Minsk requires new "commodity" for bargaining with West
It becomes increasingly difficult for Minsk to use regional security issues as a trade-off in negotiations with both, the West and Moscow. Circumstances are prompting the Belarusian authorities to change the main subject in the dialogue with the EU and the US.
Over the past three years, Minsk has successfully used its detachment from the Moscow's aggressive policy in political negotiations with the West. However, the situation is changing and the EU, the US and Ukraine want concrete steps from the Belarusian authorities, rather than assurances.
Harsh statements by the Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus regarding the West-2017 Russo-Belarusian military exercise and the Slavic Brotherhood Russo-Serbian-Belarusian exercise represent not only the Kyiv’s stance but also the EU and the US expectations. They want concrete steps from Minsk, which would demonstrate its openness and bona fides in respect of regional security matters, as soon as possible. For instance, European states have warned the Belarusian authorities against the participation of the Russian units, which took part in events in Ukraine or were deployed in the occupied territories, in the July 3rd parade in Minsk. NATO (and Ukraine) expect full transparency of the West-2017 exercise. Certainly, it is up to the Belarusian authorities to decide, however a poor decision would unequivocally lead to political consequences.
That said, by making advances to the West, Minsk could prompt a tough response in Moscow, relations with which have tangled over the past three years. Simultaneously, regional security issues have been Belarus’ bargaining chip in negotiations with both, the Kremlin and the West. The difference is that security issues are among the most important for the West, while for the Kremlin they have the outmost importance.
‘Security trading’ is coming to an end for Minsk. The West and Ukraine expect Belarus to take action, which could provoke a new crisis in Russo-Belarusian relations. In the given circumstances, the Belarusian authorities require a new "commodity" for bargaining with the West. For instance, an equivalent replacement could be the limited liberalisation of the political regime in Belarus, improvement of the environment for the independent media, NGOs and political opposition. The scope of such liberalization would be very limited, only to permit Minsk to continue the dialogue with the West for some time.
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.