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The relationship between Belarus and Russia is unique and complex. At first glance, their similarities are numerous. Their ties are based on a shared history and language, a deep cultural affinity, legal agreements that codify a strategic partnership, intertwined economies, and shared threat perceptions of the West in general and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in particular. The two governments are led by highly personalist regimes that have decades of experience managing the partnership and share a similar and nostalgic view of the Soviet Union. There is a great deal of convergence across many policies.

However, this relationship is not one between equals, nor is it entirely harmonious. The watershed year in the relationship was 2020, when Belarus's ability to offset Russian demands diminished. Through a combination of violent crackdowns on protests that year, alarming its neighbors via a migrant crisis in 2021, and allowing its territory to be used to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Belarus has found itself increasingly isolated and unable to push back on most Russian requests. For Belarus's neighbors, managing the relationship with Minsk is now a challenge as ties (and mutual dependence) between Minsk and Moscow grow stronger.

In this report, the authors outline areas of convergence and divergence in the Belarus-Russia relationship. They also consider the regional perspectives of Belarus's neighbors — Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine — and how the Belarus-Russia relationship poses an evolving threat to those neighbors' security.

Key Findings

Overall, Belarus and Russia are aligned in many respects

  • There is a great deal of close cultural affinity, and the two countries share political, economic, defense industrial, and military ties that are codified in multiple agreements and treaties.
  • Long-standing defense-industrial cooperation between the countries is influenced by their mutual Soviet legacy. The Belarusian defense sector is almost totally dependent on contracts with Moscow.
  • Russia and Belarus are moving forward with Union State integration, and this process will result in closer military integration, Russian military forward stationing in Belarus, a joint military doctrine, and more-integrated responses in crisis and conflict with regional neighbors or NATO more broadly.

Belarus's sovereignty marks a point of departure between the two countries

  • The Russian government views Belarus as a "brotherly nation" that defers to Moscow in all important matters. The Belarusian government, opposition, and people see themselves as different from Russia and attempt to demonstrate they are a sovereign country — even if these demonstrations are symbolic or suppressed.
  • Belarus has sought to carve out a role for itself as a mediator of sorts between Russia and the West. Those diplomatic opportunities have now mostly been curtailed, but Minsk is still able to position itself as a mediator when needed.
  • Russia prefers to contract for components rather than final military products, which limits Belarusian industry's ability to grow beyond a certain point. As one Russian military expert noted, Russia still treats Belarus as the "assembly shop of the Soviet Union."

This research was sponsored by the Russia Strategic Initiative, U.S. European Command, and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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