Will Russia try to occupy Belarus?

Russian President Putin and his colleague from Belarus Alexander Lukashenko
Associated Press
Earlier this year, several public figures sounded that alarm, including former NATO general secretaryAnders Rasmussenand Washington Post columnistAnne Applebaum. That concern clashes with the idea that Belarus isRussias closest ally.
So where did they get that idea[/img]
But is this realistic? A closer look at the evidence suggests that the chances of Putin governing Belarus are slim. While Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka maypublicly saythat the two countries may integrate more, long-term trends show that Belarus is gradually distancing itself from Russia, as Ill explain below.
1. Over the years, Belarus has grown more independent.
Belarusian authorities depend on their alliance with Russia. The economy relies on Russian energy subsidies and discounted oil and gas prices that have saved Belarus more than$100 billionover the last two decades. Belarus also exports half of its goods to Russia.
However, over the years Lukashenka, Belaruss authoritarian ruler, has built a loyal and effective bureaucracy that pursues its own foreign policy interests rather than toeing the Kremlins line. For instance, in 2008, Belarus did not support Russian aggression inGeorgia; more recently, it has remained studiously neutral in Russias conflict withUkraine.

Even Belaruss participation in Russias regional integration projects such as the Union State of Belarus and Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization has been more rhetorical than practical. These projects accomplish little; their member states seek to minimize commitments,taking advantage of these organizations mainly for public appearances and to stay in Russias good graces.
2. Throughout Putins term, Belarus and Russia have consistently had disputes.
As a result, Russia has become dissatisfied with Lukashenka, feeling that he is not loyal and that hes reluctant to support Russias foreign policy. Thats showing up in economic disputes between Moscow and Minsk. As Russiachanges its oil industry regulations, Belarus may be forced to buy Russian crude oil at the competitive global price. That would be a disaster for Belaruss budget costing around $10 billion over the next five years.
Further, in the past few years, Belarus and Russia have hadtrade warsover sugar, oil, milk, potash, airlines, the border, and many other issues. Usually sides argue about the price of energy commodities or access of Belarusian goods to the Russian market. Russia even cut off gas deliveries to Belarus twice in the 2000s, as the Belarusian authorities refused to pay higher prices. Lukashenka described that Russian decision as anact of terrorism, because it left the country without natural gas in minus 20 degrees C.

That said, the two countries have so far always managed to work out a solution. Public conflict is one way that Belarus and Russia negotiate; in two decades Belarus has never signaled it might leave the Kremlins sphere of influence.
3. Belarus still matters for Russia, but the Kremlin has fewer resources to finance Lukashenkas rule.
When Lukashenka assumed power in 1994, a constant stream of Russian energy subsidies allowed the Belarusian economy to grow rapidly. In certain years, energy subsidies accounted for almost20 percent of Belaruss GDP. That share has been dropping. It was only 8 percent in 2018.
Thats in part because Russia has been losing interest in Belarus. For instance, Belarus hosts two Russian military facilities that have lost theircritical importancefor Russia, as military technology has improved and Russia launched a new radar station, thatduplicates functionsof the radar based in Belarus, in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave in Europe. And Russia has less need of Belarus as a transit state: for example, Nord Stream, a gas pipeline launched in 2011, connects Russia directly to Germany, circumventing Belarus.
The Kremlin is also less willing to bankroll Belarus as Russia faces stagnation, with energy prices dropping worldwide. While enacting painful internal reforms, such asraising the retirement age, Russia has been reluctant to finance its ally, burnishing Lukashenkas image as a successful president.

4. Discussion of Russia occupying Belarus is primarily a political trick.
So far, there is no evidence that Russia might attack Belarus. So why does it get discussed in the news media and among political elites?
Becausethis threat is convenientfor many players, who use it as a pretext to pursue their goals. Belarusian officials use the menace of a Russian occupation as a negotiating tacticto delay actingon the human rights demands made by the European Union and United States. Westerners use this possibility topush Belarusto develop closer relationships with Western countries to avoid occupation. Belarusian civil groups use it to motivate the government to decrease Russias influence in the media sphere. Finally, Russian authorities use it to pressure Belarusian authorities during negotiations on such issues as oil deliveries.
If Russia does ever choose to attack Belarus, it wont necessarily triumph. Most of the Belarusian population and elitessupport the countrys independence, and the costs of such attack would undoubtedly be high. And its hard to imagine that Putin could become Union State president with any real power; the past 25 years of Lukashenkas presidency have shown that he is not the type of politician who agrees to share power.

And yet each year, Belarus acts more independently. Russian officials may feel that they need to reimpose control on Belarus now or lose yet another ally.
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