I’ve talked about the Baltic republics, and Ukraine before – their governments, and to a large extent their people – are anxious to make alliances to the West, join NATO, join the EU. It’s notable that of the former eastern bloc countries, the Baltic states that once were part of the Soviet Union, occupied by the Soviet Union they would say, have been the most anxious to integrate with the west, joining NATO and the EU, and adopting the euro currency as soon as they were permitted to do so.
You don’t really have to be a cynic to realize that they were doing this not so much out of love of the west as fear of the east. Joining NATO allowed them to access its common defense commitment. That means that an attack on one is an attack on all, to which all must respond.
In short, that means that any invasion by Russia of the Baltic States is deterred by the knowledge that Russia would also be attacking nuclear-armed states such as the US and the UK. That is also a good explanation why Russia wanted to contrive to occupy some of the territory of the former Soviet states of Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia – while they are not in control of all their own territory, they are not able to join NATO.
There is one other country in that region that has gone down a different path. Belarus is situated between Poland and Russia; it has a population just under 10 million, and it is about the same size as Great Britain or the state of Minnesota; they have their own language, Belorussian, which is closely related to Polish, but written in the Cyrillic alphabet, much like Russian. However that language is very much in a minority, the leadership and elite all speak Russian, as do most of the people in the cities, although speaking Belorussian has become somewhat fashionable among an urban intelligentsia.
Belarus certainly doesn’t have the same ambitions towards the west as some of its neighbors.
It didn’t even really want to leave after the fall of the Soviet Union, it only declared independence in 1994, long after the show was over, and the country has been ruled by the former Soviet strongman Alexander Lukashenko ever since; he is a dictator who doesn’t even attempt to make pretenses of democracy. All opposition groups are ruthlessly eliminated.
And Lukashenko is on particularly friendly terms with Vladimir Putin, the only-slightly-less-undemocratic Russian president, and there are several bilateral agreements, for example citizens can travel between the two countries with only state identity cards, they don’t need passports.
And, last week, Lukashenko and Putin met in a high-profile summit and spoke openly about something that has been the subject of some speculation for quite a while – that Belarus would ‘join’ Russia, which effectively means that Belarus would become part of Russia. This subject did not come up by coincidence. My reading is that it is a step in preparing public opinion in both countries for this to actually happen, although that process might last a couple of years.
It’s clear the advantage for Putin, it adds to his empire, although not by that much, maybe increases Russia’s population by about seven per cent, although Belarus is a major food exporter to Russia, particularly since tit-for-tat sanctions on EU produce. But what’s in it for Lukashenko?
You might remember that I mentioned the dictator trap to Max Suchkov in podcast 98, dictators don’t tend to have long, happy retirements. They tend to leave office for the grave or the prison cell, or even a firing squad. Lukashenko is a couple of years younger than Putin, and is a product of the same soviet system. One solution for Putin would be to install his old soviet comrade in his place; that would leave Putin free to retire, and Lukashenko to harvest the billions as Putin had done before him, with each owing the other enough to persuade them to coexist.
Watch this space.