While the Russian army invades Ukraine, Putin has already quietly taken over another European country

March 5, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

Even as the world condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for his decision to invade Ukraine, the country still has allies elsewhere. Some of these allies are housing thousands of Russian troops.

Last Thursday, Russian forces poured into Ukraine from three directions. From the east and south, they entered from Russia itself, or Russian-claimed territory. But from the north, the Russian army came through Belarus.

Russian troops and military hardware have been trickling into Belarus since Jan. 17, for what were called joint military drills. By February, NATO officials estimated that Russian forces in the country numbered as high as 30,000. Now some officials are warning that the troops may never leave.

Before the invasion, Putin claimed Russian forces in Belarus were there for coordinated military drills, and then maintained his troops in Ukraine were there for a “special military exercise.” The reality, experts tell Fortune, is that Putin is occupying more and more areas of Eastern Europe.

The Russian soldiers in Belarus, escalating tensions with the West, and an unspoken mandate that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko fall in line with everything Putin says, is eroding the country’s sovereignty, experts say.

“This military buildup and increase in military cooperation between Belarus and Russia just shows that Putin has overtaken Belarus,” Alla Leukavets, who researches domestic and foreign policy of Belarus at the Wilson Center, told Fortune. “He has done this soft mode of occupation of Belarus, without firing a single shot.”

Lukashenko and Putin

Putin’s growing influence in Belarus did not start with a training exercise in 2022, and experts say that the country has been in the Russian president’s control for quite some time.

Lukashenko, who has called himself Europe’s “last and only dictator,” has served as president since the office was created in 1994. But after nearly 28 years in the role, he has begun struggling to hold on to power, leading to an increased reliance on Putin’s support.

“[Lukashenko’s terms] were legitimate elections from 1994 until even 2014, at least,” Margarita Balmaceda, professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University, and author of the 2014 book Living the High Life in Minsk: Russian Energy Rents, Domestic Populism and Belarus’ Impending Crisis, told Fortune. For a while, Lukashenko was even able to maintain strong relations with the EU and hold off Putin’s advances to create a more integrated state with Russia, Balmaceda said.

But Belarus has always been dependent on Russia in some way. The two countries are technically a union state, wherein both retain their sovereignty but are otherwise deeply integrated, especially economically. And Belarus’s main economic output for the entirety of its sovereign history has been refining and selling Russian oil, according to Balmaceda.

The deal worked out well for both countries for a while. 

“Russian companies were able to sell or supply oil to Belarus without paying Russian export duties because this was a union state, and then Belarus would be returned those duties, and with that was receiving at least $2 billion to $3 billion per year,” Balmaceda said.

But starting in 2014, the cracks started to show, after global oil prices surged to over $100 a barrel, disrupting Belarus’s delicate economic model, due to rising costs of Russian crude oil imports and Russia reducing its subsidies for imports to Belarus. 

As economic growth slowed, Lukashenko began to rely more on Putin to protect his political position and repress dissent in a turbulent climate. That culminated in Lukashenko’s last electoral victory in the summer of 2020, an election that most observers considered rigged and sparked widespread protests around the country. He reacted aggressively to the protesters, imprisoning thousands of people and subjecting hundreds to torture despite the relatively peaceful nature of the demonstrations, according to the international NGO Human Rights Watch. Since this crackdown, Lukashenko has suffered from a loss of legitimacy and has become even more reliant on Putin and Russia to hold on to his office.

“The presidential elections and postelection protests kind of led to this outcome where Lukashenko is completely dependent on the Kremlin for his survival,” Leukavets said. “And now, this crisis in Ukraine has clearly illustrated how much [Lukashenko is] ready to do in order to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin.”

Putin’s new outpost

Experts say that the Ukraine crisis represents a loyalty test for Lukashenko. 

