Putin and Lukashenko move to integrate economies of Russia and Belarus

Russian president announces agreement on macroeconomic policies, and common tax and customs measures

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko Russian president Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko meet at the Kremlin in Moscow on Thursday. Photograph: Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik/AFP/GettyRussian president Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko meet at the Kremlin in Moscow on Thursday. Photograph: Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik/AFP/Getty

in Moscow

Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said they had made progress toward integrating the two countries’ economies during a summit on Thursday evening in advance of massive joint military exercises.

Speaking late on Thursday, Putin said the two leaders had agreed to coordinate the countries’ macroeconomic policies, institute common tax and customs measures, and harmonise other financial controls as part of a 28-point roadmap that is expected to increase Russia’s influence over its neighbour.

The countries will move to integrate their energy markets while maintaining steeply discounted supplies of natural gas to Belarus, and Russia will provide a further $630m in loans to the cash-strapped Belarusian government, Putin said.

The texts of the agreements were not made available and the leaders did not sign any documents publicly. While the two sides announced new economic agreements, they stopped short of introducing a common currency or going into detail on any defence or political agreements, signalling a limit to the extent of the negotiations.

Lukashenko, who has been sanctioned by the west for a brutal crackdown on the country’s opposition, has been seen as resisting pressure from Moscow to concede control over government policy in exchange for Russian support.

“First the economic foundation must be laid before moving further on the political track,” Putin said after the talks, noting that the two sides had not discussed possible political integration.

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While the two sides did not openly discuss arms sales or new Russian bases in Belarus, there were signs of growing military cooperation between the countries.

Ahead of his sixth meeting with Putin this year, Lukashenko said he hoped to buy a large shipment of weapons, including combat jets and helicopters, as well as the advanced S-400 air defence weapons. Belarus also claimed that Moscow had moved Su-30 fighters to Belarus in order to patrol the country’s borders with Europe.

The Kremlin was thought to be leveraging that isolation to pressure Lukashenko into finalising a number of integration projects that would draw Belarus far closer to Russia politically, militarily and economically, even binding the countries with a shared currency.

Yet Lukashenko had stalled on implementing the agreements, which were drawn up as part of a 1999 Union State treaty, recognising that they would undermine his position and hand Belarusian sovereignty over to Moscow. A Belarusian ambassador had said that the two sides may sign the agreements on Thursday evening, state media reported. But similar predictions have fallen flat before.

The meeting comes just days before the start of the Zapad-2021 military exercises, in which an estimated tens of thousands of Belarusian and Russian troops will participate in planned manoeuvres on Europe’s borders. Moscow has claimed that as many as 200,000 troops were taking part in the training, but that number was believed to be inflated.

The exercises, which are held every four years, usually simulate a conflict between Nato and a Russian-led alliance. The 2017 drills were met with considerable alarm in the west, where there were concerns that the exercises could serve to justify a military buildup on Nato’s borders. The response to the 2021 drills, which were set to be held from 10-16 September, has been more muted, although European countries along the Belarusian border have heightened security precautions, in part due to a migrant crisis fomented by the Belarusian leader.

“I asked you to come to summarise the results of what’s been done recently in creating the programme of the Union State,” Putin said as the talks opened on Thursday, referring to a decision to further integrate the countries that had stalled since it was first agreed in principle in 1999.

“We are moving forward like civilised countries, only together, only as a union … nearly a single people,” said Lukashenko in a rhetorical flourish.


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