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Belarus will be for dessert

How Russia plans to "integrate" its neighbor

Original article:

In 2021, a document titled "Strategic Goals of the Russian Federation in the Belarusian direction," was developed, according to the Dossier Center. It says that Belarus should be fully integrated into Russia by 2030. Belarusian opposition politicians and experts fear that the Russian army's failures in Ukraine may accelerate the process of Belarus' takeover, as Vladimir Putin will need at least some kind of foreign policy victory. How likely is this scenario?

Lukashenko's unfulfilled dreams

On December 8, 1999, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the authoritarian Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko signed a treaty establishing the Union State. It included obligations for Belarusian-Russian integration, unification of the legislations of the two countries, and unification of customs and energy resources.

According to Belarusian political analyst Pavel Usov, Russia needed this document to solve its internal problems: it was just before Boris Yeltsin handed over power to his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. At the same time Alexander Lukashenko had an ambitious plan to become president of the new state:

Understandably, Russia, which had collapsed as an empire, needed some kind of geopolitical success. The CIS and CSTO projects were created and implemented for the same purpose, so that Russia could represent itself as a regional power with its satellites. Belarus was a very convenient geopolitical target in this regard. The alienation of Belarus could have provoked a political crisis, since there were revanchist groups in Russia, negatively disposed to the liberal reforms of the nineties. The Kremlin could not allow a complete withdrawal of Belarus from Russian influence.

As for Belarus, "undemocracy" and Lukashenko's rise to power ensured not only the signing of the Union Treaty, but also the retention of Belarus in Russian hands. The foundations of the Union State were laid back in the early 1990s, when energy and CIS issues were discussed, and the local post-communist elites did not dare to take responsibility and lead the country out from under Russia's economic, primarily energy, influence. Lukashenko took advantage of this and held two referendums. The first of them had a clause: "To support the president's policy of strengthening economic relations with Russia”. The overwhelming majority of Belarusians voted for it.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Lukashenko had ambitions to become president of the "Union State" or to get involved in the internal political struggle in Russia itself. This is why he was so active in all union reforms, why he signed the charter of the "Union State", where, according to the original scenario, he was given the opportunity to be the first president, and only Yeltsin's liberal entourage did not allow him to pull this off. Of course, Lukashenko looked pretty good compared to the withering Yeltsin. Boris Berezovsky also spoke about this. Lukashenko even began playing tennis to get closer to Yeltsin and become his successor. Minsk's attitude to the agreements changed dramatically only after Putin came to power," — says Pavel Usov.

Yeltsin and Lukashenko signed a friendship treaty
25 years ago, Boris Yeltsin and Alexander Lukashenko signed a friendship treaty

The once-signed document was practically forgotten for the next 19 years, although Lukashenko, Putin and other Russian and Belarusian leaders released a great many declarations of friendship. There have, however, been periods of marked deterioration in relations between Moscow and Minsk, such as the energy and milk "wars”. Only in 2018, during a visit to Brest, then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reminded his Belarusian partners of the existence of the Union State and offered two options for Russia-Belarus integration: "Leave everything as it is or finally implement the agreements, which means a common tax, price and tariff policy." Belarusian politicians were unenthusiastic about Medvedev's proposal, but work on roadmaps (integration programs) resumed in 2019. In December of that year, there were regular protests in Minsk against the strengthening of the "Union State," and in early 2020, Lukashenko declared that Russia understood integration as "absorption of Belarus”.

Protests against integration with Russia in Minsk
Protests against integration with Russia. Minsk, December 7, 2019. Source:

The coronavirus pandemic began then, and in August 2020, after the presidential election, which, according to the Belarusian Central Election Commission, Lukashenko won, mass protests broke out in the country against falsification of the voting results. Integration took a back seat. They returned to the negotiating table only in 2021. In September, 28 "road maps" were signed. They included, among other things, the following steps:

  • Integration of payment systems.

  • Formation of unified markets for oil and petroleum products.

  • Formation of a unified electricity market.

  • Development of nuclear energy.

November 4, 2021 at the meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State Lukashenko and Putin signed a decree "On the main directions of implementation of the Union State Treaty for 2021-2023", which approved 28 integration programs. They were supposed to become, according to the official version, "a practical basis for deepening Russian-Belarusian integration”.

On the way to absorption?

Putin and Lukashenko
Putin and Lukashenko. Source:

At the same time, in 2021, a document entitled "Strategic goals of the Russian Federation in the Belarusian direction" was developed. The Dossier Center claims that they managed to familiarize themselves with its contents. According to the document, the goal of Russia is full political, energy, military and cultural integration of Belarus into Russia by 2030. The document was developed by members of the Department for Cross-Border Cooperation, together with the MOD, the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, the Foreign Intelligence Service and the 5th Service of the FSB.

