The two strongmen have been at odds since negotiations on the price of Russian gas flowing through Belarusian pipelines ground to a halt at the end of 2016, after Minsk failed to seal its $400m debt with the Kremlin’s gas giant — Gazprom.
Lukashenko had been persuading Putin to thrash out a generous deal for Belarus, whose network of pipelines guarantees Russian gas and oil much-needed access to the European market. But unwillingness by Minsk to rebate Moscow while insisting on ever more lenient arrangements (already paying a flimsy $132 per 1,000 cubic meters) put the brakes on standard diplomatic procedures between the two regimes.
At the turn of the year, Russia cut oil supplies to Belarus in a bid to squeeze out its arrears — a clear sign that negligence for international obligations would not go unpunished. Lukashenko raised tariffs for the transit of Russian oil to 7.7 per cent without much of a warning, in a botched attempt to soften Putin’s negotiating position.
Aliaksandr Papko, a Belarusian political scientist, told The Conflict Comment: “Lukashenko knows that, in international relations, Moscow respects elusively force and resilience,” hinting that the veil of unilateralism under which Putin and Lukashenko implemented their countermeasures is symptomatic of their evolving political interaction.
“Both parties have leverage in this dispute and both are interested in finding an accommodating solution as it happened before on many occasions,” said Igar Gubarevich, senior analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre. While prolific reserves of oil and gas may appear to give Russia the upper hand, Belarus is a well governed country — for all its despotic flaws — that happens to be of strategic importance to Russia, both as a trading partner and as a demarcation line for NATO and the EU.
Hypothetical instability, be it economic or political, could potentially upend the geopolitical order in the region and prove detrimental for Russia. “Lukashenko and Putin know that Russia will have many more problems without Lukashenko than with him. Lukashenko perfectly uses this situation, both making pressure on Moscow and strengthening his position by improving political relations with the West. Russia has no political figures to replace Lukashenko, and Lukashenko did everything to prevent such figures from emerging,” Mr Papko added.
Beneficial results from energy disputes in 2004, 2007 and 2010 that are mostly attributable to resilience have also emboldened Lukashenko, whose flair for tampering with tariffs while expecting retaliation from Russia has shown that he is willing to take a hit from economic instability if it is to extract concessions from Putin.
Andrei Yeliseyeu, research fellow at Eurasian States in Transition (EAST), believes that this turn of events risks being “very painful for the Belarusian economy, as the export of processed Russian oil to the EU is a very important source of profit. So far, it is Belarus who loses a lot because of this oil and gas conflict, amid a third year of continuing economic recession.” Indeed, the scaling back of oil supplies is thought to have trimmed Belarus’s GDP by 2.7 per cent and 3 per cent in July and August 2016, according to a report from the Centre for Eastern Studies.
The disenchantment for open dialogue that has sprouted from years of energy disputes is widening the rift between Putin and Lukashenko, who, over the last few years, has seemed more adamant of engaging with the West. Just as the new year ushered in, Minsk introduced a 5-day visa-free regime for the citizens of 80 countries in a bid to support its tourism and aviation industries.
However, what on the surface is an unrelated move to the recent standoff with Putin, “this decision has dealt a psychological blow to Russia as it presents Belarus as a country which is more open than Russia and is moving steadily, albeit slowly, towards closer relations with the West,” claimed Mr Gubarevich.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea enticed Lukashenko to rethink his geopolitical position and strategic partnership with Putin. Stepped-up military co-operation played out as compensation for supplies that Minsk never payed back during past disputes with Moscow, or as Lukashenko himself put it: “Oil in exchange for kisses.”
Nevertheless, since the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Moscow’s takeover of Simferopol in March 2014, Lukashenko has grown weary of Russia’s expansionism and the threat it poses to the integrity of his government. “Belarus can no longer offer the same degree of military co-operation and foreign policy loyalty to Russia as Lukashenko’s worries about Belarus’s independence and his personal security made him seek rapprochement with the West,” Mr Gubarevich added.
In October 2015, Lukashenko refused to host a Russian airbase in a clear-cut attempt to rein in Minsk’s military engagement with the Kremlin and distance himself from any association with Putin’s foreign policy in Georgia and, more recently, in Ukraine. Moscow unveiled plans to station its airforce in Belarus in April 2013, in a move that would have given Putin more leverage in eliminating Lukashenko’s layer of neutrality for Russian interventions in the international arena. However, Lukashenko promptly brushed off the proposal saying that no consultations had taken place.
As unilateralism grows unabated, significant developments in the latest standoff remain well out of sight. “Russia may further reduce oil supplies to Belarus, although it will not dare to bring the Belarusian economy to the brink of collapse,” said Mr Papko, adding that the prospect of economic turmoil will only add to Lukashenko’s rupture with Putin. “For the last 20 years, Lukashenko has explored all benefits from close integration with the Russian economy, apparently no opportunities are left.” But the course appears to be set. As long as “Belarus remains on the map of Europe as a functional independent state, it will more and more divert from Russia.”