Russian Politics in the Post-Soviet Space

Review of Russia’s Policy in the Post-Soviet Space/Russian Aggression in Ukraine: Response of Belarus

Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst

Review period:  February 24 – July 31, 2022

 

See also the 50th publication which reviews the developments from February 21 to March 3, the 51st publication which recounts Moldova’s response, the 52nd publication which covers the response of the Central Asian countries, the 53rd publication – about the response of Azerbaijan and Armenia to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the 54th publication about the key messages of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the Russian military aggression.

Key Considerations

  • Belarus is the only post-Soviet country which overtly supports Russia's military aggression in Ukraine; however, it refrains from involving its military in hostilities and recognizing the independence of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. This “restraint” of Lukashenko can be explained by his own caution - he may not be completely sure of Russia's victory and, therefore, he is trying to send positive messages to Ukraine and the West with these steps.

  • The leader of Belarus is the only president who has been meeting personally with the Russian president practically every month since the beginning of the war in bilateral and/or multilateral formats. During these meetings, he spreads common anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian narratives. In addition to telephone conversations and personal meetings between the presidents, the parties often meet at the level of their Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The Belarusian president also meets with leaders of the Russian regions with whom the main topic of discussion is the promotion of the development of economic relations under the sanctions.

  • In the conditions of the sanctions imposed by the West, the main concern in Belarusian-Russian relations is to find ways for mutual economic support and the development of alternative transit routes for Belarus through the territory of Russia. Amid these sanctions, we should expect a further increase in the degree of Russian influence on the economy of Belarus in the short run.

  • The leader of Belarus, like the leader of Russia, often turns to an interpretation of history useful to the Kremlin and glorifies the Soviet past.

  • A special target of the Belarusian president's anti-Western narrative is Poland and Lithuania which he accuses of trying to seize the western territories of Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko recognizes Russia's special role in preventing the Western threat.

  • After the start of the war, some changes have been observed in the policy of Belarus towards the occupied regions of Georgia. Although Belarus refuses to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Some facts that have happened in recent months make us think that Minsk may not be able to withstand the pressure of Russia and will recognize the occupied regions of Georgia which it has been avoiding for so many years.

Russia’s War Against Ukraine and a Diplomatic “War” Between Belarus and Ukraine

At this stage, Belarus is the only post-Soviet country which actually participates in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Although in the pre-war period, Aleksander Lukashenko ruled out an attack by Belarus on the territory of Ukraine, the Russian military attack on Ukraine was carried out from the territory of Belarus on February 24. In the past, Mr. Lukashenko always avoided participation in Russian military operations (be it in Chechnya or outside Russia). This time, the Belarusian president’s decision was influenced by his international isolation and the growing influence of Russia in the wake of the political crisis which developed after the 2020 presidential elections. Belarus is the only post-Soviet country which has already been sanctioned by the EU and the US for facilitating Russian aggression against Ukraine.

At this stage, Belarus manages not to deploy its military units on the territory of Ukraine. On March 1, the Ukrainian side announced the entry of Belarusian military forces into the territory of Ukraine, although this was not confirmed. Subsequently, such information was disseminated many times. Currently, Belarus is involved in the Russian aggression with its territory and infrastructure which has already produced political results. On March 23, Belarus expelled the majority of Ukrainian diplomats from the country for “unfriendly” (interference in internal affairs) actions, including from the Ukrainian consulate in Brest. The next day, Ukraine requested that Belarus reduce the number of its diplomats in Kyiv. Before the withdrawal of diplomats, the departure of a Belarusian ambassador from Ukraine on March 18 turned out to be scandalous - a Ukrainian border officer arranged a “theatrical” farewell for the ambassador.

