Belarusian authorities wary about external reactions to persecution of Belarusian combatants in Donbas
President Lukashenka has spoken strongly against the presence in Belarus of militants who fought in Ukraine on one side or the other, and requested the security forces to immediately investigate the situation. The Chief Directorate for Combating Organized Crime of the Ministry of Internal Affairs has initiated a check against 16 Belarusian citizens on suspicion of involvement in the fighting in Ukraine. Earlier, KGB representatives reported about 52 Belarusians fighting in the neighbouring country. According to the Belarusian secret services, the long-lasting conflict in the east of Ukraine and participation in hostilities of Belarusian citizens has led to an increase in illicit arms trafficking in the Belarusian regions. The Belarusian authorities particularly worry about this due to the open border with Russia, which could be used by the conflicting parties to transport weapons both ways. So far, the Belarusian authorities have only used threats and tightened the legislation with regard to militants as a preventive measure and have not started criminal investigation. Most likely, they fear of sharply negative assessment of their actions in Russia and Ukraine.
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.