Lukashenko’s Swimming With The Russian Sharks

Image by Presidential Press and Information Office

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko often make a publicity stunt out of their meetings. In the past they were seen skiining, riding snowmobiles, and playing ice hockey during a break in negotiations. While meeting in Sochi, on May 28, they seem to have gone a step further. 

“We can go for a swim. The sea is getting warmer and warmer. I think it will also contribute to the achievement of results of today’s meeting”, Putin invited Lukashenko.

“With pleasure”, Belarusian leader replied.

This homoerotic moment clearly suggests that most post-modern politicians are nothing but actors. Vladimir Putin is no exception. Ever since he came to power 21 years ago, he demonstrated that he can ride a motorcycle, take a dive in submarines, fly a plane to fight wildfires, play judo, and save TV crews from Siberian tigers. In other words, everything about Putin is a publicity stunt. Lukashenko, on the other hand, is an old-school, Soviet-style politician, but the era he is living in has forced him to go with the flow. Moreover, he became so dependent on Russia that he hardly has a choice but to join Putin in his PR campaign. 

During Lukashenko’s most recent visit to Sochi, the two leaders reportedly discussed economic issues, as well as the current political situation in Belarus following the imprisonment of dissident activist Roman Protasevich. He was arrested on May 23 after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius, to land in Minsk in order to detain the 26 year old co-founder of Warsaw-based Nexta TV – the most important Belarusian Telegram channel. Speaking of the incident that drew attention of the Western media and officials, the Russian President noted there was no reaction in the West after a forced landing of a plane of the then-Bolivian President Evo Morales in 2013. Indeed, in July 2013, a plane carrying Morales home from Russia was diverted to Vienna amid suspicions that it was carrying the surveillance whistleblower, Edward Snowden. The country’s defense minister Ruben Saavedra said that it was “a hostile act by the United States State Department which has used various European governments”. Morales finally left after spending 12 hours at the airport.

Unlike Morales, who came back home safe and well, Protasevich will unlikely leave the prison any time soon. His arrest triggered an air-embargo imposed on Minsk by the European Union, United Kingdom, Ukraine and Montenegro. They have effectively banned all Belarusian airlines from using their airspace and airports, and major European airlines have already suspended their flights to Minsk. Russia, on the other hand, prevented some European airlines, namely Air France and Austrian Airlines, from arrival without entering Belarusian space. According to the Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, European airliners circumventing flights around Belarus “are asking to enter at different points that are absolutely not coordinated, and therefore technical problems arise”. That however, does not mean that Moscow will keep prohibiting the arrival of the European airlines until sanctions on its ally are lifted. Moreover, Russia will likely resolve “technical problems” in the near future, since it can benefit from sanctions on Belarus. Most flights to Belarus are expected to go via Russian airports, especially after neighboring Ukraine joined the European air sanctions on Minsk.

Kyiv also banned electricity imports from Russia and Belarus until October 2021. Moscow traditionally either does not respond to any Ukrainian actions at all, or responds in a rather limited and calculated way. Minsk, contrarily, reportedly decided to reduce A95 gasoline supplies to Kyiv, although the formal reason is not a retaliation but a scheduled repair at the Mozyr refinery, which will start on June 1. It is also expected that the import of Ukrainian goods to Belarus will be significantly limited.

Meanwhile, Minsk asked Moscow to completely restore air traffic between the two countries – which was reduced due to the coronavirus – and help with the development of new routes. Although unlikely to happen, Belarus could theoretically become the first country to establish air traffic with Crimea. If Belavia Belarussian Airlines would start flying to Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, Minsk would de facto recognize the peninsula as part of the Russian Federation. That could be another Lukashenko response to the Western sanctions, although it remains uncertain if he is ready for any additional tensions with the West.

He already expelled all Latvian diplomatic and administrative staff from the embassy in Minsk, after the mayor of Latvia’s capital Riga – where the Ice Hockey World Championship is taking place – reportedly substituted the official red and green Belarusian flag outside the arena with the red and white banner used by the opposition. Even though the Latvian official removed the Russian flag as well, the Kremlin did not retaliate, but “strongly condemned” such an action. In addition, after Lithuania expelled two Belarusian diplomats as a sign of solidarity with Latvia, Minsk reciprocated. Small Belarus, unlike “powerful” Russia, does not seem to accept any form of political humiliation in the international arena.

Still, even though Lukashenko showed the West his teeth, he will unlikely be able to deliver himself from Putin’s embrace. As he said, Belarus’ main partner is in the East – “the brotherly country of Russia”. Thus, his country’s fate now heavily depends on Russia, primarily on deals that Putin is expected to make with the US President Joe Biden. 

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