Military Exercises

On February 18, Vladimir Putin hosted Aleksander Lukashenko at the Kremlin. It was their first meeting in 2022. On February 19 from Moscow, they watched the exercises of the strategic deterrence forces on the territory of Belarus. During the exercises, ballistic and cruise missiles were launched. The Aerospace Forces, the Russian Southern Military District’s forces, the Strategic Missile Forces and the Northern and Black Sea Fleets were involved in the exercises. The active phase of the Allied Strength – 2022 joint exercises ended on February 20. According to the presidents, the exercise had a defensive character and was not directed against anyone; however, the military exercises held in Belarus were a preparatory stage for the war against Ukraine which Russia used for a military attack on Ukraine.

 

Vladimir Putin and Aleksander Lukashenko Observe Military Exercises. Source:  kremlin.ru

Host of Negotiations

Despite the participation of Belarus in the conflict, the first and second rounds of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine were planned on the territory of Belarus. The first meeting between the parties was held on February 28 in the Gomel region, near the Ukrainian border, in the vicinity of the Pripyat River which borders Ukraine. The second meeting took place in Belovezh, in the Brest region, on March 3. The third round of negotiations was also held in the Brest region, which is located near the Polish border, on March 7. After these meetings, Russian-Ukrainian meetings were held either on the territory of Turkey or in an online format. In the last months,  the negotiations were suspended amid the escalation of the conflict.

UN Resolution - Belarus the Only Ally

Belarus is the only post-Soviet country which, like Russia, voted against a UN resolution on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. On February 28 at an emergency special session, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The resolution, entitled Aggression against Ukraine, was supported by 141 (including Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic states) and opposed by five countries (including Belarus and Russia). The Central Asian countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan did not take part in the voting. The resolution condemns Russia's invasion of Ukraine and “demands that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” A similar result was observed at a session of the UN General Assembly on March 24 which adopted the second resolution on Ukraine. The resolution was supported by 140 countries (including Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic states) and five opposed (including Belarus and Russia). A total of 38 members did not attend the meeting. The Central Asian countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan still did not participate in the voting.

When Will Belarus Recognize the Occupied Regions of Georgia?

A few days before the start of the war, the de facto Foreign Minister of Abkhazia, Inal Ardzinba, was on a long visit to Moscow. On February 10, Mr. Ardzinba met with Dmitry Mezentsev, the State Secretary of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. As reported on February 17, a joint commission will be formed on the basis of the CIS Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma which representatives of Russia, Belarus and the de facto republic of Abkhazia will join. The main goals of the commission will be to attract investments to Abkhazia and create conditions which will facilitate recognition of the de facto republic's “independence” by Belarus. The most notable event took place on June 24 when Viktor Sheiman, the Special Representative of the President of Belarus, arrived in Sokhumi and met with the de facto President, Aslan Bzhania. According to reports, the meeting discussed current issues of Eurasian integration. Inal Ardzinba also participated in the meeting. This was the first visit of such a high-level Belarusian official to the de facto republic of Abkhazia.

Dynamics of Relations Between Russia and Belarus

Among post-Soviet leaders, the Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenko, most often holds talks and meetings with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The meetings take place both in multilateral and bilateral formats. In this publication, we will review important events that took place in Russian-Belarusian relations after February 24.

February

The first telephone conversation between Aleksander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin took place on February 24, the very first day of Russia's military aggression in Ukraine. Mr. Putin discussed the ongoing situation in Ukraine with his Belarusian counterpart.

On the very first day of the war, Aleksander Lukashenko convened high-ranking military officials of the country and held an operational meeting. His main messages to the military were:

·       NATO's military potential is growing rapidly in Poland and the Baltic states, along the border of Belarus. Groups are forming in the vicinity of Belarus which plan to attack Russia through Belarus. We will not be traitors and will not allow the Russian people to be shot in the back.

·       Russian military groups, which remained in Belarus after the exercises, will help us to protect the western direction if necessary.

·       We will not begin to justify ourselves whether or not we participate in this conflict. I once again repeat: our troops are not there (in Ukraine). However, if it becomes necessary for Belarus and Russia, they will be there.

·       Vladimir Putin explained the situation in detail and as he (Putin) said, the purpose of the operation is clear: stop the genocide of the population of the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions.

