Russia’s goal in its neighbourhood is to regain influence, not to be surrounded by neutral, self-sufficient buffer states.

In recent years, Russia has opposed revolutions against authoritarian leaders and electoral fraud throughout the post-Soviet space. This counter-revolutionary effort has radically reshaped Russia itself. But there have always been exceptions to the rule. Russia accepted the result of leadership contests (not always accompanied by street protests) in the separatist regions of Transnistria in 2011, and Abkhazia in 2004 and 2020. The most prominent example of this is Armenia’s 2018 revolution, in which Russia accepted both a leadership transition enforced by public protests and a subsequent anti-corruption drive. It did so because Armenia’s new leader, Nikol Pashinyan, stayed close to Russia on foreign and security policy.

Hence, some observers hoped that Moscow might show some flexibility in the ongoing protests in Belarus. Russia seemed to be exploring its options – until President Vladimir Putin decisively backed his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in a television interview on 27 August. But a change in policy is still possible: Russia is providing resources to stabilise the situation in Belarus on its own terms, and it can still redirect those resources towards whomever it thinks will deploy them best.

So, are there any parallels between Belarus and Armenia? Historically, both countries are less pluralistic and democratic than Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine, all of which went through their own revolutions. Armenia and Belarus are characterised by strongman politics, security apparatuses tied to Russia, and oligopolistic economies with significant state-owned sectors and limited civil society – which ensure that power lies in the hands of a relatively limited number of political actors and interest groups. On paper, this should help Moscow or local elites navigate through protests.

But Belarus is a personalised dictatorship, in which the regime has systematically repressed or exiled all nascent cells of opposition and independent power. Before 2020, Lukashenka did not even allow much by way of Russian puppet organisations (patriotic youth movements, political parties, newspapers, and civil society organisations such as those in Ukraine).

Armenia was a defective democracy, where competition between political rivals was deferred and distorted, but nevertheless took place. The country has also gone through several phases of street protests in the last two decades. And its political forces have some experience with trying to channel street protests into political outcomes. The departure of the president would leave a much bigger power vacuum in Belarus than it did in Armenia.

If it indulges in rhetoric that it cannot back up with action, the EU will only play into Moscow’s hands.

Both countries rely on Russia for security. Both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union. Neither Armenian nor Belarusian politicians question this alignment. The Armenian and Belarusian domestic security apparatuses are closely connected with their Russian counterparts, and have a certain degree of Russian oversight. But there are significant differences between Belarus and Armenia.

Armenia is surrounded by genuine enemies: the Nagorno-Karabakh war is a real ethnic conflict, and Azerbaijan has no intention of giving in. To Armenia’s west, Azerbaijani ally Turkey has a large military and has grown increasingly assertive under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Regardless of who is in government, Armenia will feel threatened and will need military protection. Russia is the only local actor who is able and willing to provide this.

Belarus, in contrast, does not experience similar levels of insecurity. For a Belarusian government that enjoys a minimum degree of legitimacy, there is no existential threat requiring a Russian security umbrella. Hence, Russia is much less crucial to the security of Belarus than to that of Armenia.

The Armenian military is more independent than its Belarusian counterpart, having fought a war for almost 30 years. The military was a factor in the 2018 revolution, discontented as it was with the outcome of the four-day war with Azerbaijan two years earlier. The Belarusian military has no such role. Although Lukashenka has created new security services and moved to give the Belarusian military a more independent posture after the war in Ukraine began in 2014, the KGB remains the dominant security service in Belarus and still has very close ties to Russia. So far, the Belarusian security services have willingly and aggressively put down protests.

Russia already has the military presence in Armenia that it wants, and aims to balance their security partnership with its clear desire to maintain good relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. In Belarus, Russia lacks such restraint. If offered the chance, Russia would seek to expand its security and military infrastructure in Belarus – not least to threaten Ukraine.

Economic dependencies – in both trade and investment – currently strengthen ties between Russia and Belarus. Russia accounts for a massive 49 per cent of Belarusian trade, and just 26 per cent of Armenian trade. Belarusian state-owned industries are tightly integrated with their Russian equivalents, particularly in the defence sector. Nonetheless, Russian influence in Belarus could be significantly diluted within five to ten years of a leadership transition. Belarus neighbours the European Union and, in recent years, has begun to diversify its trade while growing its private sector (particularly in the IT industry). Lacking a border with the EU, Armenia cannot diversify in the same way.

Armenia is also more geographically distant from Russia, making it relatively difficult for the Kremlin to provide direct assistance to the Armenian regime. The fact that Belarus is predominantly Russian-speaking means that there is more pro-Kremlin propaganda in Belarus, and that it has been possible to install Russian propagandists on Belarusian TV. But this also means that the risks of repercussions in Russia’s domestic politics are higher – Belarus is a mirror for Russia in a way that Armenia is not. The protests in Belarus suddenly showed that there is little guarantee of lifetime leadership for not only Lukashenka but also Putin.

Russian strategic thinking

Recent events in Belarus surprised Russian leaders as much as everyone else. Some observers in Moscow speculated about a controlled succession in the country. But Moscow’s choice to force a weakened Lukashenka into making concessions he would have otherwise resisted can largely be explained by Russian military thinking. The position of Belarus is much more important to Russia than that of Armenia or any other Central Asian ally.

Russia’s goal in its neighbourhood is to regain influence, not to be surrounded by neutral, self-sufficient buffer states. The Kremlin’s attempts to increase and institutionalise its power and control in Belarus – particularly through the Union State – are likely intended to prevent Belarus from escaping the Russian orbit. Deeper integration, a common currency, shared military structures, political control via common decision-making, and an expanded Russian military presence in Belarus have been on Moscow’s wish list for years.

How the EU should respond

The EU has limited practical leverage over the situation in Belarus. The bloc will need to carefully tread the line between an excessively ambitious approach and an overly cautious one. If it indulges in rhetoric that it cannot back up with action, the EU will only play into Lukashenka’s and Moscow’s hands – feeding its paranoia and helping it portray the protests as a form of Western hybrid interference.

However, too soft a line will only encourage more assertive Russian behaviour, in not just Belarus but also other post-Soviet states. If European and US diplomats shrug off Russia’s deployment of media cadres and declared readiness to send Russian security personnel to Belarus, Moscow could be increasingly tempted to test the limits of international acceptance of Russian interference in other post-Soviet countries as well. That is why, sooner or later, the EU will face the issue of whether to impose sanctions on not just Belarusian policymakers but also some of the Russians involved in the autocratic crackdown in Belarus, starting with Russian operatives on Belarusian TV.

Belarus provides a useful reminder that there is no illiberal or conservative anti-democratic tide to the east of the EU. Quite the contrary. In the last two and a half years, Armenia and Belarus have gone through large-scale street protests driven by a desire for greater democracy, and voters in Ukraine and Moldova have voted against oligarchic rulers. For all the EU’s legitimate prudence over Belarus, democracy – and EU support for democracy in its eastern neighbourhood – is still in high demand. 

Read more on: Wider Europe, Russia, EaP, Ukraine

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.