A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
When the Ukrainian and Belarusian national football teams faced off in Lviv last weekend, their fans marched out together under banners reading "For Your Freedom And Ours" and "A Brotherhood Of Conscience."
They belted out chants and songs deriding Russian President Vladimir Putin -- with predictably unprintable lyrics -- and gave blood together for wounded Ukrainian soldiers.
Two weeks earlier, Belarus's authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka pardoned and released six political prisoners. The move, veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble wrote on his blog, was "clearly intended to send a message to both the West and Moscow."
One of the unexpected consequences of Russia's annexation of Crimea and proxy war in eastern Ukraine has been a chill in relations between Minsk and Moscow and a thaw in those between Belarus and the West.
Lukashenka, of course, has been careful not to completely burn his bridges with Moscow, given his dependence on Russian subsidies. Belarus remains a member of the Eurasian Union and regularly conducts joint military drills with Russia.
But as political analyst Petr Bologov writes on Slon.ru, since the Ukraine crisis broke out, Belarus has been the only thing remotely resembling a Moscow ally "west of Smolensk" -- and this has given Minsk considerable breathing space.
But that may be about to change.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is due in Minsk on September 9, ostensibly for a meeting of the Eurasian Union's intergovernmental council.
But according to Russian press reports, the real goal of Medvedev's trip is to deliver a message from the Kremlin: It's time to stop bobbing and weaving between Moscow and the West and get on board.
Specifically, Russia wants Belarus to allow it to build a new air base on Belarusian territory -- something Lukashenka had been resisting.
The base would be located in Babruysk, in eastern Belarus, and would station SU-27 fighter jets manned by Russian pilots, Stratfor.com reported.
It would significantly project Russian military power westward, allowing Moscow to threaten and intimidate not only Ukraine but also Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.
And if Lukashenka continues to resist? Well, then the upcoming Belarusian presidential election gives Moscow a major opportunity to tighten the screws on him.
According to Arseniy Sivitsky and Yury Tsarik of the Belarusian Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research, Moscow is laying the groundwork to destabilize Belarus in the aftermath of the October 11 election -- creating the "illusion of a Maidan," so Russian forces could then enter the country to restore order.
And the information campaign appears to have already begun.
Aleksey Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Relations Committee, said recently that the West was planning a colored revolution in Belarus to oust Lukashenka.
"The pro-Kremlin media are actively preparing public opinion in Russia and neighboring countries for war, destabilization, coups, and colored revolutions," the U.S.-based Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova wrote recently. "And as a result, there will be a need to introduce forces into these countries under the pretext of restoring the constitutional order."
It all looks like a threat, a hint to the Belarusian strongman about what might happen if he doesn't play ball.
Tsarik notes that over the past two years we have seen the beginning of "the process of normalizing relations between Belarus and the West," which "is the natural response of Belarus to the economic collapse in Russia and the need to find new markets and new partners to ensure further development of its own economy."
Lukashenka has refused to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and even ridiculed Moscow's logic justifying the annexation, saying that Mongolia could just as easily lay claim to large swaths of Russian territory.
He has carved out a neutral stance on the conflict in the Donbas, has said he would never allow Belarusian territory to be used to attack another state, and has made it clear that Belarus isn't interested in being part of Putin's so-called "Russian World."
But the Kremlin appears to have had enough.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL