Belarus – Ukraine: Period of ‘mature partnership’

Oleg Bogutsky

Summary

In 2016, cooperation with Ukraine remained a strategically important component of Belarus’ foreign policy. The pragmatic position of Minsk on the situation in Ukraine contributed to a relaxation of tensions in the relations with the West and resulted in the lifting of most sanctions. Ukraine and the West welcomed the Belarus’ refusal to host a Russian airbase.

The sides demonstrated their willingness to promptly resolve disputes in mutual trade. Despite the problems with Russian oil supplies, Belarus remained the key exporter of oil products to Ukraine. Both countries sought greater cooperation in the field of transit and looking for alternatives to Russian energy commodities.

Trends:
Politics

In 2016, Ukraine-related matters were mentioned by the Belarusian leadership on fewer occasions than in 2015. At the 5th All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in June, Alexander Lukashenko touched upon Ukraine only in passing, basically because the events there were not as relevant to Belarusian voters as before, although Ukraine remained a strategically important partner of Belarus. The Belarusian leadership in the person of President Lukashenko, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei and Ambassador to Ukraine Valentin Velichko continued to declare support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and assure that Belarus will not become a beachhead for aggression.

In confirmation of this assurance, Belarus did not agree with the placement of a Russian airbase in its territory, and was nonjudgmental when it came to Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO. Kiev appreciated this position. During a visit to Kiev in August, Makei said that Belarus did not consider the deployment of additional NATO contingents near the Belarusian borders as a threat to military security. He also criticized the Kremlin for the non-transparency of military exercises near the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.

Also, Minsk did not recognize ‘passports’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, which was another friendly gesture towards Ukraine. This position was confirmed after Russia de facto recognized their passports.

Foreign Minister Makei’s visit to Kiev in August was the main diplomatic event in the bilateral relations in 2016. Makei held talks with Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and Vice Premier Hennady Zubko to discuss border management and the expansion of the trade and economic relations through the increased cooperation in the areas of mechanic engineering, energy, agribusiness, transport, defense and culture. Makei said after the talks that Belarus and Ukraine had “no unsolvable problems” and called the bilateral relations “mature partnership of the two states.” He particularly thanked the president of Ukraine for his assistance in the resumption of the dialogue between Belarus, the European Union and the United States.

Minsk remained an important negotiating platform for the settlement of the conflict in Ukraine. However, this importance was steadily declining due to the ineffectiveness of the Minsk agreements. In April, Belarus, however, put in question its neutral status when, at Russia’s request, it did not let Vice Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada), Ukraine’s representative to the talks in Minsk Iryna Herashchenko and a number of Ukrainian parliamentarians enter the country. The situation was quickly resolved, but it still caused a nervous reaction in Kiev. Ukrainian MPs even addressed PACE and the Council of Europe on that matter.

Lukashenko tried to compensate for the declining significance of the Minsk process by making other peacekeeping efforts, including those that clearly contradicted the Kremlin’s position. During the talks with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter in March, the Belarusian president proposed involving the United States in the peace-making process and reminded that he had already put forward this proposal before.

In May, President Lukashenko mentioned Ukraine at a meeting with Pope Francis. He spoke about the political influence of the Vatican and his readiness to turn Minsk into a platform for inter-Christian dialogue in the post-Soviet space. In November, Lukashenko offered Belarus’ assistance in holding elections in the southeast of Ukraine and establishing control over the border.

The Crimean issue remained the main problem in the bilateral relations with Ukraine. Belarus took an ambiguous position. On April 8, Makei said Belarus must have been guided by the fact of “who de facto owns the Crimea today.” “This does not mean that we agree or disagree with something. We believe that the main task now is to preserve the territorial integrity and inviolability of the remaining part of Ukraine,” he said. 1

At the OSCE PA session of July 6, Belarus did not vote for the resolution, which condemned the occupation of the Crimea by Russia. Representative of the Belarusian delegation Valentina Leonenko said Belarus would not vote when it comes to disputes between Russia and Ukraine.

On November 15, at a session of the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, Belarus tried to block Ukraine’s draft resolution on the Crimea on procedural grounds. In the draft Russia was recognized as an occupant country for the first time. At a session of the UN General Assembly on December 19, Belarus was among 26 states that voted against a similar resolution.

