Rather than eyeing the incorporation of Belarus into Russia, Moscow or some Kremlin-connected oligarchs could be seeking a stake in Belarus's oil-refining industry, which remains one of last family jewels left in Lukashenka's inventory. Giving that up would represent a major loss of sovereignty for the country of some 10 million people. Moreover, refining accounts for about 20 percent of the Belarus state budget, so surrendering that sector could create as many problems as it solves for Minsk.
Ironically, Belarus's shambolic economy could be the main defense of its sovereignty against Russia. When Lukashenka met with Putin on December 29, his Christmas gift consisted of four sacks of potatoes and a tub of lard -- possibly a symbolic representation of how little Russia stands to gain in a merger with Belarus.
In addition, over the last two decades, Belarus has developed a significant sense of its own national identity. Even its much-noted Soviet nostalgia is a peculiar type that emphasizes stability and government paternalism while rejecting suffocating central control from Moscow. Any Russian effort to foist unification on Belarus would arguably meet neither the open resistance that characterized Ukraine's Maidan revolution nor the easily manipulated apparent acceptance that Moscow manufactured in Ukraine's Crimea region.
"In Crimea, they had this fake referendum there, but I think in Belarus it would be different," former U.S. Ambassador Yalowitz said. "The country has been independent for more than 25 years and people have gotten used to being a separate country."
And in Russia the prospect of taking on the Belarus economic project would likely not be greeted as enthusiastically as the annexation of Crimea was by a population that has seen significant tax hikes and a painful increase in retirement ages in the last few months.
"At its best, Belarus is not Crimea," Russian political analyst Yekaterina Shulmann told Foreign Policy magazine this month, "but, in an average Russian's perception, is a poorer country to be fed and kept by Russia."
That's all true. But there's another worry, actually, for Putin, regarding Belarus: many Russians LIKE Lukashenko much more than him. Seriously. They do. They think he has done a much better job dictatoring Belarus all these years than Putin has in Russia. Belarus has better paved roads, for example. And its agricultural industry is much stronger, Belarusian dairy, for example, dominates the Russian market, outselling all Russian farmers. Etc.
If, hypothetically, Putin & Lukashenko were to run against each other in an election for head of the new unified state in 2024 or whenever, there is actually a very good chance Putin could lose...