Belarus and Armenia re-evaluate relations with Russia

Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin
Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin RIA/Scanpix

During a January 29 press conference, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that Minsk could pull out of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union if agreements are not kept, but also emphasized that the country’s integration with Russia is deep and strong. Meanwhile, Armenia has faced growing difficulties in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russia plays a key role. Both countries are likely to maintain their strategic orientation toward Russia, but Belarus and Armenia will continuously re-evaluate their positions depending on how the broader struggle between Moscow and the West plays out.

The crisis in Ukraine has had far-reaching repercussions. Relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War. Sanctions related to the crisis, along with a sizeable drop in global oil prices, have weakened Russia’s economy severely. Moreover, the crisis has brought Ukraine and other former Soviet countries closer to Western institutions. Ukraine is receiving increasing economic and security support from the West; NATO has increased troop rotations and military exercises in the Baltic states; and Moldova and Georgia have joined Ukraine in signing EU association and free trade agreements. Even Azerbaijan, which traditionally has balanced between Russia and the West, is being courted to expand energy ties with the European Union via the Southern Corridor route.

Within Eastern Europe and the Caucasus — the two regions that the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program specifically targeted — only two countries remain aligned with Russia: Belarus and Armenia. Both countries have grown closer to Russia following the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, becoming members of the Eurasian Economic Union that launched at the start of 2015. Both states have also emphasized their strategic alignment with Russia, particularly regarding military and security issues. Yet Belarus and Armenia may increasingly hedge their positions as tension between Russia and the West continues to climb.

Belarus’ calculations

In Belarus, Lukashenko’s government has long been at odds with the West. The European Union and United States imposed sanctions on Belarus following the country’s controversial elections in 2010, during which security forces cracked down on anti-Lukashenko demonstrations. Belarus was also the first and most vocal country in rebuffing the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program; Lukashenko saw the initiative as a way to promote democracy and undermine his political position at home.

Yet since the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych who — like Lukashenko — the West saw as an overly authoritarian, pro-Russian figure, the Belarusian president has adjusted his position regarding the European Union and United States. Lukashenko made Belarus a key mediator in negotiations between Russia and the West over Ukraine. Belarus also has cautiously opened a political dialogue with many Western countries, leading to a notable increase in economic deals between Minsk and several EU countries.

Simultaneously, Moscow’s growing financial woes and periodic economic disputes between Belarus and Russia have caused Lukashenko concern. In his Jan. 29 press conference, Lukashenko emphasized that though economic integration between the two countries is strong, trade wars within the Eurasian Economic Union cannot be allowed, and that Minsk does not exclude leaving the bloc if “agreements in it are not kept.” Still, Russia’s ability and willingness to provide financial assistance to Belarus — Moscow is slated to give Minsk around $1 billion this year — are critical.

In addition, Belarus adopted legislation Jan. 26 that would consider the appearance of any armed foreign fighters on the country’s soil a declaration of war, regardless of whether they are official military troops or not. The context for this legislation is clearly the Ukraine conflict, where volunteer fighters and non-official participants have fought on both sides. For example, the Ukrainian security forces have been accompanied by volunteer battalions, including fighters from foreign countries such as Poland or Georgia — a worrying sign for Lukashenko. The new legislation also prompted media speculation that the new law is directed toward Russia, given the presence of “little green men” — the unmarked and unofficial Russian military personnel fighting in Ukraine. However, Lukashenko is not likely concerned about Russia, since Russian troops are already stationed in Belarus and a new Russian airbase is set to open in the country in 2016.

Lukashenko clearly has become concerned about his position, especially as fighting flares up once again in eastern Ukraine. With military buildups growing near Belarus’ borders to the east and west, a spillover of violence from either direction cannot be ruled out. More important, the West’s continued calls for political reforms have Lukashenko worried that Western countries could increase pressure on his government, just as Russia is becoming increasingly alienated from the West and as presidential elections set for the end of 2015 draw closer. But Belarus is a strategic asset for Russia, especially with Ukraine in limbo and the Baltic states in NATO. Belarus has so far maintained its strategic alignment with Russia, but this year will shape Lukashenko’s political position domestically and in the country’s careful manoeuvring between Moscow and the West.

Armenia’s concerns

Armenia has long been strategically aligned with Russia. A key driver behind Yerevan’s orientation toward Moscow is Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. After Armenia defeated Azerbaijan in a six-year war over the region, Russia became Armenia’s de facto security guarantor. The 5,000 Russian troops stationed in Armenia have served to check Azerbaijan’s ambitions to reclaim the territory and also to guard Armenia’s borders with the larger Caucasus powers of Turkey and Iran.

However, the Ukraine crisis has affected the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Fighting has increased along the line of contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan; violence spiked in August 2014, and in November 2014 Azerbaijani forces shot down an Armenian helicopter. Azerbaijan has gained more room to manoeuvre in the conflict because of its sought-after energy resources and Russia’s focus on the Ukrainian theatre. These factors have caused Armenia to question Russia’s commitment as a security guarantor, especially concerning Moscow’s lack of response to the helicopter shoot-down. Armenia has not launched any major reprisal attacks, and on Jan. 27 Armenian Defence Minister Seyran Ohanian admitted that the helicopter that was shot down had deviated from its course and said that officials were dismissed as a result. This startling and uncharacteristic admission shows that Armenia may be recalculating its position in relation to Russia — something that the West and Turkey could try to capitalize on.

Still, Armenia has been careful not to stray too far from Russia. Despite a Russian soldier’s recent killing of an Armenian family in Gyumri, which has generated controversy and demonstrations in Armenia, Yerevan has stood by Moscow. Ohanian said the incident “should not drive a wedge in the Armenian-Russian relations,” adding that Russia’s military presence in Armenia “is solving a larger regional issue.” Russia’s military backing is crucial to Armenia, but continuation or escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — such as Azerbaijani forces’ alleged shoot-down of an Armenian unmanned aerial vehicle January 29 — will test Yerevan’s resolve.

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