“The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism.” — Former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
Many in the West don’t realize that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and Belarus, its smaller neighbor to the west, set up their own mini-political combination, dubbed the “Union State.” Belarus — literally, “White Russia — historically has been controlled by Moscow, with some periods ruled by Moscow’s archrival throughout the ages, Poland.
There was a long history of oppression of the Belarusian people and culture by their Soviet masters. Stalin and his successors instituted a policy of “Russification” of the area. One-third of the population was killed during the “Great Patriotic War,” as the Soviets called World War II. Almost half of Belarus’s economic resources were destroyed.
The Union State was meant to eventually become a real political union. It had its own parliament and state bureaucracy, and planners even envisaged that there would be a common currency on the way to the creation of a single sovereign nation. However, the great hopes never materialized. For various reasons, the tectonic forces that were pushing the two states closer lessened over time.
Currently, relations between the two nations have become downright frosty. The main reason appears to be that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since the mid-1990s and considered by many the last dictator in Europe, seems to have developed a deepening aversion to life under Moscow’s thumb. He has expanded relations with the European Union, and even offers visa-free travel for Westerners.
Given the ominous developments in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Mr. Lukashenko seems to have realized that he could be Russia’s next victim. “No matter who comes to the Belarusian land, I will fight. Even if it is Putin,” he told the Russian newspaper Dozhd in early 2015.
There is another very important piece to this geopolitical puzzle: Belarus lies squarely in the middle of an important geographical channel that Russian troops would use for any invasion of NATO territory. In light of this reality, the Kremlin has been pressuring Belarus to allow a permanent Russian air force base on its territory. Mr. Lukashenko, so far, has refused.
The upshot: Moscow is not happy and has made its feelings known in the traditional way, using energy as a political weapon. Belarus and Russian oil giant Gazprom have been arguing over payments for gas for the last fiscal year. To speed the talks along, Moscow reduced oil exports to Belarusian companies who are dependent on fuel to function. Negotiations over the issue have not been going well. Belarus offered a partial payment, but the payment was refused by the Kremlin.
Mr. Lukashenko seems to have been genuinely surprised by Russia’s recent move to install border controls with Belarus. So much for the “Union State.” “We got our independence cheaply,” Mr. Lukashenko recently told a group of scientists in Belarus,
“Right now fraternal Ukraine is fighting for its independence,” he went on. “We cannot afford to fight. We are a peace-loving people.”
This does not bode well for a Union State common customs area, or any other merger between the two nations.
The only question now is how long Moscow will allow this insubordination to go on. Given the success of a tactic Russia has repeatedly employed to reclaim influence over other former satellite states and Soviet territories, I wonder when Mr. Putin decides it’s time to “protect” the Russian speakers in Belarus as well.
• L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, the New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached through his website, LToddWood.com.
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