Russo-Belarusian relations: Ukrainian factor and US sanctions
Last week, the Russo-Belarusian dynamics was not so much due to the Belarusian and Russian authorities, but rather due to Belarusian-Ukrainian relations and the US plans to impose sanctions against Russia. Isolation and self-isolation of Russia is growing, which determines the foreign policy of all countries in the region, including Belarus.
Lukashenka’s visit to Kyiv has affected the dynamics of relations in the Russia-Ukraine-Belarus triangle. Although Belarus aimed to build confidence in Ukraine regarding the forthcoming “West-2017” military drill, the Russian media took this visit jealously. The Russian leadership has officially approved and encouraged Belarus’ peacekeeping mission, while the propaganda machine has interpreted this mission as collaborationism - cooperation with the "fascist" regime in Ukraine. In the end, propaganda would have an effect on the Russian leadership, which is increasingly distrustful of the closest ally.
In particular, distrust is manifested in trade: Russian lobbyists often prompt various protective measures against Belarusian goods, referring to the Belarusian-Ukrainian trade cooperation (eg that Belarus smuggles goods to Russia). Multilateral negotiations with Kiev on trade and industrial cooperation are likely to strengthen the arguments of Russian lobbyists in establishing additional barriers for goods from Belarus. That said, Belarus’ cooperation with Ukraine has an independent value in terms of increased supplies of Belarusian goods and in terms of strengthening negotiating positions vis-à-vis Russia. In the past, Belarus managed to arrange oil supplies through Ukraine and last week, she discussed plans to resume such supplies.
The prospect of US sanctions against Russia will require the Belarusian authorities to be even more careful in foreign policy balancing. For Minsk, the US sanctions against Russia would imply that Russia’s isolation would be long-term and would weaken her as a political and economic ally. In addition, this means that the Belarusian government should abandon hopes for the resumption of economic growth in Russia and continue to diversify foreign and economic policies due to the fact that in its present form the Belarusian economy can grow only if the Russian economy grows.
That said, Belarus' negotiating positions in disputes with Russia could somewhat strengthen. In particular, Russia’s prospects for bypassing Belarusian transit gas pipelines would deteriorate, which potentially could fix Belarus’ share in the total volume of Russian gas exports to the EU. Yet it would be premature to talk about it at this stage.
The situation in the region requires that Minsk reduced its stakes on the alliance with Russia and invested in alternative relations. However, the growing conflict background in the region increases the risks of such policy. Accordingly, the Belarusian authorities are unlikely to take decisive steps in any direction.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.