Where does the Union State go from here?

By Karl Afrikian, MALD 2022 Candidate, The Fletcher School

In early February during the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko framed Armenia’s geopolitical situation simply as follows: “Armenia has nowhere to run.” He stated that Armenia will inevitably end up a member of the Union State, currently just composed of Belarus and the Russian Federation, with other neighbors including Kazakhstan and Ukraine itself seeming destined to join this body. Lukashenko’s outlandish statements and behavior have been well documented through his reign, but he nevertheless remains the closest international political partner of Putin and has a better idea of his intentions than most. Does Putin think that the Union State will really expand to more post-Soviet states in the short term? Was Lukashenko hinting at a return to a Soviet-like union of states? While it is impossible to know what Putin is truly thinking, this mostly unnoticed comment by his closest peer may provide clues to what his plans are for both Ukraine and the post-Soviet space.

The Union State of Russia and Belarus is an organizational body consisting of these two nations with the goal of incorporating further political and economic integration. Founded in late 1999, the Union State incorporated some measures including open borders and the removal of trade barriers that allowed both states to remain interconnected. Some even speculated that Lukashenko, particularly in the 1990s, saw the Union State as an opening to ultimately take control of Russia himself and become its future president if complete integration between the two states was fully realized. Nevertheless, Russia has seemingly hinted at its desire to integrate Belarus into the Russian Federation over the years to the concerns of many, including President Lukashenko himself. Following the brutal 2020 post-election protests in Minsk, however, there has been an increasing willingness to expand the ties between the two states and enhance the apparatus of the Union State through various new policy measures including harmonizing business regulations and even creating joint police or military force.

Further integration under the Union State ultimately reduces the individual sovereignty of both states, but Russia’s clear dominating stature relative to Belarus, alongside the legacy of Russia within the USSR, forebode who will remain the most powerful and who will ultimately be the surrendering power. While other treaties such as the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union help Russia maintain some influence over the region, expanding the Union State would represent a further spread of the Kremlin’s control over its neighbors’ fiscal affairs and domestic politics. Putin knows this and also sees Lukashenko’s poor economic and political crisis as opportunities to gain further influence over Belarus. One may also assume that Putin similarly sees Armenia’s current geopolitical crisis with Nagorno-Karabakh, Kazakhstan’s domestic political crisis, and now the invasion of Ukraine as means to not only further Russia’s influence over the region, but also to re-establish itself as the dominant force in the region using the Union State to march ever closer to the Soviet Union political regime.

Expansion of the Union State as an entity does not seem particularly far-fetched in the coming months and years. The war has already proven Belarus’ extreme dependency on Russia, and as both nations become further isolated from the global economy, there could be forces pushing them to increase integrative measures. Full integration of Belarus into Russia seems unlikely as Putin would probably be unable to manage further political destabilization in the region, but the two seem apt to continue further integration on matters of economics and security. Armenia and Azerbaijan are working on peace talks currently, which may hamper any talks of bringing Armenia into the union in the short term, but the chance of long-term peace still remains uncertain as Russian peacekeepers in the region allow Moscow to maintain influence.

Overall, there is uncertainty in much of the post-Soviet space, including Putin’s strategy towards its other neighbors beside Ukraine. The war between Russia and Ukraine may need to cool down significantly before new members are brought into the union, but there are factors pushing for Russia to expand its political influence in the near abroad. Putin seemingly desires to reclaim some lost Soviet glory and expanding the Union State may be a feasible diplomatic avenue for this dream to be realized in the years to come.

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