"West-2017": Minsk will show a lot but not everything
Minsk is eager to make the “West 2017” Russo-Belarusian military exercise transparent as a manifestation of its ability to pursue an independent security policy in the region, which often goes unnoticed by the West and Ukraine, who expect from the Belarusian authorities more than they can afford.
The visit of Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics to Belarus was a remarkable event. For the first time, an EU and NATO member state said it was satisfied with the level of openness of the Belarusian authorities regarding the “West-2017” Belarusian-Russian military exercise, which would be held in September. Previously, Minsk heard only reproaches and demands.
The Belarusian authorities understand that the maximum transparency of the “West-2017” exercise is in their best interest. On the one hand, this would demonstrate a responsible regional security policy and Minsk’s independence. On the other hand, this would insure Belarus from unforeseen situations during the exercise, which could not be ruled out.
Nevertheless, demands of the neighbouring NATO countries and Ukraine regarding transparency during the “West-2017” exercise beyond the requirements stipulated by international agreements, have irritated Minsk. The Belarusian authorities treat it as an attempt on national sovereignty and fear that by meeting the demands of their neighbours, they would show their weakness and provoke new demands vis-à-vis Minsk. In addition, when putting requirements for Belarus, the West and Ukraine should understand that the interethnic nature of the “West-2017” exercise implies Belarus’ close coordination with Russia, including the transparency level for international observers.
For political reasons, Minsk is unlikely to be able to ensure full transparency of the “West-2017” Russo-Belarusian military exercise and international monitoring during the whole period of the Russian contingent's presence in Belarus. Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities are likely to demonstrate the most possible openness during the exercise. That said, Russia could regard such openness as superfluous, while the West and Ukraine as insufficient. That said, a solution which could please all parties is unlikely to exist.
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.