Why Moscow Hates Minsk

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Russian President Vladimir Putin threw a major fit on state television Monday night. In a vituperative appearance, he accused the neighboring nation of Belarus of ungratefulness and intransigence in the ugly quarrel over energy prices and pipelines. He said that Russia had virtually subsidized the neo-Stalinist regime of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko over the past five years. Now the Belarussians' illegal tapping of tens of thousands of tons of oil had forced Moscow to shut down the pipeline that runs through Belarus — inconveniencing not just Russian oil companies but their energy-hungry customers farther to the west, including Germany and Poland. [German Chancellor Angela Merkel today criticized both Moscow and Minsk for what she called "unacceptable" behavior. Germany gets a fifth of its oil imports through the so-called Friendship pipeline in question.]

Over New Year's, Russia forced Belarus to pay a whopping increase in gas prices; Belarus retaliated by stealing oil from the pipeline. But Putin's bile may have origins other than the current quarrel over the price of energy. In the 1990s, Lukashenko, although the president of another country, was immensely popular in Russia because he loudly advocated the reintegration of Belarus with Russia — so much so that some analysts believed he was maneuvering for the top position at the Kremlin itself. At that time, Lukashenko cut a much more attractive figure than then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But the rise of Vladimir Putin ended Lukashenko's advance. However, even today, some polls put Lukashenko's approval among Russians at 25%, way above the numbers generated by the putative political heirs of Putin himself.

Lukashenko has since dragged his feet at re-federation, and Belarus now fears that the Russians will simply go ahead and find a way to end its independence. That fear may itself be fueled by Russian paranoia about national security, which is never far from the surface. While recent threats to the Russian state have come from Islamist radicals, Moscow's military elite still harbors apprehensions about NATO. An attack by the Western alliance and the U.S. always plays a part in defense planning. And how is Belarus involved in Russia's fear of NATO? For about 10 years, in order to monitor the West, the Russians have maintained an electronic warning station in Baranovichi, Belarus, staffed with an estimated 1,200 Russian military personnel. A critical nuclear submarine control and communication facility for the Russian navy is also located in Belarus. Hence, a pliant Belarus would make Putin's generals happier. An openly hostile regime in Minsk would not.

As he presides over a moribund economy, Lukashenko has taken to guerrilla tactics to survive, brazenly ordering his officials to take Russian oil from the pipeline. He knows that Belarus alone cannot stand up to the Russian behemoth, much less pay for energy prices Moscow has imposed on it. However, Lukashenko is betting that when countries like Poland and Germany feel his pain, Moscow will begin to feel the heat.