Minsk deliberately strains relations with the Kremlin
On May 6th Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev visited Minsk and met with President Lukashenko and discussed the security and military cooperation issues.
Patrushev’s visit indicates that the Belarusian authorities carry on negotiations with Russia on defense cooperation matters. The statement about the likely deployment of Russian aviation regiment in Belarus should be considered as a stake in the negotiations, and not as a concluded deal.
Patrushev’s urgent visit to Minsk implies that the Belarusian authorities found the opportunity to delay (or review) the implementation of previous agreements, partially announced earlier in Minsk by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (the plans to deploy Russian military air base in Belarus). Patrushev plays a ‘crisis manager’s’ role in the Russo-Belarusian relations: he was in Minsk in March 2012, when Belarus-EU diplomatic relations had sharply deteriorated and was able to at least mitigate President Lukashenko’s rhetoric ahead of the presidential elections in Russia.
It is likely that Lukashenko’s statement on April 26th, that the deployment of the Russian air base in Belarus was merely a plan for the future and that negotiations concerned only the fighters’ supply, had been assessed by the Kremlin as worthy of a response. In particular, the day before Patrushev’s visit, a telephone conversation between Presidents Lukashenko and Putin took place, during which they discussed, inter alia, certain “problematic issues” of bilateral relations.
From Belarus’ point of view, these issues include: the signing of the Russian oil supply balance for Q3 and Q4 2013, as well as the provision of a USD 2 billion loan by Russia. Belarus must have insisted on the indirect inclusion of these “problem issues” in a package of agreements on bilateral defense cooperation. After the meeting with Patrushev, President Lukashenko said that Belarus and Russia had no difficulties in security and military cooperation spheres.
As already noted, the upcoming presidential election in 2015 force Lukashenko to improve his electoral rating and therefore refer to inviolability of the Belarusian sovereignty in this regard. Therefore, the negotiations with Russia on the military-technical cooperation are likely to be delayed by at least 2 years. Currently the procrastination of the negotiations is playing into Lukashenkos’ hands, and he can use the “Kremlin threat” as a tool to strengthen its domestic positions and, potentially, to soften relations with the West.
Negotiating traditions of the Belarusian ruling group make procrastinated negotiations a positive factor that stretches the room for maneuver and raises the negotiators’ status. Namely, the Belarusian authorities often deliberately deteriorate relations with their counterparts, which in their view wideness the scope of “problematic issues” (unfulfilled commitments). These practices also enable Lukashenko from time to time to hold away the negotiators he lost confidence of.
Therefore, President Lukashenko’s actions should not be considered only from the point of view of the ongoing political expediency in 2013, but through the lens of Belarusian political traditions over the past decades. Lukashenko acts largely by inertia; in particular, he regards the increased attention by the Kremlin as a personal success. Thus, he had definitely perceived the recent conversation with Putin and Patrushev’s visit as an achievement.
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.