For a leader who likes to present himself as something of a strongman, Alexander Lukashenko has looked decidedly weak of late. Since he crushed the mass protests that erupted over his rigging of the election in 2020, the Belarusian president has become increasingly dependent on Russia for his political, and personal, survival. Where previously he had tried to play Moscow and the West off against each other, he has been reduced to the role of grateful supplicant at the court of Vladimir Putin.
Those dynamics were on display during Lukashenko’s most recent visit to Moscow, on 17 February, when the Russian president thanked him for agreeing to come. “As if I could not agree,” Lukashenko muttered in response. There is more at stake in this shifting power balance than simply Lukashenko’s ego. While he has so far declined to commit his own troops to fighting in Ukraine, he has allowed Putin to use his country as a staging ground for the war, hosting Russian soldiers, weaponry and military aircraft in Belarus.
Lukashenko also has reason to fear that Putin is preparing to push for more, pressing ahead with what has been described by Western analysts as a “soft annexation” of Belarus. The two countries are nominally part of a “Union State” according to a treaty that was signed in 1999, but talks on their closer integration had stalled and have only picked up momentum again in recent years as Lukashenko has been forced to turn to Putin for help. On 25 February Lukashenko denied reports that the Kremlin had drafted a detailed plan to take full control of Belarus by 2030.
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So it is hardly surprising that Lukashenko leaped at the opportunity to pay a state visit to Beijing this week, where he presumably hoped to show that he has powerful friends beyond Moscow. No doubt seeking to ingratiate himself with his hosts, he praised China’s 12-point position paper on the war in Ukraine, which was released to coincide with the first anniversary of the conflict on 24 February. In contrast to the disappointment with which it was greeted by European leaders, Lukashenko proclaimed it an “original step that will have a far-reaching impact all over the world”.
There could also be a darker motivation behind the visit. As the US has warned in recent days that it believes the Chinese leadership is considering supplying lethal aid to Russia, Belarus could offer a potential conduit. China could then claim it was not sending arms to Russia. However, there is no evidence that this option is under serious consideration and there are multiple potential routes that could be used to transfer shipments more discreetly.
The timing behind the visit is questionable from China’s perspective. In recent weeks Chinese diplomats across Europe have attempted a charm offensive, pushing to revive a stalled investment agreement between China and the European Union. This campaign culminated in the appearance of China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, at the Munich Security Conference on 18 February. But Wang’s decision to travel on to Moscow to hail the strength of Sino-Russian relations during a meeting with Putin on 22 February, followed by the release of China’s hollow position paper on Ukraine two days later, undercut any pretence that China is a neutral actor. That position will only be further underlined in European capitals by Xi Jinping welcoming Lukashenko, who has been described as “Europe’s last dictator” and who is hosting Russian troops on his territory.
Yet the underlying logic from Beijing’s side makes sense. China has maintained good relations with Belarus over the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, throughout most of which Lukashenko has been in power, and recently the ties between the two states have been closer still. Last September Xi and Lukashenko agreed to upgrade their relationship to the status of an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership”, the same level as China’s relations with Pakistan.
As the Chinese leader surveys the strategic outlook, he sees an intensifying contest with the US and its allies, which he views as implacably set on containing China. Last month he received Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, in Beijing. Following suit with Lukashenko should be seen as yet further evidence that China is preparing for a long-term contest with the West and seeking to cultivate friends and “all-weather partners” elsewhere.