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Tadeusz Iwański  23 grudnia 2020

In the shadow of Russia. Intricacies of the Belarus–Ukraine relations

Tadeusz Iwański  23 grudnia 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 9 min
In the shadow of Russia. Intricacies of the Belarus–Ukraine relations Адміністрація Президента України / Wikimedia Commons

The Ukrainian-Belarusian relationship have become closer after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The new dynamics were caused by the common concern over the aggressive policy of the powerful neighbor. Previously, for more than 20 years, the two countries, undertaking different paths of development and forging different alliances in foreign policy, have worked together by force of habit and without any special engagement. However, the dramatic course of presidential elections in Belarus in August once again redefined the relations between Minsk and Kyiv, confirming that Moscow, has a key impact on the cooperation of these two countries.

Different internal policies…

For more than a century, Belarus and Ukraine had shared a similar fate, first as republics participating in the establishment of the Soviet Union in December 1922, then as the key actors of the Federation, although dominated by Russia, still consolidated by the totalitarian grip of the Communist Party.

However, after 1991, the paths of the two independent states have completely diverged. The brief romance of Belarus with democracy ended in 1996 with the constitutional coup, when President Alexander Lukashenko, elected two years earlier, dissolved the parliament and, for the first time, unlawfully prolonged his rule.

In subsequent years, the first president of the independent Belarus consolidated his power by removing competitors, falsifying elections, and imposing restrictions on society. The growing authoritarianism, on the one hand, squashed democratic endeavors of some Belarusians, and on the other, it fell on fertile ground: a large part of society was happy with strong, resourceful leadership in a neo-Soviet entourage. The unwritten social agreement, which implied limitation of liberties in return for social security, was broadly accepted.

In turn, Ukraine has never completely abandoned democratic standards, although it has often bent them. The reason was the aspirations of society, as well as the oligarchic system created by Leonid Kuchma. It involved strong business and political rivalry, which forced pluralism in the party and information markets, thus creating niches for fair journalism and space for civic activism.

In Ukraine, there was no mass election falsification and, if such attempts were made, the so-called Orange Revolution showed that they ended in a fiasco. Also the social factor distinguished Ukraine from Belarus. Since the beginning of independence, the Ukrainian society has been an active player in the political game and in times of trial – in 1991, 2004 and 2013 – blocked the plans of the authorities. However, the Belarusians became a political actor only a few months ago.

…and contrasting foreign policies

The divergence between Minsk and Kyiv also took place in foreign policy. Lukashenko bet on Russia. His decision was based on both his views and views of the majority of the population, as well as the lack of a real choice: Russia, unlike the West, accepted his authoritarian style and election fraud.

Belarus has participated in all projects for the reintegration of the so-called post-Soviet area formed in the Kremlin, from the Commonwealth of Independent States to the Eurasian Economic Union. Moreover, it has created the Federal State with Russia, whose rules have remained dead letter for many years. Lukashenko tried a multi-vector foreign policy à la Kuchma, but his internal policy undermined the credibility of a shift towards the West.

In Ukraine, in turn, presidents have changed, and one of the important factors of social mobilization was the issue of choosing the orientation of foreign policy: the West or Russia? For a long time, until 2014, social preferences have been evenly distributed, which allowed for the so called balancing policy or out-of-block policy. In practice, Kyiv wanted to profit from the simultaneous blackmail of the Kremlin with a shift toward the West and threatening the West with getting closer to Russia, without taking any liabilities. This policy has been effective for some time, but after the annexation of Crimea, the pro-Russian option simply ceased to exist.

Due to these differences, relations between Ukraine and Belarus have been lukewarm for one and a half decades. They focused on economic, trade, and cross-border cooperation as well as part of the multilateral formats inspired by Russia, in which Kyiv has also taken part. However, many Ukrainians had no illusions that the development model based on Russian integration projects is a poorly concealed version of Russian imperialism, which was also economically inefficient. Lukashenko had a different idea. And although, he has been trading more and more with the West, he has politically strengthened the alliance with Moscow due to Russian preferences concerning energy sources.

Both countries have been woken up from lethargy in their relationships first by assertive and then aggressive Russian policy. For the first time, the alarm bell for Belarus rang louder in 2006, when Russia decided to dramatically increase gas prices after Lukashenko’s second re-election. Another red flag appeared in 2008 when Putin invaded Georgia, a post-Soviet state, a member of the CIS. At that time, Lukashenko decided to further diversify foreign policy, which included strenghtening cooperation with the pro-Western Ukraine of Yushchenko. However, the romance with the West ended four years later, when the violent dispersal of “Ploshcha” after the December presidential elections in 2010 turned out to be more important than attempts to balance Russia’s growing influence.

Minsk negotiating table

However, a much louder alarm sounded in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and the Russian military aggression in Donbass. Lukashenko was seriously concerned about the aggressive policy of the Kremlin, and recognized it as a threat to Belarus and to his personal power. By rhetorically distancing himself from Putin’s policy, walking the line in the matter of the recognition of the annexation, and recognizing the new authorities in Kyiv after President Viktor Yanukovych fled, he took a successful attempt to sell the idea of Belarus neutrality to Europe and to establish a center of peace talks in Minsk.

It was in the Belarusian capital that the ceasefire was signed in September 2014: the whole world looked at Minsk when the 14-hour meeting of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine took place there in February of the following year. The so-called Minsk-2 document, an agreement aimed at achieving lasting peace in the east of Ukraine, was signed at the time Finally, meetings of the so-called Trilateral Contact Group for settling the situation in the East of Ukraine, which consists of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE, are held in Minsk every Wednesday.

Lukashenko’s plan was a spectacular PR success. The Belarusian president was beaming in group photos with the leaders of European powers, thus making effective use of the favorable political situation to break the isolation and convince the Western world to lift the sanctions.

