Once He Kept Russia at a Distance. Now He Is a Docile Putin Satrap.
MINSK, Belarus — In a winter military coat trimmed with fur, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, stepped out of his white presidential helicopter for a morning of geopolitical theater. His presidential limousine quickly delivered him to his waiting generals, as aides and heavily armed bodyguards fluttered around him, shivering in the icy rain.
The strongman leader of Belarus was visiting a military training site on Thursday, where he watched Russian and Belarusian forces conduct joint exercises, with Sukhoi fighter bombers streaking across the sky and heavy artillery pounding a distant snow-covered target about 100 miles inside of Belarus’s southern border with Ukraine.
Yet on Friday, only a day later, Mr. Lukashenko was sitting meekly in Moscow with President Vladimir V. Putin, no longer the swaggering supreme commander but more an obedient pupil seeking instruction and help from his master.
“I absolutely agree with him,” Mr. Lukashenko said later of Mr. Putin’s assessment that the West was to blame for the crisis enveloping Ukraine — never mind the estimated 190,000 Russian troops encircling the country — and presenting Europe with its gravest security threat since the end of the Cold War.
Throughout most of his nearly 28 years in power, Mr. Lukashenko secured his grip on Belarus by maneuvering adroitly between East and West, playing each side off against the other as he extracted favors from both and resisted pressure from either that threatened his authority.
That game, however, is now over.
On Friday, Mr. Putin greeted Mr. Lukashenko with a hug in the Kremlin and sat down with him for talks at a tiny table, unlike the 20-foot-long table at which the Russian leader has held meetings in recent days with Western leaders after they refused to take Covid-19 tests administered by Kremlin doctors.
For his part, Mr. Lukashenko described Russia and Belarus as not only neighbors and allies, but in many ways, a single nation bound by a determination to keep former Soviet lands from drifting into the orbit of the West.
“The balancing act has clearly ended,” said Ales Michalovich, an opposition presidential candidate in 2010 who has been hounded relentlessly by Mr. Lukashenko’s notoriously vicious security apparatus.
Backed by an expansive and brutal security system, Mr. Lukashenko shows no sign of losing his grip at home, if at the cost of becoming Mr. Putin’s enfeebled satrap.
His near total dependency on the Kremlin began in August 2020, after he declared an implausible landslide victory in a contested presidential election and had to call on Mr. Putin for help in suppressing huge street protests that followed. Russia bolstered his security forces and even provided journalists to fill the ranks of state propaganda organs thinned by mass defections.
Since then, Mr. Lukashenko’s already tight room for maneuver has shrunk further.
His biggest export earner and taxpayer, a giant potash company, this month lost its only export route to foreign markets through a port in neighboring Lithuania, forcing it to turn to Russia for help. He said on Friday after his meeting with Mr. Putin that Belarus, with Russia’s help, would now build a new export port near St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea.
His military, always far weaker than Russia’s, has in recent months lost any semblance of equal standing in its increasingly intimate relations with Russia’s armed forces, according to Western military officials.
“We can no longer make a distinction between the Russian and Belarusian forces,” said Lt. Gen. Valdemaras Rupsys, Lithuania’s defense chief. “Previously only air defenses and air surveillance systems were integrated, and now we observe a systemic integration and subordination of Belarusian forces to Russia.”
Whether Russian troops go home or stay behind after the end of joint military exercises in Belarus on Sunday, General Rupsys added, will not make a difference “because the Belarusian armed forces from now on are subordinated directly to the Russian military’s supreme command.”
Mr. Lukashenko’s previous talk of building bridges between East and West has now been replaced by belligerent tirades against Western leaders. While in Moscow on Friday, he outdid even Mr. Putin in warning of conflict and denouncing unnamed Western politicians as “pathologically dangerous.” Europe, he said, is “on the verge of a conflict that, unfortunately, could pull in, like a funnel, practically the whole continent.”
