With Belarus in the Fold, Putin Looks Beyond to Restore the Russian Empire

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION – “Considering the strengthening of Russia as one of the leading centers of development in the modern world and its independent foreign policy as a threat to Western hegemony, the United States of America (USA) and their satellites used the measures taken by the Russian Federation as regards Ukraine to protect its vital interests as a pretext to aggravate the longstanding anti-Russian policy and unleashed a new type of hybrid war.”

That’s a quote from Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 31 and now in effect. It updates the priorities, goals, and objectives of Russian foreign policy last set in 2016 and represents Moscow’s first major policy statement since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

And while it was clearly written with its propaganda value in mind, I believe it is worth reading in trying to understand the fantasy world that Putin thinks he is in, and where he wants Russia and the rest of the world to be going.

As the opening quote illustrates, the Concept paper reflects Putin’s questionable vision that Russia is “one of the leading centers of development in the modern world,” and that the U.S., seeing Moscow’s “independent foreign policy as a threat to Western hegemony,” used Moscow’s attempt “to protect its vital interests [by invading Ukraine] as a pretext to aggravate the longstanding anti-Russian policy and unleashed a new type of hybrid war.”

The Concept paper also raises an indirect Russian threat to other countries by listing among the “National interests of the Russian Federation” is “to protect abroad, in a comprehensive and effective way, the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of Russian citizens and entities; [and] to develop ties with compatriots living abroad and render them full support in exercising their rights, ensuring protection of their interests and preserving all-Russian cultural identity.”

This was the excuse Putin used in 2014 to justify taking Crimea and in September 2022 annexing four Ukrainian regions – the self-proclaimed Donetsk (DPR) and Lugansk (LPR) People’s Republics – and the regions of Zaporozhye and Kherson, of which Russia even now has only partial control.

Last Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Moscow, Putin chaired a videoconference meeting of the Russian Federation Security Council, attended in person by the Russian-installed heads of those four annexed Ukraine regions. The discussion, as shown in a Russian-released transcript, was of public security during which Putin admitted “martial law … [was] still in force in the new [Ukraine] constituent entities of the Federation.” But Putin blamed the need for martial law on “the Kiev regime [which] continues to commit grave crimes against the local civilian population. They spare no one, subjecting cities and towns to missile strikes, artillery and mortar shelling.”

However, Putin was later quoted as saying, “The neo-Nazis and their collaborators’ activity has expanded beyond the new constituent entities as crimes have been reported in other Russian regions as well. We have every reason to claim that the potential of third countries and Western intelligence services has been used in plotting the sabotage and terrorist attacks … In addition, purely criminal elements, including organized crime, drug traffickers and financial swindlers, to name a few, are trying to exploit the situation in the DPR, LPR, and the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions.”

It’s not just for the President anymore.

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Shortly after Wednesday’s Security Council meeting, Putin met in the Kremlin at 8 p.m. with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to talk about progress on implementing provisions of the Treaty Establishing the Union State between Russia and Belarus in preparation for a more formal meeting scheduled for the next day of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia.

An internal strategy document from Putin’s executive office, first disclosed last February by Yahoo News, said the end goal of the plan is formation of a so-called Union State of Russia and Belarus by no later than 2030.

The Union State idea reminded me of Putin’s earlier July 12, 2021, 5,000-word article, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, where he questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders, argued that much of modern-day Ukraine occupies historically Russian lands, and claimed, “I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kyiv simply does not need Donbas.”

Putin ended that article saying, “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

As Putin’s publicized schedule last week shows, he wants to appear spending time in creating his long-sought enlargement of the Russian Federation, whether it’s integrating annexed Ukraine territory or creating the Union State that brings Belarus closer to being under his direct control.

For the Lukashenko one-on-one Wednesday evening session, Putin said he wanted to talk “in a calm, relaxed atmosphere about what we will have to decide tomorrow and officially discuss together with our colleagues.” No detailed transcript of the Putin-Lukashenko one-on-one talks were released.

Continuing with Putin’s released schedule, last Thursday, at 1:30 pm, he held the first of four 15 minute meetings with each of the heads of those annexed Ukraine regions to discuss their individual situations according to his presidential website. Each conversation was publicized. With Kherson it was the need for gas and crop storage warehousing; with Zaporozhye it was a new medical center; in Lugansk it was enemy shelling; and for Donetsk it was air and artillery defenses.

At 4 p.m. that day, Putin and Lukashenko chaired the earlier mentioned session of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, whose stated public purpose was to review progress on implementing provisions of the Treaty Establishing the Union State between Russia and Belarus.

Lukashenko said, “Our countries pursue a coordinated foreign policy in the international arena. Our foreign policy cooperation is an example for other agencies to follow.” He pointed out, “An effective system of defense and security of the Union State has been established which includes a successfully operating regional group of forces and the united regional system of air defense. Steps taken to enhance border security have made the Union State much better protected from international terrorism, uncontrolled migration flows, weapons and ammunition smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal economic activities.”

However, Lukashenko pointed out that since U.S. and NATO economic sanctions applied after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had not worked, “They are now building up NATO forces and abilities near the borders of Belarus and Russia with a particular focus on the Kaliningrad Region. This is what you are seeing. The rhetoric about the prospects for a global armed conflict is ramping up.”

Although Lukashenko did not directly mention nuclear weapons despite the recent disclosure that Russia was sending tactical nuclear weapons to be located at Belarus bases, he did threaten them indirectly by saying, “We will use everything at our disposal to protect our countries and our peoples. I think they have similar approaches. We are not blackmailing anyone. It will be so.”

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On Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Lukashenko in Minsk to follow up on Thursday’s Kremlin meeting. As Lukashenko put it, “It was said at the [Kremlin] talks that in case of aggression against Belarus the Russian Federation protects Belarus as its own territory. We need such [security] guarantees.”

With that in mind, it is worth looking at the Concept paper’s section titled “Near Abroad,” where the Russian priorities include “preventing the instigation of ‘color revolutions’ [i.e. the Orange Revolution in Ukraine] and other attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of Russia’s allies and partners…[and] Russia’s key role in maintaining and strengthening regional security.”

The Concept paper also calls for “ensuring guaranteed protection of Russia, its allies and partners under any military and political scenario in the world, strengthening the system of regional security based on the principle of indivisibility of security and Russia’s key role in maintaining and strengthening regional security.”

Two more priorities listed conform to Putin’s vision of re-creating the Russian Empire.

The Concept paper calls for “countering deployment or reinforcement of military infrastructure of unfriendly states and other threats to Russia’s security in the near abroad … [and] deepening integration processes, which serve Russia’s interests.”

It lists for “deepening integration” not only Belarus, but also “strengthening the mutually beneficial comprehensive cooperation system” of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, and Uzbekistan.

Does Putin believe all this will or even should happen? He has Belarus, but all of Ukraine was clearly part of his original Union State integration plan. That has not occurred, and probably will not.

What must happen to make Putin see the world as it is, and not try forcibly to make it as he wishes it to be?

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