Helping to guarantee Russia’s food security, Minsk increases its value to Kremlin
Amid escalation between the Kremlin and the West, Belarus is aspiring to reinforce her role in international trade by supplying Belarusian goods on the Russian market to replace western suppliers which fell under Russia’s sanctions. If Belarus increases her exports to Russia, Belarus’ domestic market might be hit by food deficit and economic imbalance will increase. Meanwhile, Belarus is anticipating skimming the cream off potential grey re-exports of goods to the Customs Union market.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin phoned President Lukashenko to inform him about the economic sanctions introduced by Russia against some goods from countries which had imposed sanctions on Russian organisations and citizens.
The Belarusian leadership was upbeat about the sanctions introduced by the Kremlin against imports of some foodstuffs from the EU, USA, Australia, Canada and Norway. Belarus is aspiring to replace some of the imports from these countries with Belarusian products. Belarus’ First Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Foodstuffs Leonid Marinich said: “For us, this is the Klondike. We are willing to replace food supplies from Western countries”.
The Kremlin is also counting on Belarus’ assistance in fighting against potential food supply deficit, since some of the goods from the ‘sanctions list’ had a lion’s share on the Russian market. For instance, meat production in Russia covered only 70% of the domestic market demand. Belarus’ Agriculture Minister Leonid Zayats said he had already scheduled a meeting with Rosselkhoznadzor Head Sergey Dankvert “to discuss issues related to the supply of Belarusian products to the Russian market”.
In January – May 2014 beef and dairy exports from Belarus to Russia fell by 17.2% and 2.6% accordingly, compared with the same period in 2013. Some experts are expressing doubts that Belarusian agriculture will be able to replace foodstuffs from countries that have come under Russian sanctions. They say that Belarus will be unable to swiftly increase her production of goods from the ‘sanctions list’, such as dairy products, pork, beef, vegetables and fruits.
Interestingly, Belarus herself imports significant volumes of some of these foodstuffs from the EU. Most likely, the Kremlin will turn a blind eye to grey re-exports of foodstuffs from Belarus, especially, if Russia is hit by a deficit. In addition, Belarusian retailers might be prompted to replace Belarusian products exported to Russia with imported goods from the EU.
It is worth noting that Belarus has already been hit by pork deficit. For example, on May 1st, 2014, the number of pigs in Belarus decreased by 19.5% compared with 2013. President Lukashenko personally reacted to the situation and demanded pig livestock to be restored by the year-end.
All in all, Belarus has upped her importance in the Kremlin’s eyes as a guarantor of Russia’s food security. Belarus may also become a switch dealer who supplies scarce EU-made goods to the Russian market. If tension between Moscow and Western capitals escalates, Minsk will also become more valuable to Russia as a military ally.
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.