With an ambiguous ally, Minsk reaches out in all directions
Lukashenka has made an apparent effort to dissociate himself from Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and suggests the West compromise with Putin. In parallel, a second negotiating tactic is to be employed: Belarus intends to vary agreements on the supply of Russian gas and the activities of Beltransgaz.
On May 3rd, Putin and Lukashenka discussed several bilateral issues and the general situation of hostilities in the Donbas by telephone. The Kremlin’s official statement refers to a mutual intention to strengthen Russian-Belarusian partnership and alliance relations. A “mutual intention” is apparently the current substitute for progress on the “union programs”, ratified by decree in early November 2021. There has been no tangible progress following this, with long-term construction of the “union” left to questions of intent.
The Belarusian leadership has finally made a somewhat credible bid for geopolitical independence, disassociating itself from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and even floating the idea of a peacekeeping initiative to mollify Ukraine, the West, and the “evil” Putin. This is a bold step considering the current perception of Lukashenka abroad. At a minimum, Minsk evidently expects full inclusion in the post-war settlement process.
In a confusing and contradictory (as usual) interview with the Associated Press (AP), Lukashenka stressed that “this operation has dragged on” and claimed not to know whether the fighting was going according to plan, as Russia claims because he is “not sufficiently immersed in the topic.” Lukashenka also tried to convince the public that he was making every effort to stop the war.
From Lukashenka’s speech, it follows that the Belarusian leadership has no confidence that Russia will prevail over Ukraine and has severe misgivings about the collateral effects of the war, particularly in the economic sphere. The regime would prefer to revert to the status quo antebellum, as far as possible, restoring Belarusian “neutrality.”
Commenting on Lukashenka’s allegation that the “special operation” has encountered delays, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted: “The operation is going according to plan.”
Meanwhile, the Belarusian leadership decided to restore some order in relations with Gazprom. On May 6th, Lukashenko criticised Gazprom’s protracted office construction works in central Minsk and resolved to raise the issue with Putin as Belarusian security forces detained several senior employees of Gazprom Transgaz Belarus.
Lukashenka also signed draft protocols on amendments to the intergovernmental agreements between Belarus and Russia on November 25th, 2011. Decree No. 166 concerns amendments to the agreement on tariffs for the supply and trans-shipment of gas to Belarus. Decree No. 167 approves the draft protocol on amendments to the intergovernmental agreement on the terms of purchase and sale of shares and activities of Beltransgaz OJSC. The Government has been instructed to hold talks on these amendments.
Belarusian actions regarding gas prices and tariffs are not unexpected. The cessation of gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria reduces transit revenues, and Minsk is counting on some kind of “compensation”.
Decree No. 167, concerning amendments to the agreement on the sale of Beltransgaz shares to Gazprom, is more mysterious. The text of the decree does not explain its purpose; however, it stipulates that the changes are not fundamental. It is probably a reaction to changes in the parent company’s activities. Gazprom became the first entity to delist from Western exchanges following legislative amendments in Russia.
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Situation in Belarus