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Once he held Russia at bay.  Now he is a docile satrap of Putin.


MINSK, Belarus — Dressed in a fur-trimmed winter military coat, Alexander G. Lukashenko stepped out of his white presidential helicopter for a morning of geopolitical theater. His presidential limo delivered him quickly to his waiting generals as heavily armed aides and bodyguards hovered around him, shivering in the freezing rain.

The Belarusian strongman was visiting a military training site on Thursday and watched Russian and Belarusian forces conduct joint drills, with Sukhoi fighter-bombers streaking across the sky and heavy artillery pounding a distant snow-covered target at about 100 miles inside Belarus’ southern border with Ukraine.

Yet only a day later, Mr. Lukashenko sat obediently in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who was no longer the swaggering Supreme Commander but rather an obedient student who sought direction and help from his master.

“I absolutely agree with him,” Mr Lukashenko later said of Mr Putin’s assessment that the West was responsible for the crisis enveloping Ukraine – not to mention the roughly 190,000 troops forces present in and around the country – and presenting Europe with its most serious security threat since the end of the Cold War.

For most of his nearly 28 years in power, Mr Lukashenko has secured his grip on Belarus by deftly maneuvering between East and West, playing each side against the other as he wins favors of the two and resisted the pressure of one or the other which threatened his authority.

This game, however, is now over.

On Friday, Mr Putin greeted Mr Lukashenko with a hug in the Kremlin and sat with him for talks at a small table, unlike the 20-foot-long table at which the Russian leader has held meetings in recent times. days with Western leaders. after refusing to take Covid-19 tests administered by Kremlin doctors.

For his part, Mr Lukashenko described Russia and Belarus not just as neighbors and allies, but in many ways as one nation bound together by determination to prevent former Soviet lands from drifting into orbit. of the West.

“The balancing act is clearly over,” said Ales Michalovich, a 2010 opposition presidential candidate who was relentlessly hunted by Mr Lukashenko’s notoriously vicious security apparatus.

Backed by an expansive and brutal security system, Mr Lukashenko shows no signs of losing his grip at home, except at the cost of becoming Mr Putin’s weakened satrap.

Its near-total dependence on the Kremlin began in August 2020, after it declared an implausible landslide victory in a disputed presidential election and had to call on Mr Putin to help quell huge protests in street that followed. Russia has beefed up its security forces and even provided journalists to fill the ranks of state propaganda outlets thinned by mass defections.

Since then, Mr. Lukashenko’s already narrow room for maneuver has been further reduced.

Its biggest export earner and taxpayer, a giant potash company, this month lost its only export route to overseas markets via a port in neighboring Lithuania, forcing it to look to Russia for acquire help. He said after his meeting with Mr Putin on Friday that Belarus, with the help of Russia, would now build a new export port near St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea.

Its military, still far weaker than Russia’s, has in recent months lost any semblance of equality in its increasingly intimate relationship with Russia’s armed forces, according to Western military officials.

“We can no longer distinguish between Russian and Belarusian forces,” said Lt. Gen. Valdemaras Rupsys, Lithuania’s defense chief. “Previously, only air defense and air surveillance systems were integrated, and now we are seeing systemic integration and subordination of Belarusian forces to Russia.”

Whether Russian troops return home or stay after the end of joint military exercises in Belarus on Sunday, General Rupsys added, will make no difference “because the Belarusian armed forces are now directly subordinate to the Supreme Command of the Russian Army”. .

Mr Lukashenko’s earlier talk of building bridges between East and West has now been replaced by bellicose tirades against Western leaders. While in Moscow on Friday, he outdid even Mr Putin in warning of conflict and denouncing anonymous Western politicians as “pathologically dangerous”. Europe, he said, is “on the brink of a conflict which, unfortunately, could drag down, like a funnel, virtually the entire continent”.

An unstable and deeply eccentric leader, Mr Lukashenko still tried at times to keep his frayed ties with the West from completely severing, using his large stockpile of political prisoners as bargaining chips. This week, for example, he released from prison a Swiss-Belarusian dual citizen, Natalia Hersche, who had been sentenced to 30 months in prison for participating in post-election protests.

She was released just days after a new Swiss ambassador agreed to present his credentials to Mr Lukashenko, as required by protocol. The United States refused to take this step because it would amount to conferring legitimacy on the disputed election.

Last month, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken ruled out any easing of multiple rounds of sanctions against Belarus until “the authorities cease their relentless crackdown on the people of Belarus, including by unconditionally releasing all prisoners policies”.

Not wanting to do this, Mr Lukashenko was left with Russia.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against Mr Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, claimed victory and then fled into exile, said the president was now just a regional governor of Russia.

“He is very weak and will do anything to buy Putin’s support,” she said in a recent interview in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where she now leads what amounts to a government in exile and where the potential US ambassador to Minsk is stationed.

On paper, Belarus and Russia have been linked at the hip since the late 1990s, when then Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed with Mr Lukashenko to form a so-called Union state, an arrangement which the Belarusian leader said would dominate. because Mr. Yeltsin was so weak, beleaguered by health problems and serious political problems.

However, since Mr. Putin replaced Mr. Yeltsin in the Kremlin on December 31, 1999, he has put Mr. Lukashenko in his place, making it clear that the stillborn union state had to be put in place – with Russia , not Belarus, calling the shots.

When meeting with Mr Lukashenko in Moscow on Friday, Mr Putin said that after years of delays, “serious progress” was finally being made in integrating the countries’ economic, political and military systems.

“We have a lot to discuss and coordinate our positions on a series of issues,” said the Russian president in an ominous tone.

After years of resisting pressure from Moscow to recognize Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Mr Lukashenko recently said that Belarus accepted that the Black Sea peninsula would now de facto be part of Russia.

As for the status of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which broke away from Russian support in 2014 and declared themselves “republics”, Lukashenko said on Thursday he would follow Russia’s lead in how they should be dealt with.

He still balks, at least formally, at Moscow’s longstanding demands to let Russia open permanent military bases in Belarus. Speaking this week, he said there was “no need for Russian bases”, if Russia could leave behind deployed ammunition and military equipment for ongoing joint exercises. He also said he wanted to expand Russian military training facilities in Belarus and other military cooperation.

“He still makes some decisions himself, but his decision-making process is completely unpredictable. He doesn’t follow any rules, even Russian rules,” said Mr Michalovic, the opposition candidate.

However, any effort by Mr Lukashenko to show even a modicum of independence from Russia could easily backfire if Mr Putin, who is said to be long weary of Mr. Lukashenko’s games, decides he’s had enough and can find a more reliable way. figure to replace it.

“Putin will use Lukashenko as long as he is malleable” and “fulfills his duties as a useful idiot,” said Pavel P. Latushko, a former Lukashenko loyalist, now in exile, who served as ambassador and culture minister Belarusian.

But Mr Latushko predicted the Russian leader would drop Mr Lukashenko “at an opportune time” because pushing him back would help rally ordinary Belarusians to Russia’s side and free the Kremlin from the taint of backing a dictator deeply unpopular.

“I think that time is coming,” Mr. Latushko said. “It comes very quickly.”

Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Sochi, Russia.

nytimes Gt

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