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How Putin’s grip made Belarus a Russian ‘vassal state’ ahead of warlord’s exile

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Belarus has stood out as one of Moscow’s few allies and the only European nation to offer Russia direct support in its war effort, including in its most recent endeavor to end a mutiny against the Kremlin.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said he helped bring about a peaceful resolution to an apparent mutiny by Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin by offering him and his private military company troops a safe haven within Belarus’ borders in exchange for his “exile” from Russia.

Lukashenko’s claims have been questioned by regional experts and analysts alike who have asked why he stepped in and how his actions play into his deep allegiances to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

PUTIN CLAIMS WAGNER DID NOT HAVE PUBLIC BACKING IN MUTINY ATTEMPT: ‘THE PEOPLE WERE NOT WITH THEM’

Though Belarus and Russia share a long history together, Minsk has not always acted as Moscow’s subservient.

Putin Lukashenko

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko enter the hall during the Supreme Economic Eurasian Council at the Grand Kremlin Palace on May 25, 2023, in Moscow. (Contributor/Getty Images)

Belarus declared its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, and by early December of that year, leaders from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia met to sign the Belovezha Accords. The agreement solidified the dissolution of the Soviet Union – a collapse that Putin would one day call the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

While Belarus and Russia have a shared past, their allegiances to one another have become far more pronounced in recent years.

“Belarus is a de facto vassal of Russia,” Peter Rough, senior fellow and director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia for the Hudson Institute, told Fox News Digital.

“This asymmetry is not what Lukashenko had in mind when he first launched the Union State with Russia in the 1990s,” he added in reference to a 1999 agreement signed by Lukashenko and Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, to bolster Minsk and Moscow’s defense and economic ties.

Russia Belarus

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talk during the plenary session of the Eurasian Economic Forum in Moscow on May 24, 2023. (Vyacheslav Viktorov, Roscongress Foundation via AP)

The neighboring nations saw a shift in their geopolitical dynamic after Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, prompting concern in Minsk that Putin may have plans for other former Soviet states as well.

“Putin wants to re-create the Russian Empire at least as big as the Soviet Union. To do so, he’s using every trick in the book tailored to the weaknesses and unique situations of his neighbors,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Michael Ryan told Fox News Digital. “Lukashenko wouldn’t be in power today if not for Putin.”

By the end of 2020, the dynamics between Lukashenko and Putin had shifted after the Belarusian leader saw massive uprisings after an allegedly botched presidential election.

Large-scale protests broke out after Belarusians, Western nations and human-rights groups accused Minsk of falsifying the election’s results to secure Lukashenko – who had been in power since 1994 – another win.

LUKASHENKO WARNS OF BELARUSIAN ‘COMBAT READINESS’: ‘IF RUSSIA COLLAPSES, ALL OF US WILL DIE’

Lukashenko responded by violently cracking down on protesters and calling in Russia to help suppress the uprisings as Minsk faced international ire.

Rough explained that Putin’s willingness to jump in and help Lukashenko was down to more than maintaining region stability; it has enabled him to keep Lukashenko beholden to Russia.

Belarus election riots

A man carrying the former white-red-white flag of Belarus stands in front of police during a rally to protest against the Belarus presidential election results in Minsk on Oct. 11, 2020. (Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

“Putin has established dominance over Lukashenko since riding to his rescue during the Belarusian protests,” he said. “Now, Putin is turning Belarus into a front-line Russian garrison state, stationing Russian troops and deploying tactical nuclear weapons there.”

Belarus has not only allowed Russia to station and train troops within its borders, even serving as a launching point for the Russian troops that marched south on Kyiv in the early days of the war in Ukraine, Lukashenko has further allowed Putin to place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus – a move that marked the Kremlin’s first deployment of such weaponry outside of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Putin Lukashenko

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, embraces his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, during a meeting in Moscow on Dec. 29, 2018. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via Reuters)

Belarus once again found itself embroiled in the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine this past weekend after Prigozhin ordered his troops to head for Moscow in a “march for justice” in retaliation for the ill-treatment his forces received while on the front lines by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

PRIGOZHIN MOVE TO BELARUS COULD BE STRATEGIC MOVE BY PUTIN, THREATEN BORDERING NATO COUNTRIES: EXPERT

But the terms of the alleged agreement brokered by Lukashenko remain opaque, and some experts are wary over its authenticity. 

Russia Belarus

Tanks move during the Union Courage Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus on Feb. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.)

Russia expert Rebekah Koffler, a former Defense Intelligence Agency intel officer specializing in Russian doctrine, told Fox News Digital that she believes the attempted mutiny over the weekend was most likely staged by Putin to strategically establish the Wagner forces in Belarus and potentially set up a second front to stretch Ukraine’s forces thin.

“Lukashenko became the beneficiary of Putin’s nuclear weapons, so Lukashenko supposedly negotiating Prigozhin’s ‘exile’ was in [on] it,” she said, alleging that she suspects the Belarusian leader of being aware of a Putin-directed scheme. “It’s part of the whole package.”

“Belarus is highly dependent on Russia economically and militarily,” she continued. “Lukashenko pretty much has to take orders from Putin.”

Though experts agree Lukashenko is beholden to Putin, they are divided on whether the mutiny signified that Putin is in a weakened state or acting as a strategically savvy maneuverer. Opinions on how Lukashenko and Prigozhin fit into the scenario are also divided.

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin greets bystanders as he leaves Rostov following his short-lived rebellion

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown during the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. (Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko)

“While Lukashenko likely relishes the attention he’s getting for the Putin-Prigozhin stand-down, he is not a meaningful actor in that feud,” Rough said. “Prigozhin must impress on Putin that going after him may spawn civil war. Lukashenko is insignificant in any of these calculations or decisions.”

But Rough also pointed out that if Russia does see a decline in Putin’s authority or power, it could “give Lukashenko an opportunity to break free” from Putin’s clutches.

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