The Russian targets for Belarus are divided into three stages: short-term (up to 2022), medium-term (up to 2025) and long-term (up to 2030). Thus, the drafters of the document aimed to unify Belarusian legislation by the end of 2022, to convince the local elites of the need to work on integration, to conduct joint military and tactical exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus, as well as to strengthen the pro-Russian sentiment among the population and military and political elites of Belarus.

According to the strategy, by 2025, the Kremlin intends, for example, to introduce a simplified procedure for issuing Russian passports to Belarusians, ensure the integration of the Belarusian nuclear power plant into the Union State energy system, and create stable pro-Russian influence groups in Belarusian politics and the military.

By 2030 it is planned to complete the reform of the Constitution of Belarus, taking into account Russian interests, introduce a common currency, agree on a common border and defense policy, create a common cultural space, a common approach to the interpretation of history, and ensure the final dominance of the Russian language over the Belarusian language.

Martin Krag, deputy director of the Stockholm Center for East European Studies (SCEEUS), believes that the document resembles a standard document of the Russian bureaucracy in its external form. Pavel Latushko, former diplomat and former Minister of Culture of Belarus, Deputy Head of the United Transition Cabinet (UTC), established by the opposition Belarusian politicians who were forced to leave the country, has doubts about it:

There is a certain logic and system in the document, as well as a number of inconsistencies. It prescribes some positions to be implemented in the future, but in fact they have already been implemented at the time of writing this plan. One of the goals of the document is to change the Constitution of Belarus in favor of Russia. This goal has already been achieved in February 2022, when Lukashenko held a referendum to change it. The medium-term objectives are changes in the economic, military and humanitarian spheres. This is what is being implemented at the moment and has already been accomplished in many areas.

From the point of view of bureaucracy, there are some important inconsistencies here as well. The text often uses two names: "Republic of Belarus" and "Republic of Belorussia”. I will tell you as an official: such mistakes are unacceptable, but it does not change the fact that Russia really has plans to take over Belarus, — says Pavel Latushko.

In addition to goals, the strategy describes the threats to Russia's plans in Belarus. The Kremlin fears rapprochement of Belarus with members of NATO, the influence of nationalist and pro-Western politicians on Lukashenko, the refusal to teach in Russian in Belarus. The replacement of Russian vaccines against COVID-19 with American and European vaccines was also considered a threat.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, according to The Dossier, has not changed the Kremlin's plans. "The long-term goal of achieving full control over Belarus is still in place," according to a media source familiar with the document. At the end of 2022, State Secretary of the "Union State" Dmitry Mezentsev said that a new package of integration programs is already being developed, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a little later that the implementation of the 28 "maps" already approved would take two to three years.

Lukashenko and Putin at a meeting in Sochi
Lukashenko and Putin at a meeting in Sochi. RT video screenshot. Source:

Pavel Usov believes that this time may be enough for the full integration of Belarus into Russia:

The process of Russian takeover of Belarus and pressure on the Belarusian elites began much earlier. The noose around Lukashenko's neck got tighter after the signing of 28 road maps in 2021. But I believe that some non-public agreements were signed even after Lukashenko's defeat in the elections in 2020. Then he flew to Sochi to see Putin and begged him to help. Initially, 31 roadmaps were considered, and he could have signed the remaining three. That is why I think that all the processes may be completed by 2025. The integration of Belarus will become a mockery of the entire West. Putin may say: "Look, I have captured Belarus. What will you do about it? Nothing!"

Many experts agree that the war in Ukraine has completely stripped Lukashenko of his independence and brought Belarus' integration into Russia closer.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, head of the United Transition Cabinet and former candidate for the 2020 presidential election, believes that the Russian plan is doomed to fail:

There is nothing new in it. This is the policy that Russia has been pursuing in Belarus since the end of the 18th century. It is expressed in the fight against the national language, symbols, culture, history, in the planting and glorification of everything Russian, Russian. Lukashenko has been a consistent promoter of this policy from the very beginning of his rule. At present, many activists in Belarus who fought against Lukashenko's usurpation of power are accused by the regime of treason, but in fact, it is treason to sign such documents - on joining the Union State, because they clearly threaten the sovereignty of Belarus.

Can a war lead to an increase in the pace of integration? "He will eat it, but who will let him? Putin would like to, but he will not succeed: the Belarusian people will not let him do it. In addition, time and the logic of historical development are not on his side. He has already lost. The question is the number of victims he takes on his soul.

As a dessert, however regrettable I am to say it, Belarus must serve.

Pavel Latushko agrees that the Kremlin may plan to incorporate Belarus into Russia by 2030:

Putin published an article about Ukraine back in 2021, where he quite clearly explained his goals. We already understood perfectly then that he was pursuing similar goals in Belarus. He wanted to dine, and the main course was to be Ukraine. He broke his teeth on Ukraine. As a dessert, as regrettable as it is for me to say, Belarus should be the main course.

