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MOSCOW – He may be the Kremlin’s closest ally, but his loyalty remains in doubt.
When Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the eccentric and brutal leader of Belarus, crashed a European passenger plane on Sunday to arrest a dissident, he ushered in a new and even more fragile phase in one of the most intricate and momentous relations in the post-Soviet region: the between Mr. Lukashenko and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
In view of the conflict with the West, the two are increasingly leaning on each other, but have very different interests. Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled for 26 years, relies on his iron grip on his country to ensure his survival. Mr Putin wants to expand Russian influence in Belarus and thereby undermine Mr Lukashenko’s authority.
Now, with a summit meeting with President Biden coming up in June, Putin faces a choice of how much political capital to use to continue to support Lukashenko, whose command of the Ryanair plane has hampered the Kremlin’s efforts to maintain smooth relations with the West. Russian officials and pro-Kremlin news outlets have upset Mr Lukashenko’s side, but leading Belarusian opponents of Mr Lukashenko believe that the Kremlin’s support is only close.
“At the Russian Foreign Ministry in the Kremlin, I believe the people don’t like Lukashenko,” said Franak Viacorka, a senior advisor to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in a telephone interview. “But at the same time, since there is nobody more pro-Russian, they prefer to keep Lukashenko for the time being.”
Some western politicians, like Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, have called for sanctions against Russia over the Ryanair incident. Mr Lukashenko, the senator said on Monday, “does not go to the bathroom without asking Moscow’s permission.”
However, the reality is more complicated, say the Belarusian opponents and critics of Lukashenko. In a flurry of diplomacy this week, the Belarusian opposition has urged Western governments to keep their response focused on Minsk, not Moscow, and insisted that Mr Lukashenko should not be seen as Putin’s puppet.
“Lukashenko doesn’t listen to anyone,” Viacorka said, dismissing the idea that the ruler must have obtained permission from the Kremlin before dropping the Ryanair plane. “He’s an absolutely unpredictable, rather impulsive person.”
Belarus is a country the size of Michigan with only 9.5 million people, but for Putin it is both a critical ally and a tremendous headache. In Putin’s worldview of a Russia threatened by an expanding and aggressive NATO, Belarus is the last remaining friendly buffer state between his country and the West. Mr. Lukashenko recognized his special role and exploited it for years by playing Russia and the West against each other. He called for cheap oil and gas from Russia when he started building closer ties with the European Union and the United States.
Then came the uprising against Mr Lukashenko last summer, when demonstrations that began over the apparently fraudulent re-election of the ruler rose to hundreds of thousands in anger over police violence against demonstrators. The Kremlin wavered at first, then threw its support behind Mr Lukashenko and even offered to send security forces.
Russian officials seemed similarly surprised by events on Sunday when Mr Lukashenko messed up a fighter jet and a Ryanair passenger plane flying between two EU capitals landed in Minsk on an alleged bomb threat. The Belarusian security forces then arrested a dissident journalist on board, Roman Protasevich, who was on a Belarusian list of “terrorists” for co-founding a social media organization that fueled and organized last year’s protests.
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov told journalists in his regular daily meeting that he could not comment on the incident with Ryanair. “It is up to the international authorities to judge the case,” he said.
It took another 24 hours for the Kremlin to formulate its final message. Belarus’s measures were “in accordance with international regulations,” said Peskov on Tuesday.
On Wednesday Lukashenko asked for Russia’s sympathy. Lukashenko reiterated his frequent descriptions of the domestic uprising against him as a Western conspiracy, claiming that the real aim was to lay the foundation for a revolution in Russia. The result, he warned in a speech to parliament, could be “a new world war”.
“We are a training ground for them, a place for experiments before they push east,” said Lukashenko. “After you test your methods here, you will go there.”
European airlines canceled flights to Minsk this week, as ordered by EU executives who expressed outrage over the “kidnapping” of Mr Lukashenko. But Lukashenko spoke defiantly in a marble-paneled hall of the Minsk government house and claimed that a bomb threat against the plane had arrived from Switzerland.
“Don’t blame me!” Mr. Lukashenko thundered and poked his finger in the air. “I have legally defended my people and will continue to do so in the future.”
In Moscow, Mr. Lukashenko is widely seen as a frustrating and moody partner. Despite his trust in the Kremlin, for example, he has still not recognized the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which many Russians see as Putin’s crowning achievement in foreign policy.
“It is quite a grave mistake to believe that Moscow can snap its fingers to solve its problems in Minsk,” said Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat who resigned last year in protest of Mr. Lukashenko’s policies . “Lukashenko will try to avoid further dependence on Moscow in every possible way.”
Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow research institute co-founded by the Russian Foreign Ministry, compared Lukashenko to the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, another difficult ally in the Kremlin.
After Russia supported Mr Lukashenko in his hour of need last summer, the Kremlin should reap long-awaited benefits. Mr. Lukashenko could have signed an agreement for a Russian military base in Belarus or allowed Russian investments in large Belarusian companies on favorable terms. But despite three personal meetings between Mr Lukashenko and Mr Putin since last September – a fourth is expected in the coming days – none of this has happened.
“You would think: the regime was saved and he should have paid,” said Mr. Kortunov of Mr. Lukashenko. “But we don’t see that.”
Continuing to support Mr Lukashenko could be costly for Mr Putin, warned Mr Kortunov. As Putin prepares for a summit meeting with President Biden scheduled for June 16 in Geneva, Russian officials have telegraphed that they want to ease tensions with the United States. One factor is domestic politics: amid protests and dissatisfaction with economic stagnation, the Kremlin is faced with public disapproval of foreign adventurism.
“The social contract ‘We won’t give you sausage, but we will make Russia a great power’ – that no longer works,” said Kortunov, describing Putin’s approach. “He understands that he has to change the agenda. He will no longer win with foreign policy. “
Mr Lukashenko’s opponents are now pressing for the United States and Europe to impose further sanctions on Belarus that would further isolate him and possibly provoke a split in the elite. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader, telephoned for almost 40 minutes earlier this week with Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, her aide, Mr. Viacorka.
“If the Belarusian problem is discussed in the context of the Russian, it becomes impossible to solve,” said Viacorka.