·       I personally suggested to Mr. Putin to leave the Russian military units in the south of Belarus because we were not ready to protect the southern direction in the given situation. Vladimir Putin agreed to leave the military because, he said, it was another chance for deranged politicians in Ukraine to draw appropriate conclusions.

·       Certain facts which are hidden from the media indicate that Ukraine wanted this conflict. They did nothing to stop it.

·       In the current situation, it is necessary to immediately define measures for ensuring the security of our country and our people. I should also note that there is no emergency situation. Absolutely nothing happened. Now, all efforts should be directed towards strengthening the protection of the western direction of the state border as the situation in the southern direction is not under control.

·       The Polish leadership can use the given situation for its own purposes.

·       Belarus will soon make a decision on the recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. We will act as it is best for Russia and Belarus.

·       The Russian leadership never asked us to participate in any operations, not even in the “Ukrainian operation.” We have our tasks which correspond to the conflict and the operation which Russia is conducting in Ukraine.

·       Ukraine should start talks with Russia because it will bring more dividends than escalating the conflict and ultimately losing the war.

March

Meeting of Presidents

On March 11, Vladimir Putin hosted Aleksander Lukashenko at the Kremlin. The meeting lasted five hours and took place in different formats. Vladimir Medinsky, a representative of the Russian President in Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, also participated in the meeting for a short time. After this part of the meeting, a unanimous opinion was voiced that the conflict can be resolved at any time if the Ukrainian side wishes.

The second part of the meeting was about mutual support in the face of severe pressure from the West and the USA and the hybrid war against Russia and Belarus. The parties agreed on joint steps. Mutual support also provides for the supply of modern Russian military equipment to Belarus.

Considering the domestic political context, Vladimir Putin also congratulated Aleksander Lukashenko on the successful referendum (held on February 27) on amendments and additions to the Constitution. It was decided to hold the referendum after the internal political crisis in Belarus in 2020 which threatened Mr. Lukashenko's power.

Aleksander Lukashenko voiced the following messages at the meeting:

  • Belarus and Russia, which are allied countries, will overcome the pressure of the Western sanctions.

  • We, the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, should convene and define our common economic policy.

  • The pressure of the sanctions is a time of opportunity. Belarus and Russia have everything to develop the economy in the conditions which have been created. We will be able to live without them (the West). We have everything to live and work normally.

Vladimir Putin also shared his Belarusian counterpart’s vision in terms of economic development. According to him, the Soviet Union also lived, developed and achieved colossal successes under sanctions.

Aleksander Lukashenko also expressed his opinion about the war against Ukraine: “We did not attack. not we! As a precaution, the Armed Forces of Ukraine started firing when we were at your house two days ago. We sat together in a helicopter (on February 18, after a conversation at the Kremlin, both presidents flew to a residence outside the city). They were constantly reporting. They started. And now, I will show you from where an attack on Belarus was being prepared. And if six hours before the start of the operation a preventive strike was not carried out on the positions (four positions, I will show you now - I brought a map), they would have attacked our Belarusian and Russian troops which were on training. We did not start this war. Our conscience is clear. Biological weapons, the largest nuclear power plants... all these were ready to explode.”

Activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

  • On March 5, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, Vladimir Mackay, had a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. In addition to talks about bilateral relations, Mr. Lavrov thanked Mr. Mackay for offering a comfortable environment for Russian-Ukrainian talks.

  • On March 25, Vladimir Mackay met with the Russian Ambassador to Belarus, Boris Gryzlov.

  • On March 29, Vladimir Mackay had another telephone conversation with Sergey Lavrov.

  • On March 29, the Day of Unity of Belarus and Russia was marked at the Embassy of Belarus in Russia. On April 2, 1996, an agreement was signed between Belarus and Russia on the creation of a commonwealth which provided for the unification of the economic space and the gradual legal base.

  • On March 30, the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries held consultations.

Meeting with Governors

On March 31, Aleksander Lukashenko met with Oleg Melnichenko, the Governor of the Penza region of Russia.