This position of Belarus aroused an emotional reaction in Kiev. Verkhovna Rada Vice Speaker Iryna Herashchenko called it a “betrayal” and “a stab in the back.” Head of the Verkhovna Rada Foreign Affairs Committee Hanna Hopko and leader of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People Refat Chubarov suggested rejecting Minsk as a place for negotiations. In response, Spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Dmitry Mironchik said that Belarus’ position on the territorial integrity of Ukraine had not changed, and the voting against the resolution was only a rejection of the practice of country resolutions on human rights.

Minsk was making attempts to play along with Ukraine in local (yet very sensitive for Kiev) issues. In March, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry reminded that the government did not approve trips of Belarusian citizens to the Crimea, especially from the territory of Russia, and that Minsk complied with the legislation of Ukraine in this matter. In May, the Belarusian Railways decided not to resume traffic routes to the occupied Crimea. In June, the Mogilev city administration removed from sale the global maps, on which the annexed Crimea was marked as a Russian territory, after the Ukrainian media pointed at that fact as outrageous.

Defense

Relations in the defense sector were quite ambiguous. In February, Belarus held a large-scale military exercise close to the Ukrainian border. It involved Tochka-U tactical missiles, Smerch, Uragan and Belgrad multiple rocket launcher systems, and MSTA-B long-range guns. It agitated the Ukrainian media, but most Ukrainian experts did not see a military threat in that. Verkhovna Rada member Dmitro Tymchuk said, “At present, Ukraine cannot see Belarus as a source of potential military threat.” 2

The Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian mass media repeatedly covered the stepped up military cooperation between Belarus and Ukraine. In June, the Ukrainian media reported the transportation of Belarusian-made chassis designed for anti-aircraft missile systems under the T-38 Stylet joint project to Ukraine, which, on its part, provided missiles designed by Luch engineering bureau.

In March, the Ukrainian corporation Bogdan (connected with the family of President Poroshenko) and the Belarusian Automobile Plant (MAZ) entered into an agreement on the joint manufacture of dual-purpose trucks. It became known in April that the Defense Ministry of Ukraine was going to procure Bogdan-MAZ trucks. In response to the criticism of the opposition that this would lead to a shutdown of the Kremenchug Automobile Plant, Advisor to the President of Ukraine Yury Biryukov explained that the Belarusian vehicles were of higher quality.

According to Ukrainian experts, over the two years of the warfare in the Donbas region, Minsk has made a lot of efforts to strengthen the defense capacity of Ukraine. There is an estimate that Belarus provided assistance worth US$ 90 to 100 million not including fuel supplies. 3

In July, Belarusian officers conducted an inspection in Ukraine as part of the agreement on additional confidence- and security-building measures. In September, representatives of the Ministry of Defense of Belarus visited air force bases and military units of the land forces of Ukraine under the 2011 Vienna Document of the Negotiations on Confidence and Security-Building Measures (OSCE) to look at new types of weapons.

On October 28, representative of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine Vadym Skibitsky said that during a joint Belarusian-Russian exercise, the Russian air force used Belarus’ airspace to practice air strikes on targets in Ukraine. Spokesman for the Belarusian Ministry of Defense Vladimir Makarov responded that the joint CIS air defense exercise involved units of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and call Skibitsky’s statement an attempt to inadequately interpret information.

Trade and economics

In 2016, Ukraine was Belarus’ second major trading partner in terms of turnover and exports (its proportion went up from 6.1 to 7.5% and from 9.4 to 12.2%, respectively) and fifth in terms of imports. In 2015, Ukraine was second, third and fifth, respectively. Belarus had a considerable trade surplus of $ 1.87 billion (1.56 billion in 2015). Belarusian exports increased from USD 2.515 to 2.848 billion, and imports went up from 0.952 to 0.982 billion. 4

Belarus mostly exported oil products, liquefied gas, coke, and bitumen oil worth USD 1.874 billion that constituted 75% of total exports (1.820 billion, 72% in 2015). The physical volumes thus increased from 3.621 to 4.881 thousand metric tons. Belarus also exported USD 158 million worth tractors, truck tractors, cargo vehicles, parts and accessories for cars and tractors (6%), USD 137 million worth mineral and nitrogen fertilizers (5%), 57,800 worth tires (2%), and 33,130 worth glass.

