Minsk raises participation status in negotiations over conflict in Ukraine
Belarus has been drawn into negotiations to resolve the situation in Ukraine. However, she has no solutions on how to bring the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine to an end, or how to relieve tension between the Kremlin and the West. Belarus has managed to depoliticise the Belarusian-European settlement process and raise Minsk’s regional importance without making concessions to Western capitals. The country’s leadership sees Minsk as a future international negotiation platform, and Lukashenko as a "moderator" in the Kremlin’s negotiations with the West.
On August 26th, the EU – Ukraine – Eurasian ‘Troika’ (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia) Summit will be held in Minsk.
Belarus will host international negotiations on such a high level for the first time in her modern history. The Minsk meeting will be attended by the Customs Union heads of states – Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev – Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, European Commission Vice-President Guenther Oettinger, and Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht.
It is unlikely that Belarus aspires to settle the armed conflict in south-eastern Ukraine during the Summit. However, the Belarusian authorities are convinced that their role, in the eyes of the West, will be enhanced by the very fact that such a meeting will be held in Belarus’ capital, hot on the heels of the successful Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine – Russia – OSCE) meeting in late July 2014.
The Belarusian government considers the upcoming Summit to be a triumph of Belarusian diplomacy. Official Minsk is raising its status from being a technical organiser in the negotiation process to becoming a full-fledged high-level participant, and – what is more – the initiator of the process (at least among the former Soviet Union countries) in its current format.
Belarus’ and Kazakhstan’s participation in the upcoming negotiations somewhat strengthens the Kremlin’s position. It also enhances the international legal capacity for Eurasian integration. Political and economic relations in the region are at the top of the Summit’s agenda. However, amid growing tension between Russia and Ukraine over the Russian humanitarian convoy, which crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border unauthorised, the Kremlin might push to negotiate the military conflict in south-eastern Ukraine.
In addition, Russia is deliberately escalating the situation ahead of the high-level meeting in Minsk. The unauthorised entry of the Russian humanitarian convoy, accompanied by armed separatists to Ukraine creates preconditions for strengthening the Kremlin’s bargaining position before the Minsk Summit. The Kremlin’s actions might be indicative of its desire to freeze the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine so as to hamper Ukraine’s future European integration.
The Belarusian government attempts to solidify Minsk as an international negotiations platform, thus strengthening its positions in foreign policy by reinforcing the loyalty of the Kremlin and winning the support of Western capitals. The Belarusian population will interpret the high-level visits of EU Commissioners to Minsk as marking the end of Minsk’s lengthy international isolation and as international recognition of the Belarusian authorities. This is particularly important for the government ahead of the 2015 presidential campaign.
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.