April

Meeting and Talks Between the Presidents

On April 1, Aleksander Lukashenko had a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin. The talks also touched upon the issue of Ukraine.

On April 2, the presidents congratulated each other on the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia.

On April 12, Cosmonautics Day, the presidents visited the ongoing construction work at the Vostochny Cosmodrome and talked with cosmodrome employees. Vladimir Putin discussed the case from a historical perspective and emphasized the role and merits of the Soviet Union in going into space. At the meeting, the Russian president reiterated the Kremlin’s narratives about the military aggression against Ukraine. The web-page of the president of Belarus also published information about the presidents’ visit to the cosmodrome.

Visit to the Cosmodrome. Source: kremlin.ru

As part of the visit to the Cosmodrome, a bilateral meeting was held between the presidents. The meeting emphasized the issue of the common Soviet past and the achieved successes as well as the development of future cooperation under the sanctions. At the end of the meeting, a joint press conference was held where, in addition to bilateral relations, the importance of cooperation under the sanctions imposed by the West and the emergence of Ukrainian nationalism and the fight against it was discussed. Vladimir Putin interpreted the history of Ukraine and talked about turning Ukraine into an anti-Russian springboard.

Activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On March 26, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Andrey Rudenko, met with the Ambassador of Belarus to Russia, Viktor Semashko. Mr. Rudenko oversees the direction of post-Soviet countries in the ministry. The ongoing developments in Ukraine were also discussed during the meeting.

Meeting with Governors

On April 28, Aleksander Lukashenko met with Alexander Gusev, the Governor of the Voronezh region of Russia.

May

Meeting and Talks Between the Presidents

On May 3, Aleksander Lukashenko had a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin. On May 23, Mr. Putin hosted his Belarusian counterpart in Sochi. At the meeting, the parties talked about “successful” examples of solving economic challenges under the sanctions and ways of cooperation. The president of Belarus also spoke about the partition of Ukraine which, in his opinion, politicians are trying to do: “We are worried that they, the Poles and NATO, are ready to take Western Ukraine, just like it was before 1939. We are worried because this strategy also applies to Western Belarus.” The official meeting of the presidents lasted for five hours and then continued in an informal environment.

CSTO Summit

On May 16, Aleksander Lukashenko took part in a CSTO summit which was held in Moscow. In his speech, Mr. Lukashenko repeated the Kremlin's narrative: “The unipolar system of the world is a thing of the past. However, the collective West is fighting relentlessly to maintain its position. They use all means, including in the area of ​​our organization's (CSTO) responsibility, from NATO saber-rattling at our western borders to a full-scale hybrid war unleashed against us, primarily against Russia and Belarus.”

Aleksander Lukashenko criticized the CSTO’s actions. According to him, “the organization showed solidarity during the January events in Kazakhstan; however, today you cannot prove that we, the organization members, are united and support each other.” Mr. Lukashenko evidenced this with the fact that some members of the CSTO banned flights (of Russian and Belarusian companies) to their countries due to the sanctions.

On May 16, within the framework of the CSTO summit, Aleksander Lukashenko held a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin. The main topics of discussion were: development of joint steps for import substitution, diversion of Belarusian cargo to Russian ports, the construction of a Belarusian port near St. Petersburg and issues of the development of a military-industrial complex in Belarus.

May 9 Celebration

Aleksander Lukashenko congratulated world leaders, including the President of Georgia, on the 77th anniversary of the victory in the World War II. Interestingly, he addressed the Ukrainian people and did not extend congratulations to the president of the country as in other cases.

Meeting with the Ambassador

On May 12, Aleksander Lukashenko met with the Russian Ambassador to Belarus, Boris Gryzlov.

Activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On May 5, Sergey Lavrov held a telephone conversation with Vladimir Mackay.

On May 18, Minsk hosted annual consultations between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs on human rights issues in international and regional organizations. On the same day, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus met with a delegation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia.

