Strategic choices of Belarus in its region

The Russian relationship remains key

Belarus, situated at the crossroads of Eastern Europe, faces a complex array of strategic options shaped by its geopolitical environment, economic dependencies, and domestic dynamics.

The nation’s strategic alignment has traditionally been oriented towards Russia, underscored by deep economic ties and military cooperation. However, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and increasing Western sanctions on Russia has amplified Belarus’ geopolitical risks. In response, Belarus could explore a diversification of its foreign policy to reduce overreliance on Moscow, potentially seeking closer ties with the European Union or China as alternative partners. Economically, enhancing domestic industries and fostering rising prices could mitigate vulnerabilities from external shocks.

Domestically, President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime must navigate internal dissent and demands for political reform, balancing repression with potential concessions to maintain stability. Thus, Belarus’ strategic options encompass a delicate balancing act between maintaining traditional alliances, exploring new partnerships, and addressing internal political and economic challenges. At the end of April, Belarus revised its Military Doctrine and National Security Concept in response to escalating security threats, regional instability and the military expansions of neighbouring countries.

This strategic update reflects Belarus’ shift in defense posture to address the increasingly volatile geopolitical environment. The Kremlin welcomed these changes, interpreting them as a definitive move away from Minsk’s historically balanced approach towards a more robust alignment with Moscow. This alignment underscores a deepening of military and strategic ties between Belarus and Russia, signalling a unified front in the face of regional challenges.

Belarus and Russia share a long history, dating back to their time as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and the USSR. This shared history has fostered strong cultural and linguistic ties, with Russian widely spoken in Belarus.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin have maintained a strong personal and political alliance. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has often aligned his policies with Moscow’s interests. In 1999, Belarus and Russia signed a treaty to form a Union State, aimed at greater political, economic, and military integration. While the Union State has not fully materialized into a political entity akin to the European Union, it symbolizes the intent for deeper integration.

Russia has provided significant support to Belarus during periods of political unrest. For instance, after the disputed 2020 Belarusian presidential election, Russia backed Lukashenko amid widespread protests and international condemnation. Russia is Belarus’s largest trading partner. The two countries engage in extensive trade, particularly in energy, machinery and agricultural products.

Belarus relies heavily on Russian oil and gas, often receiving these resources at subsidized rates. Russia has frequently provided financial support to Belarus, including loans and debt restructuring, which have been crucial for the Belarusian economy. Belarus and Russia conduct regular joint military exercises, such as the Zapad exercises, showcasing their military cooperation and interoperability. The two countries are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional security alliance.

Belarus also hosts Russian military facilities, including radar and communication centres. Russia has pledged military support to Belarus in case of external threats, reinforcing their strategic military alliance. Both countries have faced sanctions from the West, leading to closer economic and political cooperation as they seek to mitigate the impact of these measures.

Belarus has supported Russia’s stance on the conflict in Ukraine, including allowing Russian forces to use Belarusian territory for logistical and operational purposes. This support has further isolated Belarus from the West but strengthened its dependency on Russia. Cultural exchanges and social ties between the populations of Belarus and Russia remain robust, with shared media, education programs and significant cross-border family connections. The alignment between Belarus and Russia is comprehensive, involving deep political, economic, military and cultural ties. This relationship, while often asymmetrical, with Belarus being more dependent on Russia, reflects a strategic partnership that both nations have cultivated over decades.

Belarus’ regional partnerships are primarily influenced by its strategic orientation towards Russia and post-Soviet alliances which provide economic benefits, security assurances and political support. However, its engagement with the European Union through the Eastern Partnership also illustrates an attempt to balance its foreign relations and explore additional avenues for economic and social development.

Belarus is heavily aligned with Russia through political, military and economic ties. The Union State agreement and various military pacts bind Belarus closely to Russia, limiting its foreign policy autonomy. This alignment with Russia often puts Belarus at odds with the EU’s strategic interests in Eastern Europe.  Belarus is part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, which aims to build a common area of shared values and economic ties between the EU and six Eastern European partners.

However, Belarus’s participation has been limited due to its internal politics and alignment with Russia. The disputed 2020 presidential election and subsequent crackdown on dissent have led to a significant deterioration in EU-Belarus relations. The EU has increased sanctions and support for Belarusian civil society and opposition groups in response.

In 2021, Belarus was accused of orchestrating a migrant crisis at its borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia as retaliation against EU sanctions. This incident further escalated tensions and led to increased EU border security measures and additional sanctions against Belarus.

Significant political reforms or changes in leadership in Belarus could open avenues for improved relations with the EU. Russia’s influence over Belarus remains a critical factor. Any shifts in Russia’s foreign policy or internal dynamics could impact Belarus’s alignment. The EU’s approach to Eastern Europe, particularly in balancing its stance between promoting democratic values and managing security concerns, will shape its future engagement with Belarus.

The CIS is a regional organization formed during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, primarily aimed at fostering cooperation in political, economic, environmental, humanitarian, cultural and other fields among former Soviet republics. Belarus benefits from trade agreements within the CIS, allowing relatively free trade with member states which helps maintain its economy. The CIS provides a platform for coordinating security policies and military cooperation which is critical for Belarus’ defence strategy.

The EAEU is an economic union of states located primarily in northern Eurasia, aiming to achieve greater economic integration. Membership in the EAEU provides Belarus with a common market and unified customs tariffs, facilitating easier and more profitable trade with other member states like Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. The EAEU allows for the free movement of labour, which benefits Belarusian workers seeking employment opportunities within member states.

The CSTO is a military alliance of select post-Soviet states that seeks to ensure collective defence and security cooperation. As a CSTO member, Belarus receives military support and participates in joint military exercises, which bolsters its defence capabilities. The CSTO framework provides mechanisms for responding to regional crises and threats, enhancing Belarus’ security environment.

The Union State of Russia and Belarus is a supranational entity aimed at deepening the political, economic and defense integration between the two countries. Belarus benefits from energy subsidies and financial support from Russia, which is crucial for its economy. The partnership ensures strong political alignment with Russia, influencing Belarus foreign and domestic policies.

The Eastern Partnership is an initiative of the European Union governing its relationship with the post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Although relations with the EU are complex, the EaP provides a platform for dialogue and potential cooperation on various issues, including trade and human rights. Belarus can access development funds and technical assistance from the EU through the EaP, which supports its social and economic development projects.

Belarus’ regional partnerships are primarily influenced by its strategic orientation towards Russia and post-Soviet alliances which provide economic benefits, security assurances and political support. However, its engagement with the European Union through the Eastern Partnership also illustrates an attempt to balance its foreign relations and explore additional avenues for economic and social development.

Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
The writer has a PhD in Political Science and can be reached at [email protected]

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