Pavel Usov, however, argues that Russia is not aiming at the formal accession of Belarus:

It's about completing integration. It is, in principle, the same as accession, but with the preservation of state borders and within the framework of international law. No international treaty is violated, because Belarus itself has expressed a desire to integrate with Russia in this "Union State", where there are two independent entities, but one political leadership. There is Belarus, but it is subordinated to the strategic interests of the SU. It is a fairly common misconception that Russia is going to annex Belarus just as it did with the "DPR" and "LPR. It will do all this supposedly as part of the will of the two peoples. Even the constitutions of the two countries will not be violated: there will be a referendum, and 90 percent of the voters will vote for one currency, one army and one president. Belarus will be "independent", without any attributes of independence.

How do Belarusians feel about such a prospect? Pavel Latushko answers:

The information field in Belarus was given by the regime to Russian political technologists and mass media. Of the ten most popular TV channels watched in Belarus, eight are Russian. The Belarusians are under the most powerful attack of the Russian propaganda. Even despite all these attempts of Russia to capture the minds of the Belarusians, they do not succeed. An absolute majority of Belarusians doesn't want war, an absolute majority of people are against Lukashenko, and, most importantly, 97% of Belarusians support independent Belarus (sociological surveys confirm this, even though sociology in totalitarian countries is an "interesting" thing). But a sufficient percentage favors the priority of union relations with Russia. We, democratic forces, must reach out to these people and show that Putin's neo-imperium is planning to destroy the Belarusian statehood.

Minsk, 2020
Minsk, 2020 Source:

Sviatlana Tihanovskaya believes that the way out of this situation can be the revival of language, culture, history at all levels, beginning with the individual, everyday life and communication. She also spoke about the plan of democratic forces in Belarus to resist integration:

"We are working at the political level - in speeches at the Munich Security Conference, I said that Belarus cannot stay in the CSTO and the Union State with Russia, which started a war against Ukraine and is now the aggressor, it is against the interests of most Belarusians. Our main task, which we are working on, is to make sure that Belarus is not "left for later" in the current conflict, that it does not remain a consolation prize for the loser Putin. Belarus cannot be left "for later. Without free and democratic Belarus, it is impossible to build an effective security system in Europe. The war is not over until Belarus becomes free.

Pavel Usov insists that the freedom of Belarus depends on the weakening of Russia:

Only the destruction of Putin's regime and the creation of conditions in which the Union State will be a very costly event for Russia can stop integration. Any integration issues must be perceived at the international level exclusively as an occupation.

Pavel Latushko believes that three forces must be formed to prevent integration:

The first is internal. We must create a people's liberation movement, and our transitional government is working on this. This is the most complicated issue, as civil society is suppressed in Belarus. Repression in Belarus is comparable to the period of Stalinism.

The second resource is the creation of a proto-army. There are already rudiments of it. Our volunteer units, which fight for the liberation of Ukraine and dream of liberating Belarus, have appeared in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

The third force is international pressure, the isolation of the regime, sanctions, and holding Lukashenko accountable to Ukraine. The document provided to journalists may also play into Lukashenko's hands. I was the ambassador of Belarus to France, Spain, and Portugal. Then, in 2015 - 2016, I participated in closed negotiations. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, the late Vladimir Makei, and his deputy were there. The main thesis of the talks was that Lukashenko is the main and only guarantor of the sovereignty of Belarus. So, to help Lukashenko is to help save Belarus. This thesis was quite successfully "sold" by Lukashenko's envoys in connection with the annexation of Crimea and the war that Russia unleashed in Donbass.

Russia is the enemy of the Belarusian people and the enemy of the Belarusian statehood

This was followed by a thaw in relations between Belarus and the West. It all collapsed after the election fraud and the events of 2020. Lukashenko wants to avoid sanctions, to avoid responsibility. He understands that a tribunal awaits him. On this basis, he is again trying to sell the narrative that he is the guarantor of Belarus' independence. He is not. It was Lukashenko who led to the loss of Belarusian independence, it was Lukashenko who from the first days of his rule advocated a union with Russia. It was he who allowed the Belarusian army to be absorbed, it was he who destroyed the Belarusian language, culture and identity. It is he who has built a concentration camp on the territory of Belarus, where there are simply no free people. Only the Belarusian people can be the guarantor of independence.

We do not view Russia as a friendly country. Today, Russia, which has occupied Belarus, is the enemy of the Belarusian people and the enemy of the Belarusian statehood. This needs to be spelled out clearly in order to understand the threat. I am skeptical about Russia's democratization after Putin's departure. We see that a large percentage of Russians support the war in Ukraine, so I have no faith in any kind of partnership.



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