Putin’s Unruly Ally Casts Eyes to West as Russian Ties Strain

(Bloomberg) -- For Vladimir Putin’s closest ally, Alexander Lukashenko has been downright unfriendly toward the Kremlin of late. After decades of dependence on Moscow, the Belarusian leader is buying oil from the U.S., and cozying up politically to the West, while ordering a raid on a Russian-owned bank whose former head is challenging him in the upcoming election.

It’s all giving Putin a headache in his own backyard with Lukashenko practically certain to secure a sixth term as president in August and threatening to loosen the strategically important nation’s ties with Russia.

“The old relationship is gradually falling apart and the suspicion here is that Lukashenko is being encouraged from outside,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser. While Lukashenko has become a “constant irritant” for Russia, “Belarus is very important and Moscow just can’t afford to lose it,” he said.

The strains demonstrate Putin’s difficulties in maintaining relations with even close allies since his 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine upended the postwar order in Europe and raised questions about regional security. Bordering Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all NATO members, Belarus risks becoming the latest focus of Putin’s geopolitical struggle with the West.

Lukashenko has a history of playing the two sides against each other in order to maintain enough independence to secure his authoritarian rule over his nation of 9.4 million. Still, the tensions may be greater this time as the collapse in oil prices weakens Russia’s attractiveness as an ally.

Putin’s Unruly Ally Casts Eyes to West as Russian Ties Strain

The relationship with Lukashenko is getting worse as the U.S. and its allies try to drive a wedge between Minsk and Moscow and Belarus is drawn into the battle for influence, said a Kremlin official.

Belarus has started processing initial supplies from 80,000 tons (586,000 barrels) of U.S. crude delivered by tanker to a Lithuanian port earlier this month, the first time it has purchased oil from America. That came after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met Lukashenko in February, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Belarus since President Bill Clinton in 1994, and promised him that America could deliver “100% of the oil you need at competitive prices.”

At the time, Lukashenko was publicly accusing Moscow of pressuring him to accept a political merger in return for cheap oil supplies, after Russia had cut crude deliveries by three-fourths in a pricing dispute. Pompeo told him Belarus “shouldn’t be forced to depend on any one partner for your prosperity or your security.”

Still, Putin has powerful levers at his disposal to try to rein in Lukashenko. While deliveries were 65% lower than last year, Russia still supplied 1.6 million tons of oil in the first three months of 2020 to Belarus, whose economy depends heavily on exports of machinery and foodstuffs to its larger neighbor. Belarus has also repeatedly turned to Russia for loans to help meet its financing needs, and the two countries hold joint military drills.

Coronavirus Response

Lukashenko’s response to the coronavirus epidemic added to the Kremlin’s irritation. As Russia closed its borders and Putin imposed a nationwide lockdown in March, Lukashenko proclaimed that it’s “better to die standing than to live on your knees.”

When spiraling infections forced Putin to postpone his May 9 military parade for the 75th anniversary of the World War II victory, Lukashenko went ahead with his own commemoration, saying it would be a “betrayal” of those who died not to do so.

Lukashenko, 65, has repeatedly crushed opposition to his presidency since coming to power in 1994. He has accused critics in Russia of financing protests against him ahead of the Aug. 9 election and hinted at foreign support for his main rivals, a banker and a popular YouTube blogger.

He said Friday he personally ordered state security officials to investigate the Belarusian subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprombank, which has resulted in 15 people being detained so far.

Viktor Babariko headed Belgazprombank for 20 years until he resigned in May to challenge Lukashenko. He accused the authorities Thursday of being “willing to use any means to prevent fair elections” after the bank was raided in connection with a tax evasion and money-laundering probe.

Gazprombank and Gazprom called the detentions part of an unlawful attempt to usurp power at the lender and vowed in a statement to defend their rights.

Babariko isn’t receiving money from the Kremlin and acts independently, but he discussed his plans to run in the election with Russian officials once he’d decided to go up against Lukashenko, according to two people in Moscow familiar with the matter.

Babariko, who pledges free-market reforms to reduce his country’s dependence on outside support, told Bloomberg in an interview that he didn’t discuss his candidacy with any Russian officials, noting that it’s illegal under Belarusian law to get foreign support in an election.

Opposition Crackdown

Lukashenko’s relationship is far from easy with the U.S. and the European Union. They toughened sanctions against Belarus after his security forces arrested opposition leaders and beat protesters during the 2010 presidential election period.

President Donald Trump on Thursday extended U.S. sanctions for a year against Lukashenko and some other Belarusian officials that were first imposed in 2006 over political repressions and “fundamentally undemocratic” elections. Still, the U.S. and Belarus agreed last year to exchange ambassadors for the first time in more than a decade.

Russia may be counting on a similar scenario this time as well, where Belarus cracks down on political opponents spoiling a rapprochement with the West, according to Pavlovsky, a Kremlin consultant from 2000 to 2011.

“It can’t overthrow Lukashenko, at least for now,” he said. “But it’s searching for any way to make his life harder.”

Russia’s hard line on oil pricing in January has backfired for now. The Belarusian leader is taking steps to reduce the dependence by turning to other suppliers including Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia.

“Lukashenko saw this oil war as punishment and didn’t want to be pushed around anymore,” said Artyom Shraibman, founder of Minsk-based political consultancy Sense Analytics. “Belarus and Russia have entered their deepest crisis of the past 25 years.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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