The Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has every right to claim the mantle of the deftest and most efficient tactician among the post-Soviet authoritarian leaders and dictators. For a while, it seemed that this title should belong to the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. President Vladimir Putin definitely does not fit into this category. He is more skilled at working with a sledge-hammer. Were it not for all the nuclear weapons and natural gas that he commands, I cannot imagine how he would be capable of even simple foreign policy designs.

Lilia Shevtsova
Shevtsova chaired the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, dividing her time between Carnegie’s offices in Washington, DC, and Moscow. She had been with Carnegie since 1995.
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In contrast, Lukashenko has perfected the skill of survival on limited resources. He demonstrates an amazing ability to milk Russia while putting on an air of an independent leader. Moscow clearly can’t stand him, but it can’t say no to him either. Lukashenko has tried to maneuver between Russia and Europe numerous times, and successfully so. Belarus is the only country that actually stands to gain from its membership in the Customs Union, while Russia and Kazakhstan only suffer economic losses. Lukashenko manages to avoid supporting the Kremlin when the Kremlin needs it most. For instance, it did not support the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, all the pressure from the Kremlin notwithstanding. True, Belarus voted against the General Assembly resolution supporting the Ukrainian territorial integrity, apparently, getting a nice reward.

However, now Lukashenko openly refrained from supporting the Russian annexation of Crimea. Moreover, he took advantage of the annexation by borrowing Putin’s survival paradigm. He is creating a besieged fortress and mobilizing the Belarusians to fight for their independence! Look at what he said. “We are not aggressors; we do not want to go to war with anyone. But if someone starts with us, we must be ready to inflict unacceptable damage on this aggressor. It is a purely defense doctrine… We have to keep our armed forces on alert in order to avoid the sad fate of our Ukrainian brothers.”

In short, Lukashenko will be bracing himself for defending Belarus from potential Russian aggression. At the same time, he is not about to reject Moscow’s financial assistance. Besides, Lukashenko’s willingness to oppose the Kremlin’s aggressive designs is supported in Europe, which has long been trying to start dialogue with the continent’s “last dictator.” As for Moscow, it will have to open up its purse and buy off Lukashenko lest he expands on his plans to create “defenses” against Russia.

In any event, a paradoxical situation emerges: one of the Customs Union and future Eurasian Union members is going to defend itself against the leader and financial engine of this Union, that is Russia. So how strong can this union be?

It is quite possible that generally more restrained Nazarbayev will follow Lukashenko’s example and start creating his own “besieged fortress” model. After all, Kazakhstan must treat Putin’s doctrine of supporting Russian speakers abroad as a direct threat. In other words, the besieged fortress virus may prove to be contagious.

What we are witnessing today illustrates the Law of Unintended Consequences that Putin set in motion. In this case, instead of getting what he was looking for, Putin wound up with a somewhat unexpected situation.

  • Lilia Shevtsova