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Russia, Belarus play war together

But despite appearances, the neighbors are not the best of friends.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left), Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (center) and Lukashenko's 5-year-old son Nikolai attend the final stage of Zapad 2009 military exercises on Sept. 29, 2009. (Vladimir Rodionov/Reuters)

MINSK, Belarus — Russia and Belarus ended their two countries’ largest joint military exercises to date last week. They were, in fact, the Russian army's largest war games in nearly 30 years, Russian media reported.

Russian television showed images of military fighters swooping and firing, while lines of explosions perforated an open field. The maneuvers, which began Sept. 18, were conducted in western Belarus and the Russian Baltic territory of Kaliningrad, and involved nearly 14,000 troops, 200 tanks and 100 jets and helicopters.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to his country's Slavic neighbor — a nation of about 10 million on eastern Europe’s edge, wedged next to Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia — for the conclusion of the exercises, named Zapad (“West” in Russian) 2009. Medvedev said that they were purely defensive in nature, and would be repeated every two years.

“These exercises show that our partner relations are growing stronger,” the Russian president said, after discussions that lasted seven hours with Alexander Lukashenko, his Belarus counterpart, during the war games.

The mutual muscle flexing and claims of eternal brotherhood of nations notwithstanding, Zapad 2009, as well as a meeting last month between the two leaders in the Russian resort town of Sochi, indicated instead that relations between Russia and Belarus remain rocky.

As with the Sochi talks, few details were released. (Medvedev merely called the August meeting "substantive.”) The two presidents significantly did not resolve the most important issue between their countries: agreeing on terms to release a final $500 million tranche of a $2 billion Russian loan to Belarus to help weather the world economic recession. Until recently, Belarus was considered virtually a satellite state for Russia. The two countries are linked by a vague “Union Treaty” and a decade ago there was talk of actual unification. Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” had been as predictable in his foreign policy (slavishly following the Kremlin’s line) as he had been domestically (cracking down on all forms of dissent).

A shift began three years ago. Moscow demanded that Minsk pay international prices for the gas it bought from Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, and slowly began to raise its tariffs. At the same time, it demanded half ownership of Minsk’s domestic gas supply network.

The price rise hit Belarus hard, analysts say. Lukashenko has maintained his popularity among large portions of the population in part by preserving the Soviet system of subsidies and free services. (In Belarus many call him “Batka” or “Little Father.”) The heavily discounted oil and gas bought from Russia help underwrite this welfare state, since Belarus industry could operate with much lower costs. The oil was also refined and likewise sold abroad at a considerable markup, contributing to the national budget.

From that moment relations sharply deteriorated. Lukashenko lashed out at Moscow. Crucially, he has withstood weighty Kremlin pressure to join the smattering of nations (Venezuela, Nicaragua and Russia) that have recognized Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.