Putin ‘the organisers of this rebellion will be brought to justice’
Several times a year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko are pictured together.
Sometimes they’re suited and booted for formal events, diplomatic meetings between their countries or with global allies.
In other instances, they don casual wear, Putin in a relaxed shirt, Lukashenko in slacks and a bomber jacket, riding a boat on the Black Sea at Sochi.
They are always smiling, shaking hands, in the middle of a joke, grins wide across their faces.
Photographs are deceiving. Putin and Lukashenko have known each other for decades, and in that time have grown tired and fed-up with each other, an expert has explained to Express.co.uk.
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While Lukashenko is one of Putin’s closest allies, it is merely the result of necessity rather than choice.
Emily Ferris, from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says the pair “don’t like each other very much”.
“The relationship between Russia and Belarus is very complicated,” she told Express.co.uk.
“Belarus is so financially and politically dependent on Russia, and Russia is formulating this Union State [with Belarus], which has all its problems, like trying to unify to tax and legal systems.
“While Lukashenko is one of Putin’s closest nominally allies, as people they don’t get along very well — and he’s not considered one of Putin’s inner circle, confidence type people.”
In the Soviet Union, Russia and Belarus shared an unbalanced relationship. Moscow held vast sway over Minsk, and apart from a brief interlude in the Nineties, the case is much the same today.
Many, like military analyst Sean Bell speaking to Sky News, have suggested Putin is installing a “puppet regime” in Belarus, one in which he essentially controls the country from the outside.
Ms Ferris similarly said it is clear Putin intends for Belarus to become an “entirely subordinate client state”.
It may all go some way in explaining why Putin and Lukashenko have always had a dislike for each other — each using the other for their own means.
The feud between Belarus and Russia has not always been private. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Lukashenko, fearing that his support for Moscow may result in western-backs sanctions, looked to distance himself from Putin.
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Many other very public spats ensued, as Ms Ferris recalled in a blog post for RUSI: [Ones] including disagreements over oil taxes, Lukashenko’s periodic snubbing of important economic summits, and an obtrusive Russian ambassador to Belarus who overreached and attempted to interfere in Belarusian domestic affairs. In the case of the latter, and as a signal of slight conciliation towards Belarus, Moscow recalled him.”
But as the years have passed, Lukashenko has grown ever-reliant on Putin and Russia’s vast economic support.
When protests broke out after the 2020 Belarusian elections, Lukashenko called in Putin for backup, to quell disgruntled Belarusians who accused him of rigging the vote and winning a record sixth term in office.
Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP that Putin initially dithered over what to do but eventually agreed to help Lukashenko, offering to give a loan to the struggling leader.
He explained: “They (Russia) came to the conclusion that Lukashenko is probably a dead end but for them, it’s embarrassing if it’s done from the streets, so they need to cast this in a process to have control over it.
“I think they (Russia) are looking for ways to manage this… (Lukashenko) is someone who can be replaced without the Kremlin losing too much face; he is not the poster boy of Russian-Belarusian friendship anymore.”
Ms Ferris suggested Lukashenko is unashamed when approaching Putin for help, telling Express.co.uk: “He is always asking for, say, lower gas prices from Russia, they have lots of fights about dairy products, exports, there are loads of disagreements between them and there are a lot of tensions in that relationship.”
She said she does not believe Lukashenko was ever told about Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine, hinting just how out of Kremlin’s circle he may be. Although, Express.co.uk was previously told by a former Belarusian diplomat that the opposite was the case.
Despite all of this, Lukashenko and Putin’s relationship appears rock-solid. They have met several times since the Ukraine war began, meetings in which the Belarusian leader has spoken fondly of his Russian counterpart, once calling him his “older brother”.
He also described Russia as a friend which had “held out its hand” to Belarus in providing it with discounted oil and gas, before adding: “Russia can manage without us, but we can’t [manage] without Russia.”
Russia knows this and has milked Belarus for what it’s worth. It has stationed its troops in the country, ferried weapons and munitions, and this month placed nuclear bombs there as a warning to the West.
Last year, their relationship was summed up in a bizarre state visit to Moscow, in which Lukashenko described himself and Putin as “co-aggressors” and that they were the two most “toxic” people on the planet, admitting that they could not agree on who was “more toxic”.
He said: “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] says that I am. I am already starting to think that he is…Well, [we] decided that we both are [equally toxic]. That’s all. And if someone today thinks of tearing us [apart], of forcing us apart….[they will not].”
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