Staunton, May 25 – Many in Moscow are suggesting that the Belarus crisis will work in Vladimir Putin’s favor, leaving the isolated Alyaksandr Lukashenka to agree to any unification plans the Kremlin leader cares to dictate and making Putin look good internationally in comparison to his Belarusian partner, Sergey Shelin says.
Those things are possible but not necessarily going to happen, the Rosbalt commentator says, because there is the very real possibility that “events may get out of control” and leave Putin with neither of the two goals he so obviously believes are now within his grasp (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2021/05/25/1903333.html).
If Europe limits its sanctions on Belarus to air traffic, “Minsk’s annual losses will amount to one or two billion dollars,” Shelin continues. “That is a lot” given that the Belarusian GDP is only about 60 billion US dollars. But what is critical in the current situation is that “Moscow will have to compensate its ally for this loss.”
Given that the Kremlin won’t dip into its reserve funds for that, it will have to extract even more money from the population. And if the Europeans block all Belarusian transit trade as some have threatened, Belarus would suffer a loss of up to 10 billion US dollars, a horrific amount for Moscow to have to make up.
And this isn’t a one-off payment that Moscow will have to make this year but never again. Apparently, even in the union state, Belarus is to remain a separate country and thus subject to sanctions. And that means that within Putin’s Union state, Belarus will “simply be transformed into a domestic Russian problem.”
That in turn makes the fusion of the two countries “an extremely risky improvisation with unforeseen economic and political zigzags,” with costs that Putin as so often in the past with Crimea and the Donbass does not appear to have taken into consideration but may be forced to if he goes ahead.
At the same time, Putin’s hope to win points with the West over Belarus is plausible only if the Kremlin leader is willing and able to demand that Roman Protasevich be released or, even better, that Lukashenka be removed and replaced with “something more normal.” But that comes with its own price as well.
Nevertheless, Putin must recognize that for the EU, the issue of the forcible downing of its airplane is an internal affair, something its member states feel far more intensely than he may have imagined. And indeed, Putin and his regime have been backing away from the bold statements of support for Lukashenka they made earlier.
Before 2014, that would have been enough for the Europeans and would have “born fruit” for Putin. “But let us ask ourselves: is his regime capable just now of separating itself from such a spiritually close” regime as Lukashenka’s going to be enough to satisfy Brussels? The answer is far from certain.
Putin is hardly likely to go as far as “disavowing Lukashenka or convincing him to release the victim. But it is clear” that the Kremlin now recognizes it has to do something along those lines if the leader is to win points with the Europeans and the West more generally. Just changing tone is no longer enough, Shelin says.
The fact that Lukashenka delayed his announced visit to Putin for a day suggests that something is going on, the Rosbalt commentator says. Putin clearly is prepared to pay some price for his ties with Minsk. “But with only three weeks until his meeting with Biden, he is trying to ensure that the airplane scandal won’t burst out.”
“That is the entire strategy” the Kremlin has, Shelin concludes. “But even it may not be enough.”