Belarus, which means White Russia, is a pro-Moscow Eastern European state under autocratic leadership, bordering both Ukraine and Russia.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in late February in Moscow, they were sitting close to each other over a small table.
That setting was a clear contrast to Putin’s previous meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, with whom the Russian president sat at a 6-metres-long table.
For Putin, the new setting of his meeting with Lukashenko is a big change, suggesting how close both leaders are to each other, being both allies and strongmen. But the change might also be related to the Kremlin's Covid-19 rules.
Some argued that Putin chose to meet Western leaders at the long table because they refused to take Covid-19 tests conducted by Kremlin doctors. Lukashenko, who allowed Russian troops to invade Ukrainian territory from the north using Belarusian territory, can clearly not refuse Kremlin-administered tests prior to a meeting with Putin.
But Putin has also recently chosen to meet some of his top officials like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu at a long table, suggesting that he is the country’s lone decision-maker. Neither Lavrov nor Shoygu can have any issues with Kremlin-administered tests.
Whatever the real reasons behind Putin’s close meeting with Lukashenko, their alliance is crystal clear. Some Western officials suggestthat Belarusian armed forces might join the Russian military to invade Ukraine.
“I absolutely agree with him,” said Lukashenko about Putin’s concerns related to Ukraine-West rapprochement. He agreed with Putin on the Russian assumption that the country’s national and regional security interests have been compromised by NATO’s eastern expansion across Eastern Europe, where Belarus is also located.
Here are some reasons why Lukashenko’s Belarus feels so close to Putin’s Russia.
Unlike Ukraine, where protests backed by the West overthrew a pro-Russian government in 2014, the 67-year-old president’s government is squarely dependent on Moscow's support. Like Ukraine, Belarus also witnessed widespread protests in 2020-21, which threatened to oust Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. He is known to be the longest-serving president in Europe.
With Russia's support, Lukashenko, who was once spotted carrying his rifle during last year's protests, suppressed anti-government demonstrations with brute force. Soon before, he participated in a disputed presidential election in 2020, in which he was accused of rigging. Unlike Ukraine, Belarus is landlocked, and Lukashenko sees Russia as his enabler.
Like Putin, Lukashenko also believes in the “Slavic brotherhood, in blood” and blames the West for creating a rift between Ukrainians and Russians, two Slavic nations. “But we will return Ukraine to the bosom of Slavs. We will definitely do it,” he said, explaining his support for Putin's policy toward Kiev.
He also suggested that Russia and Belarus are not only Slavic but also have a will to keep former Soviet lands away from Western influence. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion last week, Lukashenko has backed Putin’s war on Ukraine.
He even indicated that Belarus could go nuclear if the West threatened it. On Sunday, the country held a referendum over renouncing the country’s non-nuclear status, which was accepted by a majority, according to results.
While the country has no nuclear weapons, it could deploy them from Russia, which has already put its nuclear weapons on “high alert” under Putin’s instructions. If the West threatens Belarus, Lukashenko further pledgedthis week that he could “deploy not only nuclear weapons, but super-nuclear and up-and-coming ones to protect our territory.”
Lukashenko is also the current president of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, a supranational organisation, which aims to create a political confederation between the two states, according to a 1999 treaty signed by Minsk and Moscow. Since 2000, Lukashenko has led the Union State.
Despite his defence of the Russian agenda, Lukashenko is still aware of the fact that a growing war might hurt not only his leadership but also Belarus, a country stuck between the West and Russia, like Ukraine.
That dilemma might play a role in why Belarus hosted the first ceasefire talks between Ukraine and Russia. On Tuesday, he reiterated his mediation offer to hold talks between Ukrainian and Russian leaders.
Belarus means White Rus or White Russia, indicating close identity connections between Moscow and Minsk. Many Belarusians, including Lukashenko, prefer to speak Russian, not the native Belarusian language, which was marginalised under Soviet rule.
According to a poll conducted last year, 86 percent of respondents have a very positive perception of Russia as a state and 96 percent of them see Russians as a people very positively. Putin also enjoys high support among Belarusians, getting a 60 percent approval rating.
But interestingly, the same poll suggested that 43 percent of Belarusians still considered Russia the greatest threat to their country’s territorial integrity. Attitudes toward Russia are also changing quickly in Belarus since the widespread 2020-21 protests against Lukashenko's government.
Pro-Western protests showed that more Belarusians, particularly young ones, want to associate themselves with the EU rather than Russia, the latter which Belarus might join in a political confederation according to the “Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus” signed in 1999.
While the political union has not materialised between Minsk and Moscow yet, Putin, a Russian nationalist, still considers Belarusians part of the greater Russian nation, both historically and geographically.
Are Belarusians part of ‘the Russian nation’?
“Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe,” wrote Putin in an article last year, referring to the first Russian state with its capital Kiev, established in the 9th century.
Due to that historical beginning, which suggests that Kiev was the first capital of the Russians, Putin feels emotionally close to Ukraine, a former Soviet republic and a country where some parts had also been under the rule of Tsarist Russia for at least two centuries. Therefore, he refuses the country’s sovereignty.
For similar reasons, Putin considers Belarus part of “the greater Russian nation, which united the Velikorussians, the Malorussians and the Belorussians.” Velikorussians or 'Great Russia' refers to the leadership based in Moscow, Malorussians or 'Little Russia' refers to Ukraine and Belorussians refer to current Belarus.
But Putin’s historical approach has some problems. Putin’s “Ancient Rus”, which is Kievan Rus historically, was established by Rurik, a Varangian-origin prince, bringing together not only Slavic people like Ukrainians and Belarusians, but also some Scandinavian and Baltic people like Vikings and Finns, who were not Slavic. Rurik himself was considered a Viking.
According to Putin’s approach, current Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians should also be descendants of Ancient Rus. But none of these nations considers themself Russian at the moment.
Interestingly, Russia recently warned both Sweden and Finland of “serious military-political repercussions” if they join NATO after both states declared their support for Ukraine in the ongoing war.
There is also another problem regarding Putin’s approach. Many Belarusians no longer establish direct connections between themselves and Moscow in a historical sense. The 2021 poll showed that nearly 40 percent of Belarusians consider themselves as descendants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a Baltic-origin state whose history goes back to the 13th century.
The same poll also indicated that a majority of Belarusiansdo not see Russia as the main origin of their national consciousness anymore.