2022: The Union State went to war
The Russian-Ukrainian war and the change in the geopolitical status of Belarus constitute one of the most striking realignments of the situation in Eastern Europe over the past three decades. The transformation of Belarus into a Russian military-strategic platform is one of the most obvious aspects of the current situation, alongside Russia becoming the primary transit conduit for Belarusian goods. Belarus’ increasing dependence on Russia is quite obvious, and the counter perspective is positively amusing: a vast country ends up depending on a small one as its only ally. The final outcome has yet to be determined. Much – if not all – will depend on the success of the Ukrainian army in the winter and spring military campaigns of 2023.
Following a short “peacekeeping” operation under the auspices of the CSTO in Kazakhstan at the beginning of 2022, the Russian and Belarusian leaders were playing war games; however, the decision to invade was not apparent when the “Allied Resolve” military exercises began on February 1st. The preparations of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border were noted by Western intelligence, as was Lukashenka’s rhetoric about returning Ukraine to the “bosom of true faith”, but many military experts assessed the likelihood of a Russian attack on Ukraine as low. The war began “unexpectedly” – in the sense that almost all wars start this way – suddenly.
From the very beginning, the “special military operation”, characterised by Lukashenka as “preventive”, defined the basis of Belarusian-Russian relations rigidly and unambiguously.
First, Belarus was nominated as Russia’s most loyal and consistent ally in its attempts to build a “Russian world.” From the territory of Belarus, missiles were launched at the cities of Ukraine, and Belarusian military-strategic infrastructure was utilised by Moscow at will, mostly without coordination with Minsk.
In exchange, the Belarusian regime, under pressure from Western sanctions, ensured continuing economic, political, and moral support from the Kremlin. Given the exigencies of warfare, economic support in monetary terms was somewhat reduced. To address financial issues, Lukashenka travelled to Russia at least ten times and hosted Russian governors and other high-ranking officials in Minsk even more frequently.
Issues of political reform, perceived by many as critical (including in the context of Russian-Belarusian relations), faded into the background as the “special military operation” took centre stage. All external players, including Russia, forgot about the referendum held in Belarus on February 27th.
Belarus’ status as a trouble-free transit zone is finished. Most Belarusian exports, including petroleum products and potash fertilisers, have been redirected to the east. The vast expanses of Russia now replace Belarus’s small and convenient territory as the conduit for delivery to end users. The numerous meetings between Lukashenka and officials from Russian port cities (Primorsky Krai, Murmansk, Leningrad Region, etc.) testify to this. Exports to the Russian Federation by the end of 2022 are likely to constitute an absolute record, exceeding USD 20 billion (typically, USD 12-13 billion per year). However, analysts from the Eurasian Development Bank note that these metrics are supported by exchange rates and do not correlate with the physical shipment volumes.
Against this background, 28 economic integration programs, pompously ratified by Lukashenka and Putin in November 2021, naturally faded into the background and mutated into urgent import substitution in response to Western sanctions. Almost nothing was heard about the union programs in 2022, although in November, several high-ranking officials said they were 50% ready.
However, everyone from heads of state to deputy ministers discussed import substitution at every opportunity. A loan of RYB 105 billion from Russia to Belarus was agreed upon to facilitate this strategy, enabling the replacement of critical imports in most sectors of the “union state”, including the agro-industrial complex, food industry, pharmaceuticals, the automotive industry, machine tools, the IT sector, and even space research.
An impressive number of projects have been announced, though none have delivered tangible results yet, prompting Lukashenka to report a slowdown in the implementation of import substitution. In contrast to the replacement of critical exports, transit export substitution is developing rapidly – with impressive distances to Russian port terminals: about 800 km to St. Petersburg, 1650 km to Azov, 2150 km to Murmansk, and 9950 km to Vladivostok.
However, it cannot be argued that nothing has been achieved in the “union building” field. On the contrary, in 2022, Belarus and Russia concluded many deals and departmental and intergovernmental agreements. In particular, the draft Treaty on the General Principles of Taxation on Indirect Taxes (VAT and Excise Taxes) between Russia and Belarus was adopted. Moreover, a transition to the use of the Russian rouble in mutual settlements was announced, and the distribution of import duties on the external border of the EAEU was settled. However, there was no word from either side about a single currency.
Belarusian-Russian relations can develop quite successfully without the “union state“ political programme”. Integrated institutions remain fiction, while presidential dictatorship remains all too real. Consequently, no decisions about “integrated”, “union”, or “single” (such as a customs space) can be made without the personal approval of Lukashenka and Putin.
One of the most discussed topics of 2022 was the possibility of Belarus’ direct involvement in the Russian adventure in Ukraine. According to many experts and politicians, Putin is exerting severe pressure on Lukashenka. Do the two dictators want to deploy Belarusian troops to Ukraine? Do they disagree about this?
There was much less debate about whether such a step would be feasible. By the end of 2022, Russian losses in Ukraine amounted to at least double the strength of the Belarusian army in personnel terms and three or four times in terms of equipment. According to the Treaty on the Limitation of Conventional Arms, the defensive potential of the Belarusian army amounts to 100 thousand servicemen, 1800 tanks, 2600 armoured vehicles, 1615 artillery systems, and 260 aircraft. The economy of Belarus is simply unable to maintain this load, so the offensive potential of the Belarusian Armed Forces is limited.
How can Belarus assist Russia’s military aggression?
- Artillery support (shelling of Ukrainian cities).
- Riot police with shields and batons.
This means that the format of any Belarusian participation in the “special military operation” depends entirely on the course of the hostilities in Ukraine.
Forecasts for 2023
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