Fear of Moscow at the heart of relations

The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass are a turning point in the recent history of Eastern Europe. These events have not only once again proved Russia’s imperialist ambitions, but have also changed the Ukrainian-Belarusian relationship.

Security issues have come to the forefront. Because of the real threat of the use of the military force by Vladimir Putin the protection of 1084 km of the common border became painfully relevant to Ukraine. In November 2014 – seventeen years after the State Border Agreement was reached– the agreement on its demarcation was finally signed.

However, the biggest problem for Ukraine has been the effective integration of the Russian and Belarusian armed forces and the deep Russian penetration of the entire Belarusian power block and arms industry. The Belarusian army is not independent because the commander of the Russian Western Military District has a decisive influence on its operations. There are also strategic Russian military facilities on the Belarusian territory. Russia has a similar influence – an extensive network of informal contacts – among the Belarusian siloviki (the KGB and other special services). In Ukraine, not without reason, people have started saying that Russia surrounds them from three sides, and the Ukrainian elites look at their Belarusian partner, despite Lukashenko’s neutral rhetoric, with increasing suspicion.

At the same time, after 2014, holding back Russia became a common interest for Ukraine and Belarus, although each of these countries implemented it within their capabilities. Kyiv defended itself militarily in Donbass and strengthened its cooperation with the West, while Minsk opposed the location of a Russian military base on its territory and strengthened its role, as Lukashenko said, as a „donor of regional security”.

Some Ukrainian experts rightly point out that this idea was not sufficiently appreciated in Ukraine. After all, strengthening the concept of “neutrality” of Belarus, in the sense of neutrality from Russia, was in Kyiv’s strategic interests.

Trade and economic cooperation between Minsk and Kyiv was generally successful, providing a safe and profitable anchor for bilateral relations. In this respect, they are asymmetric insofar as for Belarus Ukraine has always been a more important economic partner than vice versa. This was manifested in a large trade surplus and over 11.5% share of the southern neighbor in total Belarusian exports (as reported in 2013). Despite the pressure of the Kremlin, Minsk did not impose restrictions on trade with Ukraine. However, exports decreased as Crimea and the Donetsk Oblast were recipients of Belarusian products worth USD 1 billion per year. At the same time, new opportunities have emerged: re-export of Ukrainian goods to Russia and increased traffic at the Minsk airport due to the suspension of flights between Ukraine and Russia. Above all, however, following the trade war between these countries, Minsk has increased fuel sales to Ukraine (transactions worth more than USD 1 billion by the end of this year). As a result, the mutual trade in goods had decreased only slightly between 2013 and 2019, and Belarus maintained the surplus in bilateral trade that is so important for it.

Belarusian revolution: Lukashenko’s shift and Zelensky’s revenge

As history has shown, the limited confidence of the Ukrainian authorities in Lukashenko was not unfounded. The radical anti-Russian rhetoric of Lukashenko before the presidential elections on August 9 was surprising for everybody, not only in the West, but also in Russia. The main opponents have accused each other of being „the Kremlin’s puppet” and suspected the Kremlin of destabilizing the pre-election situation in order to justify a military intervention and the removal of the head of state. However, this rhetoric disappeared unexpectedly, just like the scale of post-election protests and the brutality of Belarusian services officials unexpectedly came to light..

The cycle repeated when the vast amount of electoral frauds and repressions against citizens ended the warming towards the West. Lukashenko returned – like a prodigal son – to the iron embrace of the Russian fraternal nation. However, unlike the Biblical character, the Belarusian leader had to pay for his return with the change of rhetoric from anti-Russian to anti-Western, and also to give back the ransom. It was a group of the so-called Wagnerians – Russian mercenaries, some of whom had Ukrainian passports and were known for the fighting in Donbass on the side of the separatists. The Belarusian services detained them before the election at a sanatorium near Minsk, on the ground of their intention to destabilize the internal situation and did not exclude the possibility of releasing some of them to the Ukrainian justice system.

Sending the so-called Wagnerians to Russia and the consequent new narration of the Belarusian authorities, which considered Ukraine, alongside Poland, Lithuania and the USA, to belong to the „axis of evil”, organizing the next colorful revolution in Belarus, met with an abrupt reaction of Kyiv. Zelensky decided to take an unprecedented step in the bilateral relations – to recall the ambassador for consultation and suspend political contacts.

This was a reaction first to the deception of Kyiv, and then its instrumental exploitation by Lukashenko in his own game with Moscow. During the first days, by refraining from criticizing Lukashenko for the violent pacification of protests in the hope for the transport of mercenaries, Zelensky risked his reputation both in the eyes of society and Western partners. Such kidalovo (Russian term for cynical deceit of a political or business partner) is rarely forgiven in post-Soviet political culture so Kyiv joined the EU sanctions against Minsk.

The anti-regime protests evoke positive reactions by a large part of Ukrainian society. While as recently as in February Lukashenko was the most popular foreign politician in Ukraine, and enjoyed more trust than Angela Merkel, in October, after the violent pacification of demonstrators, confidence in him fell by more than half to 30%. The still high popularity, especially among the elderly in the south and east of the country, is due to the strong nostalgia for the Soviet times, which Lukashenko embodies. In turn, the “Maidan” part of Ukrainians would be happy to see the Belarusian dictator leave.

The opinion of the Ukrainian authorities is clear: the growing dependence of Belarus on Russia as a result of the closing the path to the West is amplifying the sense of threat to national security. Thus, together with yet another betrayal of the West by Lukashenko, the period of closer cooperation between Kyiv and Minsk to blunt the Kremlin’s appetite has given way to the greatest diplomatic crisis in their bilateral relations.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.