Meeting with Governors

  • On May 12, Aleksander Lukashenko met with the Governor of the Khabarovsk Region, Mikhail Degtyarev.

  • On May 19, Aleksander Lukashenko met with the Governor of the Nizhegorod region, Gleb Nikitin.

June

Meeting and Talks Between the Presidents

On June 25, Vladimir Putin hosted Aleksander Lukashenko in St. Petersburg. The meeting coincided with the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. At the meeting, like the previous ones, the importance of bilateral economic relations was emphasized (in 2021, cargo turnover increased three times and amounted to USD 38 billion). The presidents discussed issues of solving economic challenges; however, the president of Belarus also touched upon the actions of neighboring countries. According to him, “the leadership of Poland and Lithuania conduct a policy of confrontation. Today, the most mercenary fighters in Ukraine are from Poland. Lithuania also plans to isolate Kaliningrad and stop transit from Russia to the exclave.”

Aleksander Lukashenko expressed concern over training flights by the US and its NATO allies which he believes are training to carry nuclear warheads and equipment. Therefore, Mr. Lukashenko asked his Russian counterpart to discuss a responsive action. In order to prevent the threat, Vladimir Putin proposed the transfer of Iskander-M missile-tactical complexes to Belarus in the short run.

Before the meeting with the Russian president, Aleksander Lukashenko visited the construction of the Belarusian port in Bronk, near St. Petersburg.

Lukashenko-Lavrov Meeting

On June 30, Aleksander Lukashenko hosted Sergey Lavrov in Minsk. At the meeting, the parties discussed the current situation and relations with the West. Mr. Lavrov mentioned again that the “open door policy” and the decision made in Bucharest in 2008 on the membership of Ukraine and Georgia in NATO was reaffirmed in documents at the NATO summit. He made separate comments to the media and later met with his Belarusian counterpart after which a joint statement was released. The ministers also answered journalists' questions at a joint press conference.

 Aleksander Luksahenko Hosts Sergey Lavrov. Source: mid.ru

Sergey Lavrov's visit to Belarus took place on June 29-July 1. During the visit, the main issues to be discussed were: agreement on foreign-political steps for 2022-2023 and diplomatic support for the implementation of 28 alliance programs of economic integration. The Ukrainian issue was also discussed at the meetings as well as the need to continue joint efforts in the fight against the falsification of history and the manifestation of neo-Nazism.

Meeting with the Patriarch

On June 6, Aleksander Lukashenko met with the Russian Patriarch Kirill in Minsk.

Activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On June 2, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Andrey Rudenko, met with a delegation of the CIS Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus. The meeting was held in Moscow within the framework of consultations between the ministries.

On June 15, Sergey Lavrov held a telephone conversation with Vladimir Mackay.

On June 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Belarus and Russia. A photo exhibition was also opened in the ministry on this date.

On June 29, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, met with the Belarusian Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Shestakov. The meeting was held within the framework of consultations between the ministries.

Meeting with Governors

  • On June 2, Aleksander Lukashenko met with the Governor of the Leningrad region, Alexander Drozdenko.

  • On June 9, Aleksander Lukashenko met the Governor of the Kursk region, Roman Starovoitova.

  • On June 24, Aleksander Lukashenko met with the Governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov.

  • On June 27, Aleksander Lukashenko met with the Governor of the Samar region, Dmitry Azarov.

July

Address to the Participants of the IX Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus

On July 1, Vladimir Putin delivered a video greeting to participants of the IX Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus. During the address, this time as well, Mr. Putin reiterated historical parallels and noted that the forum is being held before the Independence Day of Belarus which is celebrated on July 3. In 1944, on this day, Soviet troops liberated Minsk from the Germans.

Talks Between the Presidents

In July, only telephone conversations took place between the presidents:

  • On July 11, Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation with Aleksander Lukashenko.

  • On July 22, Vladimir Putin held a telephone conversation with Aleksander Lukashenko during which the parties agreed on the appointment of a new Belarusian ambassador to Russia. The new ambassador will be the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, Dmitry Krutoy.

 

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