine and Belarus. Instead, it summarizes the situation before the invasion and can serve as a helpful tool to assess how the relationship between Belarus and Russia in recent weeks may have impacted the Russian position towards Ukraine now. We encourage our followers to stand with Ukraine and help in the ways that are possible. #StandWithUkraine

Belarus Watch Team

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