Foreign and security policy: Wearing several hats
Throughout the year, relations between Minsk and the Kremlin were tense over energy supplies with periodic exacerbations, albeit without information wars typical for the Belarusian-Russian relations. In H2 2016, Moscow reduced the supply of oil to the Belarusian refineries in retaliation for incomplete payment for gas supplies by Belarus. For the first time, Russia linked oil and gas supplies. The Kremlin ignored all Minsk’s attempts to reach an agreement about resuming the oil supply and reducing the gas price, albeit repeated assurances of the prompt dispute resolution.
The lingering dispute between Minsk and Moscow over oil and gas supplies has put an end to the previous model of the Russo-Belarusian relations.
Throughout the year, the Kremlin remained deaf to the economic, legal, ideological and brotherly appeals by Minsk and did not lower the price of gas; moreover, it reduced the oil supply in H2 2016.
In 2016, Minsk made efforts to create a positive image of the Belarusian NPP construction for the international community and attempted to neutralise criticism from Vilnius by engaging in a dialogue with the Lithuanian authorities. Inside the country, the authorities managed to reverse the people’s attitude towards the nuclear energy, which, however, was undermined by an attempt to becloud an incident at the construction site. Incidents at the NPP construction site mobilised Belarusian society to put pressure on the government to enforce safety rules, but not to abandon the project.
In 2016, Belarus' relations with Ukraine somewhat cooled. Kyiv was displeased with Minsk’s stance (pro-Kremlin) on some sensitive issues for Ukraine. The lack of political trust between the two states affected their cooperation in the security field. Ukraine failed to transfer some important technologies to Belarus.
Appealing to geopolitical arguments, Minsk managed to prompt Poland to pragmatic cooperation,
relaxed pressure on representatives of the Polish minority organisations and promised to facilitate the access of Polish business (including products from the sanctions list) to the Eurasian market. Many representatives of the Belarusian civil society regard this as the main reason why the Polish authorities reduced support for the Belarusian independent media.
After a long break (since November 2014) and after Western capitals lifted sanctions against the Belarusian authorities, the latter resumed executions. Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities demonstrated readiness to engage in a dialogue on the abolition or a moratorium on the death penalty with the European institutions, albeit, apparently, without the intent to change the practice. Simultaneously, Minsk attempted to put human rights issues at the bottom of the Belarusian-European agenda by prioritising regional security and geopolitical confrontation issues.
Minsk aimed to improve communication with the White House and right the ship of Belarusian-US relations with full diplomatic missions in both capitals. Simultaneously, Belarus sought to maintain a visible distance from the Kremlin's military preparations in a confrontation with NATO, while retaining close defence cooperation with Russia within the Union State. This precluded any positive achievements in Belarus’ relations with the US and NATO.
Washington continued monitoring the situation in Belarus and the United States’ stand on the Belarusian authorities remained tough.
Meanwhile, the role of China as Belarus’ military and political partner, increased. China is becoming a source of technology and finance in implementing programmes having strategic importance for national security.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.