Minsk is trying to monetise its participation in conflict resolution over Ukraine
Official Minsk is trying to become an active participant in the settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, whose role would go beyond the ‘technical’ assistance in organising talks. The Belarusian authorities hope to obtain short-term diplomatic and financial benefits, due to the greater attention of the international community to negotiations in Minsk. In addition, the Belarusian government expects to take all political issues off the Belarusian-European agenda thanks to the President Lukashenko’s special role in the de-escalation process.
On February 18th, at a meeting with EBRD President Sir Sumomo Chakrabarti, President Lukashenko said that Belarus could play an important role in resolving the Ukrainian conflict, in particular, in Debaltsevo. The president said: “We are ready not only to mediate, but to put a stop to the conflict in the Debaltsevo region with good grace and withdraw all troops from Ukraine with our guarantees that they will never fight again”. Interestingly, previously official Minsk has repeatedly denied its role as a mediator in the conflict.
This proposal seems to be a private initiative of President Lukashenko, which was not coordinated with Russia. In particular, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “I have not heard about Lukashenko’s proposal to assist in the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from this ‘mousetrap’. I think that any proposal that will help this deserves support, of course, if the Ukrainian authorities agree”.
In October 2014, in an interview with Euronews, President Lukashenko declared his readiness to send peacekeeping forces in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry then rejected his proposal. Meanwhile, there are technical grounds for implementing such initiatives. Belarus has been cooperating with NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme for a long time and has trained a special troop to participate in the UN peacekeeping operations. The Belarusian legislation also envisages the possibility for the Belarusian Armed Forces’ participation in combat and peacekeeping operations outside Belarus: within the CSTO and the UN, as well as other international organizations, including NATO. In addition, Belarusian specialists have already taken part in UN peacekeeping operations, for example, in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Kyiv is not regarding Belarus as a neutral party, since she is the Kremlin’ closest ally, including on military cooperation. In addition, Belarus lacks mechanisms to implement the president’s peacekeeping initiative in Debaltsevo promptly.
Certainly, being in the focus of international attention after the organisation of the Normandy Four talks in Minsk, the Belarusian authorities seek to gain some financial and diplomatic benefits.
At the meeting with the EBRD President, the president requested to step up cooperation with Belarus: “After studying the situation in our country, the bank should remove all restrictions on cooperation with Belarus, especially with regard to state-owned enterprises”. Despite the fact that the EBRD pays attention to the state of political freedoms and human rights in the partner country, the EBRD President offered hope to the Belarusian leader that approaches to Belarus could be revised: “Efforts, undertaken by Belarus should be encouraged. The extent to which this role is welcomed by the shareholders of our bank cannot be overstated”.
In addition, at a meeting with Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, President Lukashenko reiterated his interest in settling Belarus’ relations with the EU: “If Latvia helps us to get closer to the EU during her presidency (and not only), we shall be very grateful”.
After a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei also underscored the increased role of Belarus in Eastern Europe after the Normandy Four Summit in Minsk.
The Belarusian authorities believe that Belarus’ peace initiatives will give her the opportunity to depoliticise the final agenda of the Belarusian-European relations. For example, Head of the Belarusian delegation to the OSCE Mr Senko excluded cooperation with the OSCE PA Working Group on Belarus by saying that there were no human rights issues in Belarus: “We do not see any sense in having this group. In particular, if it is headed by an extremist, talking to whom makes no sense. And we will not talk”.
The Belarusian leadership is attempting to keep Minsk in the focus of international community by sizing up the role of a mediator and a full participant in the negotiation process to resolve the conflict in 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.