Saturday, July 7, 2018

Russian Anger about Social Cuts May Prompt Putin to Try to Make Union State with Belarus More Real, Zhelenin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 6 – If the Russian government does not find a way to reduce Russian anger over its cuts in social welfare programs, Rosbalt’s Aleksandr Zhelenin says, Vladimir Putin is likely to consider a creeping annexation of Belarus, assuming that he would inevitably get another “Crimea is Ours” boost in the Russian population.

            Belarus and Russia are already a union state de jure, the commentator says, but making it one de facto would not require the use of military force. Instead, Moscow could put more pressure on Minsk to take some visible steps pointing in the direction of unity and thus raise “a patriotic wave” in Russia (

            Zhelenin’s suggestion is disturbing on two grounds. On the one hand, given that Putin is unlikely to back down – he resists doing so especially when he is under public pressure to do so – and that the Russian people will feel the new cuts ever more immediately, such a non-military annexation is certainly something the Kremlin has been thinking about.

            Indeed, Lukashenka’s recent statements that Belarus may be “annexed” by a foreign state may reflect not just an effort to mobilize his own population but also be his response to behind the scenes pressure from Moscow. (On why the Belarusian president has been saying that, see,)

            And on the other, Zhelenin’s argument is based on the assumption that the Russian people are ready to be bought up with a new demonstration of Russian power and will then for a time at least look the other way as the regime picks their pockets to finance Putin’s aggressive foreign policy – and in a way that might not trigger more Western sanctions.

            Over the last six months, Putin’s poll numbers have fallen from 60 percent to 48 percent, seemingly headed down to the “’pre-war’” ones of 2013 when only 36 percent of Russians said they favored the Russian president. The proposed pension reform is part of the reason, but a larger part is the serious decline in the standard of living for most Russians. Since 2014.

            If measures like the World Cup don’t help the regime as much as it expected, “it always has in reserve the instruments of foreign policy action … For example, territorial expansion. And this does not necessarily have to be via military means given that defense spending for the Russian economy is so large and heavy that Moscow has begun to cut it.”

            Moreover, Zhelenin continues, the Putin-Trump summit is unlikely to win that many points for the Kremlin leader. Regardless of his personal desires, Trump can’t eliminate the sanctions on his own; and he is unlikely to want to take any additional steps that will provide additional evidence to those in the US who already view him as a Russian stooge.

            As a result, Russians are unlikely to see the summit as a breakthrough either. Putin would thus seem in a difficult position: His population is angry about policies he won’t reverse; his ability to use the military against a neighboring country is limited by the costs of defense spending; and so it might seem he won’t be able to do something.

            But there are always possibilities, Zhelenin says, even if they aren’t obvious to everyone. And the most obvious of these is for Putin to force Lukashenka to agree to giving the union state of Belarus and Russia greater real content, something that would be a kind of “hybrid” expansion and annexation at least in the minds of many Russians.

            Such a move, of course, would take a long time to be fully realized; but even some key steps, perhaps a common presidency, army or foreign policy apparatus, would be enough to suggest that Putin is in the process of orchestrating the annexation of Belarus by the much-larger Russian Federation.

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