Belarus is incapable of conducting peacekeeping operation in Donbas
Minsk is concerned about the decline in its importance as the negotiation platform for those engaged in the conflict in Ukraine. Due to the limited own resources and capacities, Minsk is only able to keep up interest with bold statements.
On November 17th, 2016, during the press conference for the Russian media, Lukashenka said that Belarus was ready to take control of the 400-kilometer stretch of the Russian-Ukrainian border in Donbas.
Minsk negotiation process around Ukraine has played a significant role in the Belarusian-Western normalisation. Providing a platform for negotiations allowed Minsk to keep a distance from the parties to the conflict, from Moscow in the first place. However, in recent months, attempts to achieve a political settlement in Donbas reached an impasse. Minsk as a negotiations platform has been devalued, which could prompt the Kremlin to apply pressure on the Belarusian government in order to force it to take a pro-Russian position not only in the confrontation with Ukraine, but also with the West altogether.
Taking control of the 400-kilometer Russo-Ukrainian border stretch in Donbas will require a large-scale military and police operation in order to establish effective control not only at the border, but also in the border area of Donetsk and Lugansk regions. That said, only the protection of the border will require at least 4,000 troops; and with the rear structures and the need to monitor the Donbass border areas, it would be closer to 10,000 troops. Based on the international experience, maintenance costs for one soldier would total circa USD 30,000 per year. In addition, due to the highly volatile situation in the Donets Basin, casualties among hypothetical Belarusian troops are virtually inevitable.
Belarus has neither the military, nor the financial capacity for the operation in Donbas. Inevitable losses among the Belarusian troops in a foreign war are fraught with a wave of discontent in Belarus and a political crisis to follow. Lukashenka’s statement about Belarus’ readiness to carry out an operation in the Donbass region is a pure propaganda having no practical implications.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.