Yevhen MAHDA, PhD*
The importance of relations between Belarus and Ukraine goes beyond the post-Soviet space. The former Soviet republics are currently going through a crisis in bilateral ties. However, the end of the Russo-Ukrainian war should lead to both a change in the Belarus government and the latter’s role in the European security system.
BEFORE RUSSIA INVADED UKRAINE…
With Alexander Lukashenko in power since 1994, Belarus has not yet seen another president. The official results of the 2020 presidential election caused mass protests, launching a powerful political crisis in the country. Lukashenko retained the top post, at the same time becoming much more dependent on Russia. Through the “Protasevich case” and migration crisis, the Kremlin seized almost total control over its ally’s actions. The 2021 events practically stripped Lukashenko of the opportunity for dialogue with the West. It should be noted that European politicians for the most part refused to recognize Vladimir Putin’s masterminding role behind the migration crisis on the borders of Poland and Lithuania.
The way migrants were exploited in this escalation was worth attention due to a number of peculiar elements.
While Alexander Lukashenko turned out to be solely a PR manager of the crisis, it was the Russians who were the main operators of destabilization in a number of EU countries.
The “refugee crisis” became a textbook example of the Kremlin employing reflexive control tools to manipulate European moods. Putin actually forced the Old World to recall the events of 2015-2016, when nearly a million refugees from North Africa and the Middle East made a significant impact on the European Union.
When Lithuania and Poland set up on the border with Belarus an emergency zone, restricting journalists’ access, Russian and Belarusian propagandists immediately distorted the issue, demonizing these governments in the eyes of their audiences in other EU countries.
In order to fuel a crisis, the Kremlin also brought up the issue of Lukashenko having once served with the Soviet border guards, which expectedly provoked among European rights defenders an emotional reaction to the suffering of thousands of people at the border.
The migration crisis became yet another element in Russia’s effort to increase its influence on Belarus and Alexander Lukashenko personally.
In September 2021, Belarus hosted the Zapad 2021 (West 2021) joint exercise with the Russian troops. Both Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko observed the drill, although each did it separately. After the exercise was wrapped up, not all Russian units withdrew from the territory of Belarus. Later, they became part of the invasion force that crossed into Ukraine. In December 2021, Lukashenko announced another drill on Belarusian soil, the United Resolve, which ultimately became a cover for the Russian incursion. At the time, the experts noted the unusual timing of this particular exercise, which was too massive for the usual joint routine between Minsk and Moscow. Quite indicative was a report by a Belarusian analyst Artem Shreibman, who assessed the number of Russian troops deployed in Belarus as the highest in the country’s entire history.
Lukashenko’s attitude toward Ukraine has traditionally been rather ambiguous and opportunistic. He built good relations with Leonid Kuchma as both came to power at approximately the same time. During the cadences of Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, Belarusian-Ukrainian relations were not too warm. The coming to power of Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula (de jure, Lukashenko has not yet recognized Crimea as a legitimate part of Russia) served to revive economic cooperation between Belarus and Ukraine. During that period, Lukashenko could be referred to as Ukraine’s hybrid ally. Belarus was supplying to Ukraine fuel and lubricants, as well as dual purpose goods. After Volodymyr Zelensky took Ukraine’s top office, Alexander Lukashenko chose a somewhat pater-nalistic tone during his very first personal meeting with the Ukrainian leader.
Further developments were quite paradoxical. Average Ukrainians generally voiced support for mass protests that were raging in Belarus in August – September 2020, sparked by public discontent over the election outcome many believed had been rigged. However, there was a widespread opinion in Ukraine that the protesters should have been more decisive in their resistance. Ultimately, Lukashenko managed to retain power, and Ukraine’s authorities, while stopping short of recognizing the legitimacy of Lukashenko’s reelection, continued active trade relations with Belarus, with the latter’s positive balance for 2021 amounting to USD3 billion. Ukraine imported fuel, lubricants, bitumen needed for the “Big Construction” government project, and electricity produced by the Belarus-based Ostrovets nuclear power plant, although Ukraine could well have done without imported electricity. Ukraine’s political leadership believed Lukashenko as he was assuring Kyiv that no one would ever invade Ukraine from his territory.
On the eve of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, Alexander Lukashenko met with Russian propaganda TV star host Vladimir Solovyov, telling him, among other things:
“Once you cross the ‘red line,’ you’ll get what you deserve.” This is how he commented on the prospects for further developments in relations between Russia and Ukraine.
“Belarusian troops will act the same way as Russian ones will.”
“We will cease supplies of fuel, lubricants, and electricity if necessary.”
“Zelensky is headless and externally-controlled.”
These statements suggest that Lukashenko was aware of the Kremlin’s plans to launch full-scale aggression against Ukraine. It is unlikely that he was fully informed, including about the invasion date, but he was surely able to plan his own moves in this context.
THE DAY THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
The active phase of the Russo-Ukrainian war started over 400 days ago. From Day 1 of the large-scale invasion, there has been a discussion of whether Belarusian troops will become part of the invasion force. In our opinion, this isn’t happening for a number of reasons:
As Belarusian army has never participated in hostilities, its combat readiness remains poor.
The idea of Belarus joining Russia’s war on Ukraine has no widespread support among the Belarusian population despite the extensive efforts of Russian and Belarusian propaganda.
Footage showing Russian heavy military equipment being decimated in the first days of the large-scale invasion had a powerful demoralizing effect on the Belarusian military.
Alexander Lukashenko realizes that military losses on Ukrainian battlefields could get him on a really dangerous path.
