The price of dialogues and compromises
|The confrontation in Belarus remains a story with an open end. Alexander Lukashenko’s meeting with Vladimir Putin is only a separate and, it seems, not the most important event in the dramatic times the country has entered.|
However, already today the events give an idea of Russian tactics in the post-Soviet space. It is highly undesirable for Ukraine to ignore this lesson. At first glance, Moscow acts stereotypically and extremely predictably. When Putin promised Lukashenko a $ 1.5 billion loan in Sochi, it’s hard not to remember the $ 15 billion that Putin promised to give Yanukovych – also as a loan – in December 2013. It is easy to see the banal solidarity of dictators who oppose color revolutions, but Moscow is more pragmatic.
To better understand Moscow’s tactics, we should turn to recent history. After the collapse of the USSR, it became clear that the former union republics were not ready to reunite with Russia. Therefore, Moscow began to actively export there the idea of ”mutually beneficial partnership.” Russia refused to openly destroy its newly acquired sovereignty, but sought to keep the republics from natural political drift toward the West. It was not difficult to find arguments, as the economies of the post-Soviet countries depended on Russia. In addition, Moscow managed to find a mutually beneficial consensus with local elites. The latter were also frightened by the rapprochement with the unknown Euro-Atlantic world, and even more attracted by the prospect of remaining in a state of “eternal transition” from a planned to a market economy for as long as possible. The latter allowed elites to take advantage of the market, but also the weakness of the institutions that were to ensure its proper functioning. For the most part, this led to the abandonment of successive reforms and, therefore, made it impossible to modernize national economies. And here the “bonuses” that Russia generously gave to its “partners” in exchange for the fact that they remained in its geopolitical orbit came in handy.
In a political sense, such a vicious consensus inevitably spawned monsters. In this sense, Lukashenko is one of the most viable representatives of this breed. Leonid Kuchma could have evolved in a similar direction if he had dared to stay for a third term. He deliberately looked up to Lukashenko and Yanukovych. The temptation was great, because the “partnership” with Russia retained power even when the curtailment of democratic freedoms led to the severance of relations with the West. However, keeping the former Soviet republics in orbit is far from Moscow’s ultimate goal. Eventually, demands for loyalty began to turn into direct coercion to vassality. The fact that Lukashenko managed to slow down the real creation of the Union State with Russia for almost 20 years is an illusion, because during this time Belarus has become completely dependent on Russia economically. In such cases, time always plays into Moscow’s hands: the longer the country lingers in a state of “partnership with Russia,” the more dependent it becomes on it. Consequently, “bonuses” for geopolitical loyalty turned into a lever of external control. For example, Belarus’ gas transmission system has been under Russian control since 2011.
RUSSIA’S ULTIMATE GOAL IS BY NO MEANS TO SAVE DICTATORS AND STIFLE CIVIL MOVEMENT THROUGHOUT THE POST-SOVIET SPACE. ITS GOAL IS TO MAKE NATIONAL ELITES AS BARGAINING AS POSSIBLE
Ukraine had every chance to follow this path: it is no coincidence that Yanukovych began his presidency by signing the infamous Kharkiv agreements. But the overthrow of Yanukovych does not mean that Ukraine has finally come off a catastrophic trajectory and that the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbass is a “farewell gift” from Moscow, a kind of revenge for our success. Russia not only acts passively, making tempting proposals to national elites, but from time to time tests them for strength, trying to force them into deeper “integration.” For example, Moscow set a test for Lukashenko this year, when the Belarusian dictator needed to carefully prepare for the ritual of his “re-election.” Lukashenko was not only disappointed by the COVID-19 epidemic, which he tried to ignore. Already in the first quarter of 2020, the “preferential” price of Russian gas for Belarus has increased so much that that the main foundation of Lukashenko’s “stability” has been shaken. And in the second quarter, Belarus bought gas even more expensively (!) Than Ukrainian companiessee Week, № 33/2020 ).
By creating problems for Lukashenko, Moscow forced him to be loyal. And the fact that the situation in Belarus is out of control does not contradict Moscow’s strategic goal. In fact, Russia’s ultimate goal is not to save dictators and stifle the civil movement throughout the post-Soviet space. Its goal is to make national elites as negotiable as possible, and how to achieve this is a deeply secondary issue. Yes, Moscow does not currently have a personal or collective Yanukovych in Ukraine who could be blackmailed by political longevity like Lukashenko. But it has many other levers of influence. Yes, Moscow’s “action” in the Verkhovna Rada is by no means golden, but this does not exhaust resources. Suffice it to recall that People’s Deputy Andriy Derkach, as an agent of the Russian secret services, is not exposed by the SBU, but by the US government. What to say about that that Russia keeps Crimea and ORDiLO under occupation, as well as constantly provokes and threatens to escalate hostilities. And Moscow is directing all this arsenal of means to make the current leadership of Ukraine as sensitive as possible to the opinion of the “other side”. That is to take into account in their actions the wishes of Moscow.
Neither Donbass nor even Crimea as such is of interest to Moscow. The Kremlin is also instrumental in supporting dictators and anti-Maidan activists. The fact that Nikol Pashinyan became the Prime Minister of Armenia after the revolution there did not prevent him from shaking Putin’s hand in a few days (by the way, the meeting also took place in Sochi). Moscow’s restrained reaction to the Belarusian protests also suggests that in the course of other developments in Sochi, it was not Lukashenko who could have flown, but, for example, Tikhanousky, Tsapkala or Babaryk. In this sense, the fact that Zelensky is a democratically elected president and has not established an authoritarian regime does not mean that Moscow will not work on him. An encouraging signal for Moscow (and a worrying one for Ukraine) is the incumbent’s commitment to compromise and dialogue with Russia for peace in the Donbas. Dialogue would only make sense if if Russia really had certain interests in the region, which is not true. The latter is evidenced at least by the fact that the Minsk agreements, to which Moscow forced Kyiv in 2014, were not so much about Donbass as about implanting levers of Russian control into the constitutional and state body of Ukraine.
The notion that it is possible to “come together in the middle” with Russia is, in essence, suicidal, even if the government sincerely believes in its effectiveness and seeks to restore sovereignty. Lukashenko’s maneuvering, which many also considered a wise and pragmatic state strategy, ended ingloriously, as the coordinates of his maneuvers were actually set by Moscow.
And so it ended with what was to end. Lukashenko has found himself in the most vulnerable position in 26 years of his rule, and even if he manages to retain power for a while, only as a Russian puppet. The fanatical search for an understanding with Moscow will have the same disastrous consequences for the Ukrainian authorities. And this applies not only to Donbass, but also to the position on Belarus. On September 15, the Verkhovna Rada finally passed a resolution declaring the election in Belarus “neither free nor fair,” condemning the brutality of the security forces, and declaring support for sanctions against Belarusian officials involved in fraud and violence against protesters. But this is not enough: the Ukrainian corner of the Lublin Triangle still remains rounded. At least because Zelensky is still unsure,
However, this is not a diplomatic race with Poland and Lithuania. Ukraine’s proactive position in relations with Russia (even if their subject is Belarus) is a matter of preserving sovereignty. But in order to cease to be the object of Moscow’s formative influence, one must get rid of the superstitious belief that in order to stop Russia’s aggression, one must simply faithfully comply with its demands and avoid anything that irritates it. Yes, you can really “get along” with Moscow. For example, Lukashenko, already driven into a dead end, has already found his “middle ground.” And for us, this middle will not even run along the Seversky Donets, but at best along Zbruch. Because Russia does not need the DNR or even Novorossiya, but the whole of Ukraine.