Belarusian authorities unable to resist external influences amid crisis in Ukraine
Thanks to the crisis in Ukraine, Belarus is upping her importance in the Kremlin-led regional collective security system. Meanwhile, the split in Belarusian society over events in Ukraine is widening – also due to inconsistent and contradictory actions by the Belarusian authorities and the failure of the Belarusian ideologues in the information space. In the future, volatility might increase, as well as the influence of external forces on the situation inside Belarus.
The Kremlin has signed an agreement to supply the C-300 missiles to Belarus free of charge. In addition, Belarus is taking advantage of the Russo-Ukrainian crisis to gain economic benefits. For example, the Belarusian MAZ won the tender to supply 44 vehicles to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s military units. Simultaneously, Belarusian and Ukrainian defence industries are developing cooperation. For instance, Orsha Aircraft Repair Plant, assisted by the Ukrainian company ‘Motor-sich’ has modernised an Mi-8 helicopter (the latter refused to cooperate with Russian companies).
In addition, private initiatives of Belarusians indicate a deep split in Belarusian society – Belarusians support both sides in the conflict.
The Belarusian authorities negatively react to Belarusians participating in the armed conflict in the eastern Ukraine. For example, there were recent media reports on a criminal investigation launched by the Belarusian KGB against a Belarusian citizen fighting on the pro-Russian separatists’ side. This is not the only case of Belarusians participating in the armed conflict on the separatists’ side, albeit most combatants attempt not to advertise their presence in southeastern Ukraine and preserve incognito.
Earlier Ukraine’s Security Service reported about arresting Belarusians in Odessa for raising funds for Odessa’s ‘Anti-Maidan’ and mass protests against the Ukrainian government. Later, however, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry refuted this information.
There are reasons for the Belarusian authorities to be concerned. According to the IISEPS poll, 65.5% of Belarusians assess events in south-eastern Ukraine as a popular protest against an illegitimate government. 57.7% believe that the use of armed force by the Ukrainian authorities to restore control over Donbas is a war crime against their own people. 54.1% do not agree that members of armed protests in eastern Ukraine are "terrorists”.
Meanwhile, evaluating the potential threat to Belarus’ territorial integrity from Russia, almost one-third did not believe that ‘Russia would annex Belarus as a whole or partly’; 36.4% believe such a scenario is possible, but unlikely, 26.3% - very likely, and 4.4% - inevitable. To a direct question about their readiness to defend Belarus’ independence and sovereignty ‘with arms’ only 14.2% responded positively, 47.7% ‘would adapt to the new situation’, and 16.5% ‘would welcome these changes’. Interestingly, the majority of those who do not mind a hypothetical change to Belarus’ constitutional status support the incumbent president.
Ukrainian media reported about a volunteer battalion called ‘Pahonia’ being formed in Ukraine, mainly consisting of Belarusian nationals. According to preliminary information, about 50 persons are undergoing trainings to take part in the armed operations in south-eastern Ukraine (earlier media reported only about 5 volunteers). Interestingly, Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalist youth organizations have long-standing relationships, established in national-patriotic sports camps. Recently, ‘Malady Front’, a Belarusian nationalist youth organization, jointly with Ukrainian nationalist ‘Youth Congress’ have announced a call for participation in the next meeting of a sports-patriotic camp to be held near Poltava in Ukraine. The opposition youth organizations in Belarus were most influential in late 1990s – early 2000s. Today their activities are limited to some large cities and have local impact.
So far, the Belarusian authorities have not particularly reacted to the increased involvement of Belarusians in the military activities in south-eastern Ukraine. So far, the Interior Ministry has only warned about potential unpleasant consequences for Belarusian combatants in Ukraine: “The bulk of Belarusians who participate in the hostilities in Ukraine might face criminal charges under Article 133 of the Criminal Code’s (Mercenarism). Those who recruit our citizens to participate in the confrontation in Ukraine shall be held liable too”.
As the opposition generally supports the Belarusian authorities’ assessments, they have not come up with any possible ways for Belarusians to support Ukrainians. The opposition believes that the developments in Ukraine in many ways will affect the future of the Eastern European region, including Belarus. In their viewpoint, consolidating power in the hands of a pro-European government in Kiev and succeeding in restoring social and economic development will have a positive impact on the European choice and transformational changes in Belarus.
Official Minsk still has no response to the Kremlin’s aggressive campaign promoting the so-called ‘Russian World’. The Belarusian government will take conflicting steps to safeguard national security.
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.