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.
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.