By Mark Trevelyan
(Reuters) – Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has made a political art form of drawing on Kremlin support to keep himself in power for 27 years while seemingly giving little in return.
Now, shunned by the outside world and facing yet more international sanctions, he is more dependent than ever on the backing of President Vladimir Putin – but Moscow has made clear there are lines it will not allow him to cross.
When the European Union accused Belarus this week of mounting a “hybrid attack” by trying to push thousands of Middle Eastern, Afghan and African migrants across the border into Poland, Russia was quick to send nuclear-capable bombers to patrol Belarusian skies and stage joint paratroop drills.
But when asked about a threat by Lukashenko to block the Russian pipeline that carries gas across Belarus to Poland and Germany, the Kremlin’s response on Friday was a clear slap-down.
Lukashenko had not discussed it with Moscow and his words and actions were “not coordinated in any way” with Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said the energy gambit was a typically impulsive attempt by Lukashenko to play the Russia card against the West but without asking Moscow first.
“It’s like a small boy hiding behind the older brother,” Viacorka said in a telephone interview. “Lukashenko is trying to use the Kremlin and to threaten the West with the Kremlin, (but) very often not consulting (over) his statements with it.”
It is not the first time that Lukashenko has tested Putin’s patience.
For decades he has skilfully extracted concessions from Moscow, particularly in the form of cheap energy supplies and state loans. At the same time he has paid lip service to the idea of a “union state” with Russia while keeping it at sufficient arm’s length to avoid giving up Belarusian sovereignty or seeing his own power eroded.
He snubbed a 2015 Russian request to host a military airbase in Belarus, in what Moscow called an “unpleasant episode”. And he has withheld formal Belarusian recognition of Crimea, the territory annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, even while joking with Putin at their most recent meeting this month that he was looking forward to an invitation to go there with him.
Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the RUSI think-tank in London, said Lukashenko had “played quite a weak hand rather well” in dealings with Russia for the past 20 years.
He said the reason for Putin’s continued backing, including in the face of mass protests that threatened to topple Lukashenko last year, was fear of a revolution that could install another pro-Western government next door.
“He doesn’t want to have Lukashenko overthrown by a popular movement that would shift Belarus to the West, like we saw in those so-called ‘colour revolutions’, particularly in Ukraine,” Melvin said. “Putin has to handle that very carefully.”
The present crisis, though, is not without its advantages for Putin.
It has given him the chance to flex Russia’s muscles near the border with NATO at a time when tensions with the alliance are high and Moscow is keen to show it is vigorously defending itself and its allies against what it portrays as aggressive alliance manoeuvres in the Black Sea.
And the potential for the migrant crisis to sow disarray in Europe is in line with Putin’s strategy of challenging and undermining the EU.
“I think destabilisation, conflict in various neighbouring countries in the EU, places like the United Kingdom, is just generally part of (the Kremlin’s) playbook in recent years,” said Olga Onuch, an Eastern Europe specialist at the University of Manchester.
She said Lukashenko could be “a little bit of a loose cannon” while still operating with Moscow’s tacit approval and in line with its objectives.
(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Gareth Jones)