Official Minsk uses conflict in Ukraine to strengthen its positions internationally
The Belarusian authorities have reacted discreetly to the events in Ukraine. They count on Belarus strengthening her positions in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, and that Brussels will reduce its requirements. Simultaneously, the Belarusian authorities have taken some measures to prevent the ‘revolutionary’ scenario in Belarus.
After a meeting with Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics in Riga, Vladimir Mackey said “there are no Yanukovich’s supporters in our territory”.
Belarus’ official media reports about the events in Ukraine are less biased than those in Russia, even though ‘anti-Maidan’ rhetoric is used. President Lukashenko has refrained from any statements in support of the Ukrainian authorities since the conflict occurred. Following the tragic events in Kiev on January 19th – 21st and President Yanukovich’s escape, President Lukashenko made an ambiguous statement about his Ukrainian colleague, “a beautiful country with wonderful people, and now this mess with so-called market economy, where clans have divided the country, - that’s where it leads to. Once president’s children start doing business, expect trouble. Once the wives and mistresses put crowns on their heads, expect trouble”.
In addition, official Minsk has been reluctant in granting asylum to disgraced Ukrainian security officials and politicians. For example, the Belarusian authorities have made several statements about the absence of former Ukrainian Interior Minister Viktor Zakharchenko and other Ukrainian officials in Belarus. Unlike ex-Kyrgyz President Bekiyev, overthrown in 2010, President Yanukovych had to seek asylum in Russia.
Official Minsk does not share the Kremlin’s views on further developments in Ukraine, inter alia, on the recognition of the new Ukrainian leadership. Belarus’ Foreign Ministry Press Officer Mironchik said “Belarus will be establishing relationship with Ukraine’s new leadership while the government is being formed. As far as we know, this process has not yet completed”. Belarusian officials emphasized that Ukraine needed to “remain a sovereign, independent, territorially integral state”. It is noteworthy that Belarus has not yet recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, despite pressure from the Kremlin.
After the Russian-Georgian war, the EU’s policy towards the Belarusian leadership was relaxed. This time, Belarus also hopes that the increased aggressive rhetoric and / or the Kremlin’s actions in respect to Ukraine will make Brussels revise its attitude to the Belarusian leadership.
Meanwhile, events in Ukraine have exposed a deep rift in Belarusian society. The Belarusian opposition has applauded the president Yanukovych’s dismissal. Some opposition leaders have visited ‘revolutionary’ Kiev, and activists have organized several actions in Belarus in support for the Maidan. However, the brutal events in Kiev on February 19th-21st have provoked negative reactions to anti-government protests by the majority of Belarusians. Simultaneously, the authorities have expressed support for the violent clamp down on the protests. Amendments to the Law on the ‘Military Situation’ have been submitted to the Parliament, which suggest some repressive measures, for instance, the ban on disseminating unauthorized information during military situations.
Belarus’ authorities are attempting to use the crisis in Ukraine to strengthen their positions in relations with the Kremlin. Simultaneously, the Belarusian government is intensifying communication with the EU in an attempt to resume the Belarus-EU dialogue. The closer the presidential elections in Belarus, the harsher repressions the Belarusian authorities will use against those who protest against the power.
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.