Does the dismissal of Russia’s controversial ambassador in Belarus signal a change in Russia-Belarus relations? It may on the surface, but most likely Mikhail Babich did exactly what was expected of him.
It is almost as if something were changing in Belarus-Russia relations. Last week Belarus alerted European countries that the Russian oil delivered via the Druzhba pipeline was heavily contaminated. Russia, anxious of losing credibility with European customers, admitted the contamination and identified it as sabotage. The fiasco will likely take weeks to clean up and cause enormous financial damage. The Belarusian government immediately announced plans to buy oil via the ports of the Baltic states in the future.
Then this week Russia recalled its ambassador in Minsk, Mikhail Babich. Babich, a former KGB and FSB officer and presidential envoy had only been appointed in August 2018, but in the past eight months had entered several verbal conflicts with the Belarusian government. The Russian government had originally intended to appoint Babich, a Putin confidante known as an assertive fixer in Russia to head its embassy in Kyiv, but the Ukrainian government squarely rejected him. Alexander Lukashenko was only slightly more accommodating, given that the appointment of Babich was widely seen as a sign that Moscow was trying to prepare the ground for Belarus’s closer integration with Russia.
Indeed, almost immediately after his arrival in Minsk, Babich started to travel around Belarus, meeting media representatives, local organisations and even members of the opposition. This already set off the alarm in Minsk and it is quite likely that the Belarusian president had been actively seeking Babich’s dismissal from the onset. In March, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry criticised Babich for an interview, in which he berated Belarus for dilly-dallying over closer integration with Russia. Belarusian media was told to boycott Babich’s next press conference.
This is not the first time that Babich is recalled by Moscow after a short and thunderous tenure. In 2002-03, shortly after the end of the Second Chechen War, he served as the Prime Minister of Chechnya for three months before resigning over a conflict with Akhmat Kadyrov, the Chechen strongman who was appointed to head the republic after his troops flipped and helped Moscow win the war. Kadyrov who then took over the institutions of the republic completely was killed in 2004 but since 2007 his son, Ramzan has led the republic as his personal fiefdom. His rule has been characterised by barbaric and totalitarian measures but also by a degree of loyalty to Moscow and personally Putin that is sometimes bordering on the grotesque.
It is entirely possible that both in Chechnya and in Belarus Babich’s job was to be a bogeyman, an annoying avatar of Moscow that represented a level of meddling, with which local leaders were uncomfortable and which made them more eager to seek a compromise with the Russian government.
Belarus’s annexation was probably never in the cards and the Russian-Belarusian superstate that has been floated in the Russian press as a panacea for Vladimir Putin’s 2024-related problems is almost equally improbable. Even so, it is unlikely that Putin did not seek anything in return for replacing Babich with the soft-spoken, mundane Dmitry Mezentsev. There has been speculation in the Russian media that Lukashenko was given a year to prepare his country’s closer integration with Russia in a way that he can live with. If this is true, Lukashenko is probably betting on buying time until his negotiating position is reinforced either by more balanced trade or diplomatic openings.
Come what may, it looks like Mikhail Babich did what was asked of him.