The future of Belarusian-Ukrainian relations

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Before the start of the so-called Russian “military operation” in Ukraine, this country was one of the key trade, economic and political partners of Belarus. Despite Ukraine’s being steadily described in the Belarusian information field as a corrupt, extremely weak, poor and inefficient state with the exclusively anti-people government after Maidan 2014, the real relations between the elites were much more pragmatic. The parties were frankly interested in each other.

Official Minsk constantly convinced Ukraine of the impossibility of using the Belarusian “balcony” to let Russian troops through to attack Ukraine from the north, as well as that Belarusian troops would not participate in a possible Russian-Ukrainian military conflict. For its part, the government of Volodymir Zelensky became one of the few governments in Europe that refused to demonstrate clear support for the initiatives of Pavel Latushka and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

From an economic point of view, Ukraine was the second largest foreign trade partner of Belarus in terms of exports, providing in 2017-2020. 10-12% of Belarusian exports. In 2020, Belarus was in the top 10 destinations for the export of Ukrainian goods (more than USD 1.3 billion out of USD 49.2 billion of total exports) and in the top 5 importing countries to Ukraine (almost USD 3.5 billion out of USD 54.3 billion of total imports).

The key export commodity of Belarus to Ukraine were the oil products, which caused serious criticism on a number of Russian information resources, and building materials. The main Ukrainian exports to Belarus were agricultural and food products, as well as metalworking products. At the end of 2021, the foreign trade turnover of goods between Belarus and Ukraine amounted to about USD 7 billion, of which exports amounted to USD 5.41 billion. We see that from the point of view of mutual trade, Ukraine is more interested in preferential / special conditions for Belarusian imports than in its export to Belarus. The loss of the Ukrainian market for exports is more sensitive for the Belarusian economy than the loss of the Belarusian market is for the Ukrainian exports.

Under these conditions, the decision to participate in the aggression against Ukraine (whatever the motives for it are) certainly means a fundamentally new nature of relations after the end of hostilities. However, these relations will be determined by the results of the “military operation”. So far, this can only be discussed in terms of various scenarios with a greater or lesser degree of hypotheticality.

Some considerations, however, seem indisputable. Thus, it is very difficult to talk about the security of Ukraine in the conditions of maintaining the Belarusian “balcony” dependent on Moscow. A study of the history of diplomacy shows that rulers who have lost their internal legitimacy and whose power is maintained at the expense of external resources (in the broadest sense of the word) are forced to sign various secret agreements with their sponsor-patron on very unflattering conditions. This allows us to answer the question of how seriously one can take the current attempts of manoeuvring by the official Minsk.

It is not clear at what level the involvement of the official Minsk in the aggression against Ukraine can be ignored, no matter what the Belarusian authorities say. The experience of the Second World War, which the Lukashenka regime likes to appeal to, also demonstrates the sad fate of both Romania (which joined the anti-Hitler coalition at the end of the war) and Bulgaria (which did not declare war on the USSR at all and retained its functioning embassy in Moscow). It is unlikely that Aliaksandr Lukashenka is similar to Carl Mannerheim, who managed to relatively painlessly withdraw Finland from the war (albeit, recognizing the loss of territories as a result of the Winter War of 1939-1940).

Despite a certain restraint of Ukrainian officials in relation to Belarus, at lower levels, Ukrainian representatives quite persistently carry out the thesis about the full responsibility of Belarus for participation in the war, and during the fighting in the north of Ukraine, some of them reported about the direct participation of the Belarusian armed forces.

Thus, both from the point of view of military-political security and from the point of view of strengthening its position on economic recovery after the war, official Kyiv is interested in the maximum weakening and in the most strict responsibility of both Belarus and the Lukashenka regime. At present, two options can be fixed, within which various Belarusian political forces are trying to mix these consequences.

The most radical position is expressed by Zianon Pazniak, who considers Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Pavel Latushka to be agents of the Kremlin and calls to recognize Belarus as an occupied country, that is, a country that has lost sovereignty and is not responsible for what is happening on its territory. Despite the advantage of such a position for the future of Belarus, it looks utopian. There are no grounds — neither legal nor factual — for recognizing the country as occupied and in fact not bearing any responsibility for what has already become the largest humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since the Second World War. Perhaps this war will also become the bloodiest, surpassing the number of victims and war crimes of the war in the former Yugoslavia.

The second position has no direct articulators (although, of course, they can be easily identified). Its essence is to create a kind of “grey” / smuggling zone from Belarus, through which economic issues between Russia, the EU and Ukraine will be resolved in the context of maintaining the sanctions regime. This option assumes a fairly broad framework and options, for example, of “lifting sanctions on potash for the transit of Ukrainian grain”, etc. Theoretically, there is a place for Lukashenka in this model.

While this option is more understandable to realpolitik proponents than the first one, it also seems to be difficult for implementation. Firstly, it presupposes a certain trust between the partners or the presence of a powerful coordinating centre responsible for organizing the process. None of this is visible in the near future. Secondly, it carries serious political risks for the participants, as the echoes of the war will haunt the region for at least another generation. The experience of the former Yugoslavia demonstrates this well. Thirdly, Belarus may well become a “grey” zone even without Lukashenka.

And most importantly, Belarus can become a “grey” zone even after a pro-Western government comes to power, which can go both to military-political guarantees for Kyiv and to create special economic conditions for Ukraine as a “compensation” for Belarusian participation in the Russian “special military operation”.

It seems that economic concessions from Belarus will take place even with the relative success of Russia. Obviously, the goals of the Kremlin have not been achieved, they are currently being adjusted – they are already not talking about the formation of a puppet pro-Russian government in Ukraine. In this context, the question of compensation/reparations is inevitable. Probably, the Kremlin would be happy to shift part of the costs to an ally in Minsk. However, in this situation, the Russian authorities will continue to provide political and minimal economic support to the Lukashenka regime, aggravating its dependence on decisions in Moscow. But even in this case, there will be the problem of the Belarusian “balcony”, which Ukraine and NATO will try to solve, despite any agreements with Moscow or assurances from the Minsk authorities.

Official Minsk is making desperate efforts to break out of this geopolitical trap. So far, these attempts have not brought obvious results. The Lukashenka regime continues to be perceived as having lost its internal legitimacy, surviving solely on Moscow’s support in exchange for obscure obligations and incapable of guaranteeing anything to anyone. It seems that this assessment is the most adequate.

Thus, Moscow, Kyiv, and the West are interested in extending economic compensation for military destruction and losses to Belarus. However, the amount of this compensation, as well as the nature of the payments (for example, preferential terms for Ukrainian exports to Belarus, special prices for Belarusian imports to Ukraine) leave room for manoeuvre for Belarusian diplomacy. Undoubtedly, this field will be immeasurably large for non-Lukashenka diplomacy.

The future of the Belarusian “balcony” is more uncertain. Official Minsk can guarantee the neutrality of Belarus only in case of a complete military defeat or the political and economic collapse of Russia. However, no one needs Lukashenka in such a situation. At the end of hostilities with a relative “saving Russia’s face”, official Minsk will have to face not imaginary, but quite real Western technologies to overthrow inconvenient governments. Ukraine will certainly provide all necessary assistance in this process.

The messages about the possible incorporation of Belarus into Russia periodically appear in the information space. Under this scenario, it is no longer necessary to talk about Belarusian-Russian relations. But such a development of events seems unlikely. We can agree with ISANS experts that the current status of Belarus as a dependent satellite with an illegitimate president-accomplice is the best for the Kremlin.

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