A volatile and deeply eccentric leader, Mr. Lukashenko has still tried at times to keep his frayed ties to the West from snapping entirely, using his large stock of political prisoners as bargaining chips. This week, for example, he released from jail a Swiss-Belarusian dual citizen, Natalia Hersche, who had been sentenced to 30 months in prison for taking part in postelection protests.
She was released just days after a new Swiss ambassador agreed to present her credentials to Mr. Lukashenko as required by protocol. The United States has refused to take that step because it would mean conferring legitimacy on the disputed election.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken last month ruled out any easing of multiple rounds of sanctions against Belarus until “the authorities cease their relentless repression of the Belarusian people, including by unconditionally releasing all political prisoners.”
Unwilling to do that, Mr. Lukashenko has been left with Russia.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against Mr. Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, claimed victory and then fled into exile, said the president had shrunk to no more than a regional governor of Russia.
“He is very weak and will do anything to buy Putin’s support,” she said in a recent interview in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where she now heads what amounts to a government in exile and where the United States’ would-be ambassador to Minsk is stationed.
On paper, Belarus and Russia have been joined at the hip since the late 1990s, when Russia’s president at the time, Boris Yeltsin, agreed with Mr. Lukashenko to form a so-called union state, an arrangement that the Belarusian leader believed would dominate because Mr. Yeltsin was so weak, besieged by health and grave political problems.
Since Mr. Putin replaced Mr. Yeltsin in the Kremlin on Dec. 31, 1999, however, he has put Mr. Lukashenko in his place, making clear that the stillborn union state needed to be implemented — with Russia, not Belarus, calling the shots.
Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine
A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.
A spike in hostilities. Russia has been gradually building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s messaging toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.
Preventing an invasion. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine. Since then, the United States, NATO and Russia have been engaged in a whirlwind of diplomacy aimed at averting that outcome.
The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s growing military presence on the Ukrainian border was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.
Rising tension. Western countries have tried to maintain a dialogue with Moscow. But the Biden administration warned that the U.S. could throw its weight behind Ukraine in case of an invasion. France, Germany and Poland also warned Russia of consequences if it launched incursions into Ukraine.
At his meeting with Mr. Lukashenko in Moscow on Friday, Mr. Putin said that, after years of delays, “serious progress” was now finally being made in integrating the countries’ economic, political and military systems.
“We have a lot to discuss and to coordinate our stances on a range of issues,” the Russian president said ominously.
After years of resisting pressure from Moscow to recognize Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Lukashenko recently said that Belarus accepted that the Black Sea peninsula was de facto now part of Russia.
As for the status of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which broke away with Russian support in 2014 and declared themselves “republics,” Mr. Lukashenko said on Thursday that he would follow Russia’s lead in how they should be treated.
He is still balking, at least formally, at longstanding demands by Moscow that he let Russia open permanent military bases in Belarus. Speaking this week, he said there was “no need for Russian bases,” if allowing that Russia could leave behind ammunition and military hardware deployed for the current joint exercises. He also said he wanted to expand Russian military training facilities in Belarus and other military cooperation.
“He is still taking some decisions himself, but his decision making process is totally unpredictable. He doesn’t follow any rules, even Russian rules,” said Mr. Michalovic, the opposition candidate.
Any efforts by Mr. Lukashenko to show even a modicum of independence from Russia, however, could easily backfire if Mr. Putin, who is reported to have long tired of Mr. Lukashenko’s games, decides he has had enough and can find a more reliable figure to replace him.
“Putin will use Lukashenko so long as he is malleable” and “performs his functions as a useful idiot,” said Pavel P. Latushko, a former Lukashenko loyalist, now in exile, who served as a Belarusian ambassador and culture minister.
But Mr. Latushko predicted that the Russian leader would drop Mr. Lukashenko “at a convenient moment” because pushing him aside would help rally ordinary Belarusians to Russia’s side and free the Kremlin of the taint of having propped up a deeply unpopular dictator.
“I think this moment is coming,” Mr. Latushko said. “It’s coming very fast.”
Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Sochi, Russia.