President sided with Defence Ministry in the air defence system scandal
President Lukashenko chose the least costly way to respond to the penetration by a foreign aircraft in the Belarusian airspace. Rewarding the guilty and silencing the incident is the least threatening reaction for the governments’ authority.
On July 16th, President Lukashenko awarded a number of commanders of the Belarusian Air Force and Air Defense with “For Distinguished Service” medals.
As anticipated, the Belarusian leadership has chosen the least costly way to respond to a July 4th incident, when Belarusian airspace was penetrated by a sport aircraft from Lithuania scattering teddy bears over two Belarusian cities, beating Belarusian air defense radars.
A harsh ‘traditional’ response to this provocation (acknowledgement and punishment) is as costly for the authorities as a ‘modernization’ one (re-equip air defense system with more modern equipment or launching a counter-PR-campaign in the international information space).
Therefore, the authorities selected the least costly for the budget and the image response (in their understanding): the incident was completely ignored by the state media and government agencies. At the same time, independent journalists received an unambiguous signal that coverage of this topic could entail tough sanctions (Mr. Suriapin, a photographer, who posted a photo on his website of teddy bears being dropped from an airplane, was arrested by the KGB).
The Belarusian authorities believe that rewarding the guilty above all would strengthen their internal power (top ranking officials over lower ranking) and shift the blame for what happened from the Belarusian military to “external forces”. This behavior is traditional for President Lukashenko and is a variation on his well-known populism.
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.