Opinion | Lukashenko Proves Once a Tool, Always a Tool

Opinion | Lukashenko Proves Once a Tool, Always a Tool

Belarus’s president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, is trying to get our attention. He is preening himself on the global stage, making the rounds in the media to take credit for brokering an end to the armed mutiny in Russia last weekend. Just weeks before, the Belarusian strongman proudly announced the delivery of the first Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, boasting that he would not hesitate to use them.

We don’t yet know the details of the deal Mr. Lukashenko claims to have brokered. They are probably being rewritten as President Vladimir Putin of Russia shores up his position at home and the mutiny’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner private military company, weighs his options. But that has not stopped Mr. Lukashenko from continuing to try to burnish his reputation. On Tuesday, Belarusian state media reported Mr. Lukashenko said he persuaded Mr. Putin “not to do anything rash” after he purportedly floated the idea of killing Mr. Prigozhin as his private army advanced on Moscow.

This kind of bluster is par for the course for Mr. Lukashenko. It also reflects his deeply held aspiration to be taken seriously as a world leader. Never mind that that aspiration doesn’t resemble reality. Whatever the details, Mr. Lukashenko’s role in the negotiations that led Mr. Prigozhin to back down was almost certainly that of a conduit, saving Mr. Putin from having to debase himself by direct engagement with a rebel. And Mr. Putin has already made it clear that Russia will retain full operational control of the newly arrived nuclear weapons in Belarus.

The fact is that Mr. Lukashenko is not an independent actor but a tool of Kremlin policy, and he has been for years. He can only hope that this service to Mr. Putin at a time of need will ensure that the Kremlin keeps him ensconced in power and continues to tolerate his braggadocio.

Mr. Lukashenko has tried to position himself for greater things since he rose to power in 1994. In the late 1990s, he helped create a union-state — a confederation of sorts — between Belarus and Russia, which he must have eventually hoped to head once the ailing Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, departed the scene. But Mr. Yeltsin’s successor turned out to be Mr. Putin, who had no intention of playing second fiddle to the head of a minor European state. Instead, as he accumulated power, Mr. Putin exploited Belarus’s deep economic dependence on Russia, especially on heavily subsidized energy, to peel away its sovereignty. Instead of heading a major world power, Mr. Lukashenko found himself trying to fend off a suffocating Russian embrace.

After Russia illegally seized Crimea in 2014, Mr. Lukashenko’s saw his most promising chance to assert himself. Taking advantage of the estrangement between Russia and the West after the invasion and Russia’s backing of a rebellion in eastern Ukraine, he promoted the Belarus capital, Minsk, as a “neutral” venue for East-West dialogue. The city became the place where the warring parties and Russian and European leaders convened to hammer out a deal to end the crisis. The ensuing deals, christened the Minsk Agreements, spelled out provisions for a cease-fire and the reintegration of the rebellious regions into Ukraine, but were never carried out.

Nevertheless, Mr. Lukashenko had demonstrated Minsk’s potential as a meeting place. In 2018 Mr. Lukashenko inaugurated the Minsk Dialogue Forum, which brought together American, European and Russian foreign policy experts for debates on global issues and provided him a invaluable platform to present himself as a statesman uniquely qualified to ease tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Mr. Lukashenko’s second opportunity to reduce its reliance on Russia came in the form of Belarus’s booming tech industry. Since the mid-2000s, it has been a key driver of Belarus’s economic growth, accounting for 7 percent of its total G.D.P. by 2020. It was also an important export sector, sending much of its product to the West, and a magnet for Western investors attracted by Belarus’s well-educated population and low wages. The economic dividends helped provide the funds to transform Minsk itself into a comfortable European city, which enhanced its appeal as an East-West meeting place.

But Mr. Lukashenko’s good fortune came to a screeching halt after a few short years — and fully as a consequence of his own actions. His flagrant rigging of the 2020 presidential elections, in which he brazenly claimed to have won with 80 percent of the vote, touched off a huge nationwide protest movement. Mr. Lukashenko’s government detained tens of thousands of citizens. Hundreds were reportedly mistreated or tortured in custody, and dozens of websites were blocked. With his political survival at stake, Mr. Lukashenko turned back to Russia, which was only more than willing to help at the price of his country’s autonomy.

Mr. Putin stepped in to the rescue, backing Mr. Lukashenko’s harsh tactics. He approved a $1.5 billion loan to ease Minsk’s debt burden, sent in “media” experts to help discredit the protesters as pawns of foreign powers, and announced the formation of a Russian “police reserve” that could be deployed to Belarus should the situation further deteriorate.

The crackdown prompted tech workers, who had been at the forefront of the protests, to flee the country in droves. It also made Minsk off limits as a meeting place, as the West levied sanctions and isolated Mr. Lukashenko diplomatically. The situation only grew worse as Russia began using Belarus as a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Mr. Lukashenko, now totally dependent on the Kremlin in his bid to cling to power, was in no position to resist.

Now he has agreed to give refuge to Mr. Prigozhin and some unknown number of his infamous mercenaries who will go to Belarus with him. Mr. Prigozhin cannot feel safe in Belarus knowing the fate of others who have drawn Mr. Putin’s wrath. Mr. Lukashenko won’t benefit in any way from Mr. Prigozhin’s demise on his territory and probably hopes his sojourn is brief. Despite this uneasy arrangement, Mr. Lukashenko will likely not be able to resist the temptation to embellish his role; he’s already claimed to have offered Mr. Putin advice on how to handle the situation. He will endeavor to play the great statesman for as long as he can.

Nothing, however, will change the reality. Even in his fleeting moment of glory, Mr. Lukashenko cuts a pathetic figure as a Russian pawn. Perhaps the one worthy service he has performed for his country over the years is to briefly show how Belarus could position itself as a respectable player in European affairs, as a venue for constructive East-West dialogue with a dynamic tech sector. But Minsk can revive and sustain that role only under the leadership of a president who accepts European values. Mr. Lukashenko will never be that person.

Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of the forthcoming book “Getting Russia Right.” He attended the Minsk Dialogue Forum in 2018 and 2019.

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