Ukraine mostly supplied agricultural products (USD 216 million, 22%), vegetable oil residues (USD 138 million, 14%), metallurgical products (USD 131 million, 13%), furniture, confectionery, and pharmaceuticals.

Belarus boosted its export of dairy products five times, and became the major supplier of rye (66% of imports) and potatoes to Ukraine. Air transportation increased significantly: the traffic at Minsk-2 airport increased by more than 20%, which was basically caused by the Ukraine – Russia mutual air blockade. An official dealer of the Belarusian Potash Company started operations in Ukraine in October to maximize the coverage of Ukrainian consumers.

One more Belarusian-Ukrainian ‘trade war’ ended in January. The Ukrainian Interdepartmental Commission on International Trade suspended protective duties on a number of Belarusian commodities. Prior to that, Minsk lifted restrictions on the import of confectionery and beer from Ukraine.

The bilateral trade and economic cooperation was promoted by the Belarusian-Ukrainian ad hoc group on mutual trade, Intergovernmental Mixed Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation, ad hoc group on the industrial and production cooperation, which sat in regular sessions in September-November. They resolved many controversial issues in the mutual trade and determined new areas of agro-industrial and machine-building cooperation. In particular, they removed problems with the export of Belarusian cement and restrictions on the supply of jet fuel for the Ukrainian air force. The parties agreed to increase the mutual trade to USD 8 billion.

In July, the problem with the supply of Russian oil to Belarus resulted in a decrease in supplies of Belarusian oil products to Ukraine, which was of strategic importance to Kiev. Although the supplies were resumed pretty soon, both sides began to explore other options. Kiev held talks with Azerbaijan and Iran on a resumption of transit through the Odessa – Brody main. In September, Lukashenko expressed interest in deliveries of Caspian oil to Belarus through Ukraine, and, in October, he announced the start of negotiations with Tehran and Baku. The first batch of Azerbaijani oil to Belarus went through the Odessa port.

Presently, the Caspian oil transit is back-pedaled due to a shortage of light oil in the Odessa – Brody main, although the operator declares the readiness to promptly resolve this problem. Kiev worries about the stability of such supplies in the future, since Minsk has already used this alternative as blackmail leverage in talks with the Kremlin. A sharp decrease in the transit of Belarusian oil products through Ukrainian ports due to a reorientation to Lithuania is another problem.

Considerable progress was made in the transit by land, primarily as part of the New Silk Road project (from China to Ukraine). In February, this project merged with the Viking project (the freight rail route Ilyichevsk – Minsk – Klaipeda). Both routes are intended for the transit of cargoes bypassing Russia. The significance of the project was stressed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in June. He said China was going to invest around $ 15 billion into the project.

In November, the parties agreed to step up the transportation by water in the Baltic-Black Sea corridor.

Border arrangements

Belarus and Ukraine ratified a number of bilateral border agreements. Negotiations between the heads of customs and border agencies on the simplification of procedures of border passing by individuals and cargoes went on throughout 2016. The countries implemented joint targeted projects within the framework of the Eastern Partnership and other international technical assistance programs.

There were problems caused by Belarus’ refusal to recognize new Ukrainian ID cards. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said that “the visa-free regulations on travels between Belarus and Ukraine that fell under the current agreement were still in force”, but requested additional consultations regarding the ID cards. In October, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Dmitry Mironchik said that Kiev had not initiated a procedure to recognize the new cards.

Conclusion

In 2016, the bilateral relations between Belarus and Ukraine remained stable and strategically important to both sides. The role of Ukraine as the largest market for Belarusian commodities increased. Its proportion went up to 12% (for comparison, the proportion of Russia constitutes 46% and that of the EU makes up 24%). Ukraine’s dependence on Belarusian oil products also increased. Minsk’s pragmatic attitude to Ukraine and the refusal to deploy a Russian airbase in the territory of Belarus contributed to the normalization of relations with the West. For Ukraine, this was an important guarantee of the northern border security. There are very good opportunities to join efforts in looking for alternatives to reduce the oil dependence on Russia.