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Putin might try to swallow up Belarus

Lukashenko (L) and Putin on the ice earlier this year. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

With Vladimir Putin's presidential mandate expiring in 2024, there's growing speculation he'll try to hold on to power by forming a Russia-Belarus union and placing himself in charge.

Why it matters: It's a distinct possibility given Putin's penchant for using legalistic steps to maintain a semblance of legitimacy. But it's not just about Putin’s job security — the Kremlin is waging a "creeping assault" on its neighbor's sovereignty and will take whatever steps it deems necessary to keep Belarus in its orbit, according to new research discussed today at the German Marshall Fund.

  • The groundwork is being laid though a misinformation campaign with links to the Kremlin. One frequent claim is that the Belarusian identity is a recent invention, promoted by the West to weaken Russia.
  • Russia-linked outlets are better funded and in many cases more trusted than local competitors, which have suffered under longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko. That allows Russian propaganda to spread.
  • Polls show that few Belarusians are currently in favor of joining Russia, though most want close ties to Moscow.

A Ukraine-style military confrontation is unlikely, the experts said. Two scenarios were raised for how a union could be secured:

  • Lukashenko is coerced into allowing constitutional changes, or a unity referendum.
  • Something happens to Lukashenko and a pliant pro-Moscow regime is installed.

What to watch: Russia would also intervene if its "red lines" in Belarus are crossed, the experts said. Those include threats to military cooperation or the flow of Russian oil and gas through Belarus, and deeper Belarusian economic integration with Europe.