29 June 2021

Putin Has Serious Reasons to Keep Lukashenka at the Helm in Belarus For A Little Longer

Although it barely featured in the Geneva summit between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, "there had been considerable speculation ahead of the 16 June summit that the Russian leader might actually be prepared to sacrifice [Belarusian autocrat Alyaksandr] Lukashenka in return for concessions from the West," writes New Diplomacy co-founder Jan Piekło in a new commentary for the Atlantic Council. "Instead of using the Belarus crisis to ease tensions with the West, [Putin] has chosen to double down in his support for Lukashenka," writes Piekło in Why Putin dare not abandon Belarus dictator Lukashenka

"This uncompromising stance is perhaps most immediately evident in Putin’s robust defence of Lukashenka’s recent act of air piracy," writes Piekło. Lukashenka's decision to force down an EU airliner passing through Belarusian airspace in order to detain a dissident Belarusian journalist, Raman Pratasevich, "sparked international outrage and has provoked a new wave of sanctions. Undeterred, Putin has publicly backed Lukashenka’s actions and even went so far as to temporarily block a number of EU airlines from Russian airspace in apparent retaliation for measures imposed against Minsk."

One scenario, argues Piekło, was that "Putin would agree to the removal of Lukashenka, but would seek to install a Kremlin-friendly replacement from within the ranks of the Belarusian opposition. This manoeuvre would keep Minsk firmly in the Russian orbit, while also meeting Western demands for the normalisation of the situation in Belarus, including the release of political prisoners and the scheduling of fresh presidential elections." 

In the final analysis, "Putin has likely decided that removing Lukashenka is simply too risky," argues Piekło. "The Russian ruler remains haunted by the Soviet collapse and fears a repeat of the pro-democracy uprisings that swept Central Europe at the end of the 1980s and initiated the fall of the USSR. This explains Putin’s 2014 decision to invade Ukraine following the country’s Euromaidan Revolution, and also forms the basis of his opposition to the ongoing anti-regime protests in Belarus." 

Piekło, who was the Ambassador of Poland to Ukraine from 2016-2019, concludes that "Lukashenka’s reliance on Russia has been clear for some time, but Putin is in many ways also a hostage of his Belarusian counterpart. Europe’s last two dictators know that if one should fall, the other will find himself in a perilous position. They may not necessarily like it, but Putin and Lukashenka are now locked in an authoritarian alliance."

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