A female cosmonaut is Putin's payback for Lukashenko's Belarusian allegiance

Moscow pays back Minsk's denunciation of the CFE treaty and the deployment of tactical nuclear missiles on its territory with a trip into space 
Nada más ser extraída de la capsula Soyuz MS-24 con la que ha regresado a Tierra, médicos y enfermeros rusos verifican las constantes vitales de la bielorrusa Marina Vasilevskaya - PHOTO/Roscosmos
Just after being taken out of the Soyuz MS-24 capsule with which she has returned to Earth, Russian doctors and nurses check the vital signs of Belarusian Marina Vasilevskaya - PHOTO/Roscosmos
  1. Two-week ticket to the ISS
  2. Landlocked on the Baltic and bordering Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Russia

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, has just brought back to earth 33-year-old Marina Vasilevskaya, who has become the first woman of Belarusian nationality to travel into space and spend a dozen days aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

A flight attendant for Belavia Airlines, Belarus' state airline, Marina Vasilevskaya returned safely on 6 April when she landed in a Russian Soyuz capsule on the Kazakh steppe in Central Asia.

The news is particularly significant because it is closely linked to the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, his government and Kremlin strategists are fully aware of the enormous importance of keeping Belarus at all costs as their closest and most loyal ally in their military operation to wrest territory from Kiev.

El presidente de Bielorrusia, Aleksander Lukashenko, es el más fiel aliado de Putin en su operación militar de arrebatar territorios a Kiev y su principal socio en la CSTO, la versión rusa de la OTAN - PHOTO/Kremlin-Konstantin Zavrazhin
Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko is Putin's staunchest ally in his military operation to seize territory from Kiev and his main partner in the CSTO, Russia's version of NATO - PHOTO/Kremlin-Konstantin Zavrazhin

The Moscow and Minsk governments have a close alliance in politics, trade, economics and, above all, security and defence. It dates back to the ratification in December 1999 of the so-called Union State, a supranational entity agreed by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Aleksander Lukashenko in an attempt to unite the two nations under a confederal path.

From 2006 onwards, however, bilateral relations deteriorated significantly. Gradually, however, they returned to their previous course due to Lukashenko's domestic political problems, which advised him to strengthen his ties with the Kremlin. For the Russian authorities, Belarus is the linchpin of their pseudo-NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, or CSTO for short.

El Centro de Control Korolev de Roscosmos situado en las cercanías de Moscú ha efectuado el control y seguimiento del vuelo de retorno de Marina Vasilevskaya, el ruso Oleg Novitsky y la norteamericana Loral O’Hara - PHOTO/Roscosmos
The Roscosmos Korolev Control Centre near Moscow has controlled and monitored the return flight of Marina Vasilevskaya, Russian Oleg Novitsky and American Loral O'Hara - PHOTO/Roscosmos

Two-week ticket to the ISS

So the Kremlin cannot afford to let Lukashenko waver in the face of the pressures and sanctions that the US, the EU and its member states apply to both of them. What instruments does Putin use to maintain the loyalty of his southern neighbour?

Moscow rewards the concessions of all kinds that the Minsk government asks for and gives it in many ways. One of them is through payment in kind, and nothing better than helping to make a slender, beautiful young woman-turned-cosmonaut into a national hero and role model for the entire population of Belarus... for the greater glory of President Lukashenko.

During her 12-day stay in the orbital complex, Marina Vasilevskaya carried out research tasks assigned to her by the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences. These included finding new substances with which to prepare food for cosmonauts. She tested probiotics and lactoferrin, an antimicrobial protein found in human milk, which is used to boost the natural immune system and help the intestinal build-up of beneficial bacteria.

La bielorrusa Marina Vasilevskaya (derecha) ha compartido estancia en la ISS con las astronautas de la NASA Jeanette Epps, Tracy Caldwell-Dyson y Loral O’Hara, que ha regresado con ella - PHOTO/NASA
Belarusian Marina Vasilevskaya (right) shared a stay on the ISS with NASA astronauts Jeanette Epps, Tracy Caldwell-Dyson and Loral O'Hara, who returned with her - PHOTO/NASA

With her space voyage complete, Vasilevskaya's return to Earth was much quicker than the outward journey to the ISS. The Soyuz MS-24 capsule separated from the space station, fired its engines for just over four minutes, detached from its propulsion module and flew through the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere guided by its automatic flight system.

The main parachute was then opened and, less than a metre above the ground, the retro rockets were fired to minimise the capsule's impact with the ground. The rescue team then pulled Vasilevskaya out into the open and medics checked her vitals and those of her two companions: Lieutenant Colonel and veteran Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, 52, who has three space missions totalling 545 days in orbit, and NASA engineer Loral O'Hara, 40, who is returning after 203 days and 15 hours on the ISS.

Vladimir Putin y Alexander Lukashenko mantienen contactos muy frecuentes cara a cara, vía telefónica o por video conferencia para coordinar sus acciones militares y de política exterior - PHOTO/Kremlin-Konstantin Zavrazhin
Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko maintain very frequent face-to-face, telephone and video conference contacts to coordinate their military and foreign policy actions - PHOTO/Kremlin-Konstantin Zavrazhin

Landlocked on the Baltic and bordering Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Russia

Belarus has been ruled with an iron fist since July 1994 by 69-year-old Alexander Lukashenko, the undisputed but disputed winner of successive presidential elections held every five years. The next election is scheduled for 2025 at a date yet to be determined, but Lukashenko already said in February that he would run.

With nearly 10 million inhabitants for a territory less than half the size of Spain, Belarus was part of the Soviet Union until August 1991, when the collapse of the communist regime was already a fact. Located in Eastern Europe and with no access to the Baltic Sea, it is bordered by Lithuania and Latvia to the north, Poland to the west and Russia to the east, hence its geostrategic importance for the Kremlin.

Marina Vasilevskaya (derecha) con sus compañeros del vuelo de ida a la Estación Espacial Internacional, en la que ha llevado a cabo experimentos y ensayos durante una docena de días - PHOTO/NASA-Bill Ingalls
Marina Vasilevskaya (right) with her companions on the outbound flight to the International Space Station, where she has been conducting experiments and tests for a dozen days - PHOTO/NASA-Bill Ingalls

The alliance between Moscow and Minsk is epitomised by their respective presidents. Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko maintain very close face-to-face, telephone and video-conference contacts on a permanent and weekly basis. This is the best way they have found to consolidate their ties and especially their military alliance.

Moscow's most recent request, which Lukashenko has already declared he is willing to meet, is for the Minsk parliament to pass a draft law denouncing its accession to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, better known as the CFE Treaty. Signed in 1990 and in force since 1992, it limits the size and number of large weapons systems held by NATO and then Warsaw Pact countries.

El sistema de misiles tácticos rusos 9K720 Iskander, con capacidad de portar ojivas nucleares, es uno de los que Lukashenko ha autorizado el despliegue en territorio de Bielorrusia PHOTO/Russian Ministry of Defense
The Russian 9K720 Iskander tactical missile system, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is one of those that Lukashenko has authorised to be deployed on Belarusian territory - PHOTO/Russian Ministry of Defense

This is linked to another concession to Putin: allowing the deployment of Russian tactical missiles with nuclear warheads, including 9K720 Iskander batteries, on Belarusian territory. Ambassador to the UN Valentin Rybakov argued before the Disarmament and International Security Commission on 5 October that his country is under "unprecedented political and economic pressure". Although we renounced nuclear weapons almost 30 years ago," he said, "the current escalation has forced us to strengthen our defence capabilities from the summer of 2023".