Ever since people across Belarus took to the streets on the evening of August 9, 2020, to protest the results of a fraudulent presidential election, one figure has loomed large over the country.
It is not Alexander Lukashenko, its ruler of 27 years; nor Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was Lukashenko's main challenger and now heads a de facto Belarus provisional government in exile — the figure, is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Oil, guns and Ryanair
Since the Russian strongman congratulated Lukashenko on his electoral "win" last August, the Kremlin has been steadily consolidating its grip over the neighboring country.
Lukashenko regularly meets Putin. Official accounts of these meetings invariably mention either a Russian loan granted or extended to the Minsk regime, or Russian oil and gas deliveries to Belarus agreed at low prices.
In a more ominous development, the Russian and Belarusian armies have been carrying out joint military exercises nearly non-stop for a year now. The exercises will reach their climax in September, with large-scale military games called "Zapad," which is Russian for "West."
Probably the most significant trend of the last year — albeit far less visible — has been what many experts are already calling a creeping absorption of the Belarus State Security Committee (which still proudly calls itself the KGB) by its older "brother" — Russia's State Security Service (FSB).
Russia's ambassador to Minsk, Yevgeny Lukyanov, is widely believed to have served in both the Soviet KGB and the FSB.
Russian and Belarus intelligence services joining forces
Recently, just days after a brazen act of air piracy allowed Belarusian authorities to divert a commercial Ryanair flight and force it to land in Minsk under false pretenses in order for KGB agents to arrest anti-Lukashenko activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend (a Russian-citizen), both agencies proudly announced they would be enhancing cooperation against the "destructive West."
The Lukashenko regime even paraded a depressed and frightened Pratasevich before state TV cameras to make forced confessions about subversive activities in a scene worthy of Stalin-era show trials.
Eminent security services watchers like Mark Galeotti believe the FSB helped its Belarusian "colleagues" carry out the operation.
A similar suspicion of interagency cooperation hangs over the mysterious death of Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov, whom police found hanged in a Kyiv park this week. Shishov had emigrated to escape the grim reality of inevitable arrest and possible torture in Belarus.
Would Lukashenko challenge the EU without Putin's backing?
In this atmosphere of fear and intimidation it is no surprise that anti-regime rallies across Belarus have all but ceased, with hundreds if not thousands of Belarusians fleeing the country, mostly to neighboring Poland and Lithuania.
In July, Lukashenko also escalated his confrontation with the EU by abandoning the EU-Belarus readmission treaty and easing his country's visa restrictions to allow thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa to cross freely into Lithuania — an EU member state.
Lithuanian authorities called the move "an act of hybrid warfare" as they scrambled to house hundreds and then thousands of migrants and to fortify their border.
It is highly unlikely the Belarusian dictator would have adopted such an aggressive posture toward the EU without Putin first agreeing to it.
For the Kremlin, support of Minsk is an effective and inexpensive way to show that it does not leave allies in a lurch, as well as to flaunt its ability to threaten the EU on a very large scale.
Still Lukashenko's opponents, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, remain reluctant to mention Putin and continue to talk only about the Lukashenko regime threatening Europe. Some have even hinted to me in private conversations a belief that Putin will eventually tire of Lukashenko embarrassing him and agree to mediate his exit from politics. That kind of calculus is a big mistake.
What is Putin's endgame on Belarus?
Everything the Kremlin is doing points toward the goal of Russia absorbing Belarus in some form or another, even though it may officially remain on the map with Lukashenko as its ruler.
Putin need not repeat his 2014 Crimean operation to gain full control of Belarus — Minsk agreeing to host Russian military bases as well as adopting the ruble as its national currency would suffice.
That would make Putin master of the Belarusian economy — enabling the subsequent takeover of its most valuable assets by Kremlin-selected Russian companies — as well as providing a bridgehead allowing Russia to simultaneously face off against Ukraine to the south and NATO-member Poland to the west.
After Putin's international isolation was effectively ended by Joe Biden at their Geneva summit in June, there seems to be little will in the US or EU to stop such developments should Putin proceed to take over Belarus. With most activists either murdered, in jail or in exile — neither can the Belarus opposition.
When democratic revolution in Belarus started a year ago, few imagined that Lukashenko's ruthlessness, Putin's money, and their combined security agencies would tip the scales so hard that the country's existence would ultimately hang in the balance.