It's not clear what drove Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko to force down a Ryanair passenger jet transiting through his national airspace last month and to kidnap dissident journalist Roman Protasevich from it. But it's clear who's on his side in the resultant outcry: his ambivalent patron Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even as Europe has suspended flights to Belarus, Putin has kept airspace open on the eastern side of the border and threatened retaliatory action against the European Union. The codependent, if unequal, relationship between Minsk and Moscow is now set to deepen, especially after the European Union and United States introduced sweeping new sanctions today.
It first became apparent to me Lukashenko would do anything to retain power when he flew over a crowd I was standing with in a helicopter in August 2020 in Minsk. He was peering out of the doorway with a rifle in hand. Lukashenko may have assumed the European Union was simply feckless and would do nothing or he may no longer have cared about the national airline, the Belarusian economy, or any outside relations bar his situational allies in Moscow. Belavia, the Belarusian national flag carrier, has now been banned from most of its neighbors' airspace and can no longer fly into the EU. It is, in effect, a useless asset.
But renewed isolation is further binding the Lukashenko regime to Russia, which would like nothing more than to tamp down protests and further assimilate the nation while stripping its assets—such as Belaruskali, a potash fertilizer company, or Minsk Tractor Works—at minimum political and economic cost. Two weeks ago, Putin and Lukashenko met for a visibly awkward weekend of socializing aboard a Russian yacht on the Black Sea. The comradely fraternization seemed to have been woodenly feigned on both sides, but the spectacle made the mutual understanding they will sink or swim together obvious.
It was an expensive weekend out on the boat. Every visit Lukashenko pays Moscow or Sochi for the latest tête-à-tête with Putin seems to wind up costing the Russian tax payer a half billion dollars in credits and subsidies. Supporting Lukashenko has also incurred social and diplomatic costs, which have exacerbated tensions with the West. The Kremlin has been willing to countenance—up to a point.
At this point, a certain cavalier disregard seems to have crept in. In less diplomatically heated times, the Kremlin would not have allowed such divisive events to take place immediately before the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where Putin was asked directly about Belarus and responded coolly by acknowledging Belarus had many internal issues and "we are trying to take a neutral position on Belarus." In response to the question of the jailed journalist, he snapped: "You're asking political questions at an economic forum. I don't know Roman Protasevich and don't want to know him."
Annoyance and negative publicity of such public confrontations aside, Moscow continues to see no good alternative to Lukashenko. The example of a popular democratic revolution led by civil society ousting the government—of the sort that has led Russia to likely permanently lose Kyiv—remains the Kremlin's greatest fear. No amount of neutrality declarations from the Belarus democratic opposition movement has been enough to sway such fears. Likewise, Lukashenko knows full well he cannot fully surrender his autonomy to Putin and still remain an independent actor. The fate of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Rostov-on-Don, Russia and will most likely spend the rest of his life as a privileged prisoner in a villa under Russian Federal Security Service guard, was as much a lesson for Lukashenko as it was for Putin.
But Putin doesn't actually want to be stuck with the aged, incompetent, brutal, and increasingly erratic Lukashenko. Every new instance of brutal escalation by his security services further increases Lukashenko's dependence on the Kremlin, which continues to discreetly search for ways to transition away from him on its own terms. Lukashenko's effective deterring of any kind of civil society structures also prevented the foundation and growth of pro-Russian "Russian world" groups Moscow typically uses to leverage its power in post-Soviet societies. The lack of any such useful organizations, associations, or actors on its soil left purposefully barren is the reason for the Kremlin's reluctant backing of Lukashenko—and an underemphasized motivation in his refusal to allow any kind of civil society to take root.
Lukashenko's tight control of the economy is also, in part, aimed at staving off Russian efforts. Belarus's Soviet-style economy, where Minsk continues to control around three quarters of the economy, remains unchanged since Soviet times. Decommunization and privatization never took place in Belarus, and so even as Lukashenko continues to resist the furthering of integration with Russia, he oversees a territory full of assets many in Moscow would like to usurp and redistribute. But he now seems to have overplayed his hand. Increased sectoral sanctions will likely have the effect of having European businesses pivot away from its crucial potash fertilizer production and will further put pressure on the Belarusian industry.
When I interviewed Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius, Lithuania, the day before the plane incident took place, I asked her if she was concerned with Russian capital taking over large parts of Belarus's economy as a part of Lukashenko's payment to Russia for assistance in quelling the revolution. "For 26 years, the closest relationship that Belarus has forged has been with the Russian Federation," she said. "There is nothing bad about the fact that half our trade is with Russia. It is, of course, sad that the Kremlin has supported Lukashenko. He needs this diplomatic support, and he needs to buy it in some fashion as there can be no talk of any actually friendly relations. And what he is selling now in order to keep that support is a huge question to which the people of Belarus have no answer."
Vladislav Davidzon is a writer, journalist, and artist who has reported extensively from Ukraine. He is the chief editor of the Odessa Review.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.