Published: April 29, 2019

Student Name: Ben Deitsch

Course: PSCI 3022

Instructor: Prof. Sarah Sokhey

Published: March 15, 2019

Belarusian President Alexandr Lukashenko’s February announcement that Belarus was “ready to unite” their state with Russia didn’t raise much of a response from the West, perhaps suspecting that the statement was not particularly serious.1 However, Lukashenko’s question of "Are you – Russians and Belarusians – ready for it?” is an interesting one.1 What would be the outcome of such a union, and would that outcome be desirable in the first place? The purpose of this paper is to consider the outcomes of a Russian-Belarusian Union and ultimately suggest that such a union would be against the interests of the Russian state.

The economic and political state of Belarus is dire, and is reflected in Belarus’ interests in a true unification treaty. Belarus’ economy is approximately one-thirtieth the size of Russia’s, with GDP per capita at approximately one half of the Russian level. 2, 3 Belarus currently is in many ways subsidized by the Russian state, with some estimates suggesting that up to 20% of Belarusian revenues are the direct result of Russian subsidies.4 Belarus is also extremely dependent on Russia in terms of international trade, with Russia making up 44% of exports and 56% of imports.5 The Belarusian economy is largely in the public sector, with only 15% of economic activity in the private sector, meaning that salaries, infrastructure, and other business expenditures are often footed by the government.6 All of this comes at a time when Belarus’ debt would likely have to be paid by Russia to avoid default.7 It is additionally important to note the Russia has very little economic interest in the region, with Andrey Suzdaltsev, a researcher at the Moscow Higher School of Economics stating that Russia’s only real economic interests in the region are a few modernized refineries and a single fertilizer company, otherwise the economic relationship is completely “asymmetric”.4 Additionally, many of Russia’s economic problems (and hurdles for the Putin regime) such as public research, poverty reduction, public education, demographic transition (i.e. pensions), and infrastructure investment are ones best solved by government expenditure. 8,9 Put succinctly, “many Russian regions can justly demand subsidies before Belarus.” 10

It is therefore my suggestion that the Russian government not pursue a full political union with Belarus. The Russian government need not take on additional expenditures at a time when the Russian state should be funneling money into domestic initiatives. The Belarusian State, with its variety of economic policies, is a liability that the Russian government need not accept. Pursuing supranational policies is instead the superior alternative and more flexible for both states. Strengthening economic ties through a continued customs union and international loans/ subsidies has many of the benefits of a political union without the necessary burden of completely supporting the Belarusian state. Through the Eurasian Customs Union, the two states are currently free to strengthen economic ties, facilitating Russian exports to the region and providing a framework to strengthen both nations’ economy.11 The Russian state would also befree to supply the state with subsidies on its terms, subsidies that allow the Russian government to influence the political direction of Belarus.12 Continuing to pursue the status quo is the best possible option for the Russian state that provides both the benefits of the Belarusian partnership, without incurring the significant political and economic costs of integrating a poorer region into an already poor country.

It could be objected that a Russian-Belarusian integration treaty could be a military advantage for the Russian state, if nothing else. However, this is shortsighted for a variety of reasons. The first being that the Russian state already has a military presence in Belarus. As early as 2002, a paper for NATO stated unequivocally in the first sentence: “Belarus has been transformed into a Russian military outpost.” 13 This continues to this day, with Russia conducting the 2017 Zapad War Games in Belarus (with some claiming this was an elaborate way for Russia to station troops in Belarus).14, 15 Clearly, under the status quo, Russia has extensive military access to the Belarusian state, and taking on the economic costs would seem to accomplish nothing except perhaps further provoking NATO.16 There is also the claim that a formal integration treaty could serve to stabilize the famously shaky relationship between the two states, however, this is a misreading of the situation. Belarus’ ties to Russia are so strong that any reorientation to the EU or NATO would be illogical. Lukashenko’s recent flirtations with the West don’t represent a massive shift, rather they are merely a bit of “truancy” from an otherwise subservient ally.17, 18

For economic and military reasons, the Russian government should not seriously consider a full political union with Belarus. The benefits of such a union could be obtained in the status quo, or through measures that do not amount to the full integration of the Belarusian state, and the potential economic and geopolitical ramifications of such a treaty do not offset the costs in a relationship that would provide little (if not a net negative) for the Russian state. Ultimately, it is likely the recent incarnation of unification talks on the part of Lukashenko is merely another round of political havering, which is probably better for all parties involved.

Works Cited:
1 The Moscow Times Editorial Staff. “Belarus Ready to 'Unite' With Russia, Lukashenko Says.”
The Moscow Times, The Moscow Times, 15 Feb. 2019,
2 “Russia: Overview.” World Bank, The World Bank Group, 11 Oct. 2018,
3 “Belarus: Overview.” World Bank, The World Bank Group, 2018,
4 Biernat, Jakub. “Russia No Longer Wants to Subsidize Belarus.” Central European Financial
Observer, Narodowy Bank Polski, 27 Nov. 2018,
5 “Belarus.” Observatory of Economic Complexity, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018,
6 Danilovich, Alex. Russian-Belarusian Integration: Playing Games Behind the Kremlin Walls.
Routledge, 2018.
7 UA Wire Editorial Staff. “Belarus Asks Russia for $1 Billion to Repay Debts.”, 16
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8 Sokhey, Sarah Wilson. “Reversing Pension Policy in Russia...Again.” Foreign Policy Research
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9 BBC Editorial Staff. “Russia Pension: Protests over Retirement Age Hikes.” BBC News, BBC,
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10 Oldberg, Ingmar. “Sunset over the Swamp – the Independence and Dependence of Belarus.”
European Security, vol. 6, no. 3, 1997, pp. 110–130., doi:10.1080/09662839708407328.
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Research Center, 26 Mar. 2018,
13 Martinsen, Kaare Dahl. “The Russian-Belarusian Union and the Near Abroad.” Norwegian
Institute for Defence Studies, June 2002, pp. 1–35.,
14 Radio Free Europe Editorial Staff. “Ukraine's Military Chief Says Russia Left Troops In
Belarus After War Games.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 29
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15 Mehta, Aaron. “Lessons from Zapad - Jamming, NATO and the Future of Belarus.” Defense
News, Defense News, 27 Nov. 2017,
16 Sokolsky, Richard. “The New NATO-Russia Military Balance: Implications for European
Security.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 13 Mar. 2017,
17 Wilson, Andrew. “Belarus's Game of Truancy.” ECFR, European Council on Foreign
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18 Pakhomov, Nikolay. “Why Belarus Can't Afford to Be the New Ukraine.” The National
Interest, The Center for the National Interest, 23 Feb. 2017,