Russo-Belarusian political conflict manifested itself in amateur sport
On May 6th, the Sports and Disciplinary Commission of the 2nd All-Russian Amateur Ice Hockey Festival, held in Sochi, started checks on Belarusian President’s team regarding its compliance with the Festival’s regulations. On May 7th, President’s team was forfeited, and the number of players disqualified.
Belarusian-Russian political conflict, unfolding during negotiations on defense cooperation, manifested itself amateur sport. The scandalous proceedings in respect of the Belarusian President’s hockey team at the tournament in Sochi have eventually thwarted an informal meeting between Presidents Lukashenko and Putin. Apparently, these proceedings demonstrate the Kremlin’s intransigent negotiating position.
For reference, a hockey team, led by a big hockey fan Alexander Lukashenko, received the invitation to take part in the Festival from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during his visit to Minsk on April 23rd. On the same day, Shoigu made a statement about the alleged Russian regiment deployment in Belarus in the near future. Further developments demonstrated that Belarus decided to “slow down” with such defense agreements and perhaps, put forward additional requirements to Russia.
Potentially, these requirements could be discussed at the end of the Hockey Festival in Sochi, where Lukashenko intended to come to participate in the final game, and where Russian President Putin was at that time. Bearing these circumstances in mind, it is possible that the Festival’s Disciplinary Committee’s decision had political implications associated with an unexpected for Russia u-turn in the Belarusian-Russian talks on defense matters.
The peculiarity of the situation is that the President’s team has been admitted to the “WORLD CUP 40 +” League and won 4 games and advanced to the finals.
The team’s technical defeat in the semifinals was made post-factum - under the pretext of non-compliance with the Festival’s qualification requirements by a number of players (in fact, both Lukashenko’s sons, team members, are also under 40 years old). Lukashenko decided not to take part in a game for the third place and canceled his visit to Sochi.
Meanwhile, President Putin took part in the Tournament’s finals and in the gala performance on May 10th. If Lukashenko’s team were to take place in the finals, his victory could be very likely, given the professional past qualifications of many his team players. Thus, the fact of the controversial exclusion of Lukashenko from the hockey finals seems to be a clear demonstration of the Kremlin’s intransigent negotiating position in the defense and economic fields.
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.