President Putin’s visit to Minsk boosts pro-Russian sentiments in Belarusian society
President Putin’s visit to Minsk bolstered pro-Russian sentiments in Belarus and added loyalty to the Kremlin’s integration project – the Eurasian Economic Union. Officials in Minsk have been prompted to adjust their rhetoric regarding the Kremlin’s foreign policy, thus sending confusing signals to Belarusian society. The Belarusian government seeks to balance out Russian influence in Belarus by stepping up the rhetoric about the need to develop an independent and sovereign state.
President Vladimir Putin visited Minsk, where alongside President Lukashenko he took part in the Independence Day celebrations – the 70th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from the Nazis.
President Vladimir Putin flew to Minsk to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation from the Nazis, but he did not stay for the celebrations and the parade. Official Minsk was prompted to reaffirm its loyalty to the Kremlin, since the latter sought to show off its allies amid tensions in relations with Ukraine and the West.
The Independence Day parade in Belarus was co-organised with the Russians, which made many Belarusians upset in the view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fears of Russia’s greater influence inside Belarus. According to the most recent poll by IISEPS, the majority of Belarusians support the Kremlin’s foreign policy and reproduce Russian propaganda myths against Ukraine. The Belarusian government cannot but be concerned about the pro-Russian sentiments therefore it puts more emphasis on the value of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty in public statements.
Ahead of President Putin’s visit, President Lukashenko said: “we are intimidated with hordes coming from the East and now we are intimidated by the East with hordes coming from the West to dismember, crush and tear us to pieces. As President, I shall keep this in mind and shall not shake off of the options, even the most absurd ones”. The president also underscored that “today Belarus is free and independent”.
Meanwhile, President Lukashenko’s dress code during the celebrations was a tie with orange-and-black stripes, reminiscent of the St. George’s Ribbon, which was used by the Russian propaganda as a symbol of the "Russian world" and Russian revival. Most likely, the president was prompted to prettify his rigid statements about the potential threat from the East with such a visual demonstration. It is worth noting that during previous Victory Day celebrations, the Belarusian authorities imposed a de facto ban on the use of St. George’s Ribbons.
At the meeting with his Russian counterpart, President Lukashenko as always assured him that "Belarus and Russia will always be together”. However, after Putin’s departure Lukashenko once again expressed concerns about the threat to national security: “Today we see the decline in the efficiency of the international security system, established after the war. New threats have occurred. The post-war borders are revised and redrawn. A tendency of global instability is present”.
Official Minsk is strengthening rhetoric about the value of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty. However, while adopting some theses of the Belarusian opposition, the Belarusian authorities are unlikely to reconsider relations with their opponents.
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.