Official Minsk gains regional importance as state-peacemaker
While Belarus did not mediate the Trilateral Group’s negotiations (Ukraine-OSCE-Russia), her role in regional and European security increased – not only because she provided the meeting place, but also due to her constructive position regarding the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. President Lukashenko is making careful attempts to use the ‘peace-maker’ image in the Russo-Ukrainian settlement in order to secure Minsk’s role as one of the region’s leaders. Belarus aspires to unlock relations with the EU and the U.S. and to reduce pressure from the Kremlin by participating in the process of de-escalating the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
On July 31st, Minsk hosted a face-to-face meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine-Russia-OSCE) on the situation in south eastern Ukraine. Representatives of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk were also present.
On July 29th, Lukashenko’s press service reported on a telephone conversation between Presidents Lukashenko and Poroshenko, “upon Ukraine’s initiative”, during which the Ukrainian President requested Belarus to become a platform for discussions with all stakeholders to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. A few hours later, President Lukashenko agreed to this request.
The Kremlin is pleased that Belarus – Russia’s main military and political ally – was chosen to host the Trilateral Contact Group’s meeting, as it allows the Russian leadership to save face amid tensions in Russo-Ukrainian relations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov thanked Minsk for its willingness to become a platform for negotiations, and Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov proposed to continue using Belarus as a platform for negotiations: “If negotiations continue, it probably makes sense to use this platform. It is neutral”.
Despite the fact that President Lukashenko did not act as a mediator in the trilateral negotiations, he met with former President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma and promised to assist in resolving the conflict in southeast Ukraine: “We will work with you to do everything necessary for our Ukraine to somehow reduce the intensity of the confrontation in eastern Ukraine. This is in our interest”. In addition, President Lukashenko had a telephone conversation with Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic. The presidents “exchanged views on the situation in Ukraine”.
In recent months, Belarus has stepped up her contacts with EU and USA representatives. The authorities aspire to ‘normalise’ Belarusian-European relations by participating in the process of de-escalating the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. President Lukashenko said that “creating additional tension with the European Union” was unnecessary.
Minsk managed to impose its own agenda on Brussels and resume negotiations on non-political issues, such as visa liberalisation and socio-economic modernisation. Official Minsk seeks to continue the Belarus-EU dialogue, without fulfilling the main condition (the release of political prisoners). Belarus’ Foreign Minister Makei underscored that “the topic of political prisoners has already made our mouth sore”.
If Belarus continues to act as a negotiation platform, the Belarusian authorities will strengthen their position on the regional and international arena. This will help revitalise Belarus-EU relations without fulfilling the main condition. Moreover, the Kremlin will stop pressuring Minsk to take Russia’s side in Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
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.