Russian aggressors didn’t limit themselves to invading Ukraine from Belarusian territory in a blitz offensive with the goal of capturing Kyiv and toppling the government. During March – October 2022, Russian troops fired from Belarus hundreds of missiles of various types at targets across Ukraine. At the same time, during the liberation of the occupied territories, Ukraine’s Defense Forces restored the Belarusian-Ukrainian border line without attempting to cross into the neighboring country.
Although sociologists in Ukraine have spotted a serious deterioration in the attitude of average Ukrainians toward their Belarusian neighbors (the status of an accomplice in aggression certainly contributed to this end), it would be unfair not to mention the “railway partisans.” A number of Belarusians made a brazen effort to hinder Russian military logistics via Belarusian rail routes, to which the Belarusian security agencies responded with harsh arrests. However, not everyone in Ukraine is aware of these brave people.
Much higher-profile was the Kastus Kalinovsky Regiment, initially formed after the full-scale invasion as a battalions-size unit. Its backbone consisted of Belarus nationals who had in the previous years taken part in Donbas hostilities. This regiment is the largest among the three Belarusian units operating in the ranks of Ukraine’s Defense Forces: the Pagonya Regiment and the Belarusian Volunteer Corps are much smaller. KKR members don’t shy away from their political ambitions despite being quite a motley crew in terms of their ideological preferences.
In this context, worth mentioning is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya setting her focus on Ukraine. The country’s most famous opposition figure has been trying to establish contacts with Kyiv, but to no avail. The Russo-Ukrainian war forced Tikhanovskaya to also intensify her work within the Belarusian democratic circles, including by creating during the New Belarus Conference in Vilnius the United Transitional Cabinet (UTC). Valeriy Sakhashchyk, former Commander 38th Separate Guards Airborne Assault Brigade of the Armed Forces of Belarus, was appointed UTC Representative for National Defense and Security. However, he failed to achieve any significant progress in shaping up the defense policy for the Belarusian democratic forces.
It is also worth noting Zenon Pozniak’s visit to the war-torn Bakhmut in Donetsk region. The veteran of Belarusian politics, alongside his colleague Pavel Usov and a member of the Kastus Kalynovsky Regiment, Zmitser Shchygelskyi, actually set a new action format. Following the visit, the three issued a statement on forming a “Security Council.” However, Pozniak was offered no opportunities in Ukraine for public meetings at the highest political level.
An out-of-the-blue attack on the Russian Airspace Force A-50 early warning plane at the Belarusian Machulishchi airfield caused quite a stir. ByPOL, an orga-nization run by former Belarusian security operatives, took full responsibility for the attack but their involvement cannot be independently verified. The only verified fact that the drone strike delivered a heavy blow to both Russia’s military capabilities and Lukashenko’s authority.
Paradoxically, it was Belarus that became the platform for negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian delegations at the outset of the large-scale invasion. Three rounds (February 28, March 3, and March 7, 2022) were held on the territory of Belarus, where the Russian and Ukrainian officials arrived along green-lighted routes. However, Lukashenko’s desire to come up with yet another version of the “Minsk Format” saw no success. The sudden death of Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei, further limited the already weak communication channels between Belarus and the outside world.
Not only did Belarus become a bridgehead for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – it also serves as a rear base for the Russian military units. Also, Belarus is among the few countries that consistently support Russia in the international arena. Meanwhile Ukraine’s leadership maintained diplomatic relations with Belarus and refrained from publicly criticizing Minsk. While preserving diplomatic relations makes sense in the context of POW exchange as Ukrainians could be returned to Ukraine via Belarusian territory, Kyiv’s failure to respond to Lukashenko’s verbal attacks complicates a potential dialogue between Ukraine and Belarus’s democratic forces.
In late March 2023, Vladimir Putin announced his intention to deploy nuclear weapons on the Belarusian territory, claiming this doesn’t violate the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The step would allow Russia to move its nuclear capabilities several hundred kilometers westward.
Lukashenko, on the other hand, obviously sees this opportunity as a step toward increasing his own political weight and becoming a more active player in the international arena, asserting that “Putin and I will stop at nothing.”
It is also worth noting that in his address to the nation, Alexander Lukashenko continued to promote Russian narratives, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine (which would allow Russia to seal control over the occupied territories) and criticizing the upcoming counteroffensive being prepared by Ukraine’s Defense Forces. It is obvious that the self-proclaimed leader of Belarus is still trying to be of some use to the Kremlin.
AN OUTLOOK ATTEMPT
The border between Belarus and Ukraine is 1,084 km-long and the threat of another Russian incursion will prevail until the end of the Russo-Ukrainian war. However, Russia’s defeat will bring changes to Belarus. This isn’t about military intervention but rather about economic sanctions being able to push Lukashenko out of the top office. However, it must be kept in mind that his successor will not necessarily champion a pro-European course.
In any case, Belarus and Ukraine will have to go through the path of reaching reconciliation, finding common interests, and creating grounds for restoring good-neighborly relations. There is no alternative to this end.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the Belarusian territory made clear and relevant the formula “there’s no safe Europe without a democratic Belarus.” It is this formula that should lay at the core of Ukraine’s policy toward Belarus. Both Belarus and Ukraine are now at a final stage of forming their respective “political nation.” While the process develops in line with different scenarios, it remains essential for the creation of a pan-European safe space.
* PhD National Technical University of Ukraine Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, iSANS expert orcid.org/0000-0001-5792-8713
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