The Russia-Belarus Union: reversing the Pilsudski doctrine
Recent talks and media coverage concerning a deeper integration leading to a potential State Union between Russia and Belarus is neither something entirely new, nor temporary. Ideas and projects concerning a possible unification between the two states have been going on since the mid-’90s (the 1997 Treaty on the Union between Belarus and Russia) when Moscow and Minsk signed various treaties that put the latter in a pro-Russian geopolitical course and on an integration path with Russia. Such foreign policy direction chosen back then by Belarus’ political elite – the same that still exists today under current President Alexander Lukashenko – automatically reduced the potential for a possible Euro-Atlantic future integration. At the same time, it is widely known how Lukashenko has changed his country’s foreign policy throughout the years, balancing between a pro-Moscow stance alternated with openings and rapprochements towards the West and China.
However, what is significant here is to break down this political and strategic issue in two different yet intertwined dimensions of analysis: the first one concerns the core business of the potential Union, the second one deals with a broader regional (and global) geopolitical picture. Indeed, the necessity, especially for Moscow, and the core of such desired union lies in the following concepts:
The tacit substance of the aforementioned ’97 Treaty, and the drive of nowadays’ push for further integration, features Belarus: as a security buffer zone in the Western part of the near abroad (blizhni zaburezhye and as a strengthening glacis of Russia’s Western Military District (especially after the loss of influence over Ukraine) to deter further Euro-Atlantic expansion, cut off the Baltics from NATO and secure and block the Suwałki corridor. Thus, an inversed Pilsudski (or Prometheist) doctrine1. In return, Moscow would assure advantageous energy supplies and financial resources, privileged entrance to the Russian market of Belarusian goods.
The need for a redefinition of the post-Soviet space in the global balance of power shift: on the one hand the power struggle for future hegemony in the Eurasian continent against China, on the other, the partition of the geopolitical space in (eastern) Europe between Moscow and Brussels and their relative spheres of influence. The ongoing simmering geopolitical tug-o-war between Moscow and the West for political influence in East Europe, in which the latter received a heavy blow following French President Macron’s serious mistake of blocking Balkan EU hopefuls, which will further weaken the EU’s presence and consequently bolster and invigorate Russia’s drive towards expanding its political clout in this former imperial orbit.
Such a need translates itself in the quest for the formation of new geopolitical blocks and (more or less) temporary alignments, with a similar type of governances and like-minded, compatible form of regimes.
Russia’s push for thorough integration of Belarus goes exactly in this direction while strengthening authoritarianism in the region. At the same time, Moscow’s integration ultimatum to Minsk aims at balancing westwards the Eurasian Economic Union which, after losing Ukraine as a potential member, is now too heavily unbalanced towards (Central) Asia. Such unbalance makes Belarus quite a precious element in the Kremlin’s geopolitical desired scenario.
However, it seems unlikely that Belarus will lose its sovereignty by turning into a prolongment of the Russian state, for several reasons, both political and cultural. Even though the internal political context has its divisions and tilts, Lukashenko is so far not accepting projects of further integration with Moscow. Recently, the Belarusian president has even warned Moscow against a compelled integration attempt that might trigger a conflict with Europe, which in such a case, would stand up and confront Russia. Fears in Minsk also concern a potential, similar Ukrainian hybrid conflict scenario. After two rounds of negotiations last month failed to reach an agreement, the opposition protested in the street of Minsk against any integration plans. That being said, it remains quite unlikely that in a hypothetical worsening bilateral framework, Putin’s Russia might try again a Ukrainian-style operation through the use of military force in Belarus.
Last but not least, besides the geopolitical worries, the cultural aspect must be considered in order to have a comprehensive understanding of the evolving situation in Belarus and the wider Eastern European region. There have been various signals of a westernization tilt in Belarusian identity, through a rapprochement, in the national memory, to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – a middle-age state that was an antagonist to the Muscovy (the Grand Duchy of Moscow) – to which various monuments and landmarks have been erected in different Belarusian cities. Also, a massive appearance of street signs in the Belarusian alphabet in public places is an indication of this national identity revival.
The revival of fragments of the past, of post-Soviet national identity building does not necessarily mean hostility towards Russia, but still, it certainly highlights a further national and independence sentiment. It remains to be seen how the country’s political elite will be able to manage relative policies of national memory and what impact this might have on the internal political landscape and with regards to the current controversial Union State talks with Moscow.
Giorgio Cella – Ph.D. in Politics and Institutions at the Catholic University of Milan, where he holds a seminar in Post-Soviet Geopolitics and the Ukrainian crisis. His main areas of expertise are Eastern European and Russian Geopolitics and History of International Relations.
1 Prometheism was a doctrine conceived by the Polish marshal and statesman Józef Piłsudski already in early 1904, whose objective was to support minority nationalities against the Russian empire in order to weaken it and create a safety buffer around Poland. The doctrine gave birth to a specific branch of Polish clandestine anti-Russian destabilisation operations. The doctrine derives its name from Prometheus the titan who rebelled against Zeus considered as a tyrant in order to free mankind.