Putin may have a grand goal in mind—to reclaim as much of the former Soviet Union as possible, “creating a sphere of influence that extends through all of the Eastern European states that joined NATO from the 1990s onwards,” according to a recent analysis by the Financial Times’ Francis Fukuyama. Given Belarus’s growing isolation from the democratic world, Lukashenko had to abide by the Russian president’s commands to maintain a political relationship that keeps him in power.

“Before the political crisis, [Lukashenko] kept emphasizing that Belarus is a neutral country,” Leukavets said. “Now the situation has drastically changed.”

Leukavets believes that Russian militarization in Belarus is a turning point in cementing Lukashenko’s dependent relationship with Putin, and although she acknowledges uncertainty over whether troops will stay in the country, she believes they will.

But Russia’s militarization process in Belarus is not only limited to troops and tanks. 

In September, Russia and Belarus established a joint center near the latter country’s border with Poland. While public information about this center remains scarce, many analysts effectively consider it a military base, Leukavets says. And there could be more of these centers in the future.

“It seems to me that Putin has already overtaken Belarus. Belarus has very much become an extension of the Russian state,” she added.

Whether and to what degree the Russian military will maintain a presence in Belarus is still uncertain, but experts point out Russia has hardly been one to relinquish military outposts in the past.

“It’s almost a law of politics. Once you get Russian troops on your soil, it’s very hard to get them to leave again,” Paul D’Anieri, professor of political science and public policy at the University of California, Riverside, told Fortune.

The tight hold Putin has over Belarus may even be what he envisions for his Ukraine endgame. 

“Success [for Putin] is very simple. He turns Ukraine into Belarus. He turns Ukraine into a subordinate satellite state,” CNN and Washington Post reporter Fareed Zakaria told the New York Times’ Ezra Klein on the latter’s podcast Friday.

Belarus’s isolation

In the aftermath of the allegedly irregular 2020 elections and authorities’ repressive response, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Belarus. As a result, the country has become increasingly isolated from the West. 

“The Belarusian people continually seek to peacefully exercise their basic democratic rights, and the state repeatedly responds with violent crackdowns,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a Treasury Department statement announcing the sanctions in December 2020.

Both the EU and the U.S. have imposed further sanctions in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.

Belarus’s integration with Russia means that Lukashenko may not have the freedom to decouple his country from Putin, as other countries in the West have started to do, as when Germany canceled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was expected to substantially increase natural gas imports from Russia. 

“People in Europe, and especially in Germany, are realizing that their gamble on being dependent on Russian energy has turned out to be a poor gamble,” D’Anieri pointed out.

But Lukashenko hardly has much choice in this matter, as his country is now almost totally dependent on Russian energy. Imports account for 85% of Belarus’s total energy demand, and nearly all of these imports are supplied by Russia, according to an analysis by the International Energy Agency, an energy watchdog organization. That means that Russia’s occupation of Belarus is not only political, it is financial as well.

“I think it is very valid to talk about Russia’s invasion of Belarus in military, economic, and political terms,” Leukavets said.

A referendum to amend Belarus’s constitution took place on Feb. 27, only a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine. The amendments passed, but the vote was widely criticized as fraudulent and irregular by both Belarussian citizens and the opposition government-in-exile. Some of the changes were seen as distinctly pro-Russia, including a move to abandon the country’s nonnuclear status, which would allow Russia to move nuclear weapons closer to the border with Europe and NATO. 

Mass protests ensued as thousands took to the streets and authorities arrested at least 800 people angered by the amendments and the war. 

Leukavets, who is Belarussian, believes that the immediate response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s tightening grip on Belarus from her co-nationals will be one informed by living in a repressive regime. But she is also confident that the country’s desire for democracy will survive the crisis.

“Our population lives in great fear,” Leukavets said. “But even in spite of this fear, on the day of the referendum, people came out and used this event as an opportunity to voice their position against the war in Ukraine.”

“This shows that people have a spirit and a desire for political changes,” she said.

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