MINSK, Belarus – In a winter military coat decorated with fur, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, stepped out of his white presidential helicopter for the geopolitical theater one morning. His presidential limousine quickly whisked him to his waiting generals, as heavily armed aides and bodyguards surrounded him, shivering in the icy rain.
The powerful Belarusian leader visited a military training site on Thursday, where he watched Russian and Belarusian forces conduct joint exercises, with Sukhoi fighter bombers flying overhead. The sky and heavy artillery fired at a distant snow-covered target about 100 miles inside Belarus’s southern border with Ukraine.
However, on Friday, just a day later, Lukashenko sat amiably in Moscow with President Vladimir V. Putin, no longer a swaggering supreme commander but a docile schoolboy in search. guidance and help from the owner.
“I totally agree with him,” Lukashenko said after Putin’s assessment that the West was responsible for the crisis plaguing Ukraine – never mind the roughly 190,000 Russian troops besieging the country – and expose Europe to its most serious security threat since. The cold war is over.
During his nearly 28 years in power, Lukashenko has secured his power over Belarus by maneuvering deftly between East and West, confronting each other while winning both backs and resisting pressure from both sides. either side threatened his power.
That game, however, is now over.
On Friday, Mr. Putin greeted Mr. Lukashenko with a hug in the Kremlin and sat down to talk to him at a small table, unlike 20 feet long table The Russian leader has held meetings in recent days with Western leaders after they refused to carry out Covid-19 tests carried out by Kremlin doctors.
For his part, Lukashenko described Russia and Belarus as not only neighbors and allies, but in many ways a single country bound by its determination to keep the lands belonging to the former Soviet Union from drifting into orbit. of the West.
“The balancing act is clearly over,” said Ales Michalovich, an opposition presidential candidate in 2010, who was relentlessly sought after by The notorious security apparatus of Mr. Lukashenko.
Backed by an expansive and brutal security system, Lukashenko shows no signs of losing his grip on power at home, if at the cost of becoming Putin’s talented tycoon.
His near-total dependence on the Kremlin began in August 2020, after he claimed a landslide victory in a contested presidential election and had to call on Mr. Putin for help in cracking down. Massive street protests followed. Russia has beefed up its security forces and even supplied journalists to the ranks of state propaganda agencies thinned by mass defections.
Since then, Lukashenko’s already tight maneuvering space has shrunk.
His biggest export and tax payer, 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 Friday after meeting with Putin that Belarus, with Russia’s help, will now build a new export port near St.Petersburg on the Baltic Sea.
Britain’s military, always much weaker than Russia’s, has in recent months lost its balance in its increasingly close relationship with Russia’s armed forces, according to Western military officials.
Lieutenant General Valdemaras Rupsys, Lithuanian Defense Minister, said: “We can no longer distinguish between Russian and Belarusian forces. “Previously only the air defense and air surveillance systems were integrated, and now we observe the systematic integration and dependence of the Belarusian forces on Russia.”
General Rupsys added that whether Russian troops return home or stay after the end of the joint exercises in Belarus on Sunday, will not make a difference “because the Belarusian armed forces from now on directly subordinate to the supreme command of the Russian army.”
Mr. Lukashenko’s previous talk about building bridges between East and West has now been replaced by belligerent rhetoric against Western leaders. While in Moscow on Friday, he outdid Putin in warning of conflict and denouncing unnamed Western politicians as “sickly dangerous”. Europe, he said, is “on the brink of a conflict that, unfortunately, could drag along, like a funnel, practically the entire continent.”
A fickle leader and profoundly eccentric, Lukashenko has at times managed to keep his fraught ties with the West from being completely severed, using large numbers of his political prisoners. I’m a bargaining chip. For example, this week he released a dual Swiss-Belarusian citizen, Natalia Hersche, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison for participating in post-election 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 giving legitimacy to the disputed election.
Foreign Secretary Antony J. Blinken last month ruled out any easing of multiple rounds of sanctions against Belarus until “the authorities cease their relentless repression against the Belarusian people, including unconditional release. all political prisoners”.
Not wanting to do that, Mr. Lukashenko left Russia.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against Mr. Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, claimed victory and then fled, said the president was reduced to no more than one regional governor of Russia.
“He is very weak and will do anything to get Putin’s support,” she said in a recent interview in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. where she now heads a government in exile and where the US ambassador is stationed in Minsk.
On paper, Belarus and Russia have been together since the late 1990s, when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed with Mr. Lukashenko to form a union state, an agreement the leader made Belarusian religion believes will dominate. because Mr. Yeltsin was too weak, surrounded by health and serious political problems.
However, since Mr. Putin replaced Mr. Yeltsin in the Kremlin on December 31, 1999, he has put Mr. Lukashenko in his place, making it clear that the fledgling coalition state needs to be realized – with Russia, not Belarus, called the photograph.
Understanding the escalating tension in Ukraine
At a meeting with Lukashenko in Moscow on Friday, Putin said that, after years of delay, “serious progress” had finally been made in the integration of the country’s economic, political and military systems. countries.
The Russian president said ominously: “We have a lot to discuss and coordinate our positions on a wide range of issues.
After years of resisting pressure from Moscow to recognize Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014Lukashenko recently said that Belarus has accepted that the Black Sea peninsula is in fact now part of Russia.
As for the status of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which broke away from Russia’s support in 2014 and called themselves “republics,” Lukashenko said on Thursday that he would abide by the agreement. Russia’s lead in dealing with them.
He is still balking, at least officially, at Moscow’s longstanding demands that he let Russia open permanent military bases in Belarus. Speaking this week, he said that “there is no need for Russian bases”, if allowed Russia could leave behind the ammunition and military equipment deployed for the current joint exercises. He also said he wants to expand Russian military training facilities in Belarus and other military cooperation.
“He is still making some decisions on his own, but his decision-making process is completely unpredictable. He doesn’t follow any rules, not even Russia’s,” said opposition candidate Michalovic.
However, any attempt by Mr. Lukashenko to project some degree of independence from Russia could easily backfire if Mr. Putin, who is said to have grown tired of Mr. Lukashenko’s games, decides to determined that he had enough and could find someone more reliable. figure to replace him.
“Putin will use Lukashenko as long as he is malleable” and “exercise his function like a useful idiot,” said Pavel P. Latushko, a Lukashenko loyalist who lives in exile. “.
But Mr Latushko predicted that the Russian leader would release Mr. Lukashenko “at a convenient time” because setting him aside would help rally ordinary Belarusians towards Russia and free the Kremlin from its stain. for supporting an unpopular dictator.
“I think this moment is coming,” Mr. Latushko said. “It came very quickly.”
Tomas Dapkus Contribution reports from Vilnius, Lithuania, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Sochi, Russia.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/19/world/europe/lukashenko-belarus-russia-ukraine.html Once He Kept Russia at a Distance. Now he is a docile Putin Satrap.