Violation of Belarusian airspace strengthens suspicions against the authorities
The way the Belarusian authorities chose to respond to the incident with violation Belarusian airspace only reinforces suspicions against them. Explanations given by the authorities, in the worst case scenario, allow for assumptions there are shadow cargo transportation schemes at the Belarusian border.
On July 26th, at a meeting with representatives of the State Border Committee and the Ministry of Defense, President Lukashenko admitted that on July 4th the Belarusian airspace has been violated by a light-plane and demanded to punish the perpetrators.
President’s reference to the incident after three weeks implies its high importance. Despite the careful concealment by the government agencies, the incident couldn’t longer be ignored. It is likely that this issue was raised in one way or another during the Minsk visit of a Russian delegation headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on July 18th.
Statements made by President imply that in certain cases, a foreign aircraft can cross the Belarusian border without being detected by the air defense system, but by other means (eg, visually). Therefore the absence of the official response regarding the incident during 3 weeks could be attributed to the reluctance to recognize this fact, and not to the air defense system vulnerability.
In particular, on July 11th, Air Force and Air Defense Commander Mr. Pahmelkin said that the Belarusian air defense system has not confirmed a violation of the airspace by an unidentified aircraft. In turn, on July 26th, President Lukashenko said that the plane was timely detected, but those responsible have not stopped it.
Thus, putting two and two together, one may assume that sometimes there are ‘ad hoc’ or ‘manual’ border crossings, without the involvement of the air defense system, which is formally part of the joint Russo-Belarusian air defense system. Consequently, this conclusion leads to other, more serious questions: how often this ‘mode’ is used and what for?
Despite the lack of evidence of Belarusian authorities’ participation in shadow turnover schemes, the way they chose to respond to July 4th provocation only strengthens such suspicions. Moreover, the likely involvement of Belarus in gray re-exports of Russian oil masked as solvents in order to avoid customs duties make the situation even more complicated and damages authorities’ image.
For instance, on July 26th, an anonymous source in the Russian Energy said that Russia may introduce duties on solvents exports outside the Customs Union, or even restrict oil deliveries to Belarus. This could be a hoax, but the absence of a coherent response by Belarus to the smuggling accusations is an indirect indication of their validity.
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.