Belarus – Ukraine: In anticipation of a storm
The year 2021 saw a pivotal change in the Belarus – Ukraine relationship. Mutual attempts to establish political dialogue in the first half of the year bore no fruit.
After the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk, Ukraine finally stopped refraining from joining Western sanctions. In response, the Belarusian leadership sharply toughened their anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. Minsk’s explicit solidarity with the Kremlin’s position, particularly, joint military activities (West-2021 exercise and the announced Union Resolve 2022 exercise) and the plans to deploy the newest Russian combat systems close to the Ukrainian border, transformed Ukraine’s perception of Belarus from a state that guaranteed the impossibility of invasion of third countries from its territory into a source of real military challenges and threats.
Nevertheless, the geopolitical tensions had little effect on bilateral trade and economic cooperation, which reached an all-time high.
- Transition of bilateral relations from benevolently neutral to confrontational;
- Abandonment of the strategy of being a “donor of regional security and stability” by Minsk;
- Transformation of Belarus into a real, rather than a potential source of security challenges and threats to Ukraine, in many respects, due to its military-political alliance with Russia;
- Increased trade and economic cooperation in spite of the coronavirus pandemic and occasional trade conflicts.
Political dialogue: between good neighborhood and confrontation
Belarus-Ukraine cooperation in the first half of 2021 was sluggishly affected by the crisis caused by Ukraine’s non-recognition of the result of the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, which resulted in the suspension of political dialogue.1 Minsk thus showed its willingness to continue constructive and mutually beneficial cooperation with Ukraine, based on the principles of sovereign equality and mutual respect.
Although Ukraine did not recognize Lukashenko as legitimate president, it did not join Western sanctions against Belarus. Moreover, Kyiv ignored the efforts of Belarusian democratic leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to obtain the status of a legitimate leader, either. Despite the attempts made by Tikhanovskaya’s Office to establish contacts with the Ukrainian leadership, their communication was informal and sporadic, mostly on the sidelines of international events in third countries. For Democratic Belarus the inter-faction group in the Ukrainian parliament was the main communication channel for Tikhanovskaya’s Office in Ukraine.
The forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk triggered a tougher stance of Ukraine towards Belarus. Ukraine joined the Western aviation sanctions on May 26, and prohibited flights of Ukrainian airliners over Belarus. On May 29, the Ukrainian Cabinet also banned Belarusian airplanes from entering Ukraine’s airspace in transit.2
That was the point, past which the confrontation between Minsk and Kyiv began to seriously heat up, and Ukraine began treating the Belarusian authorities as an external threat. Ukraine’s official comments were quite contradictory, as it was still critical for Kyiv that the northern border remained secured. At the same time, the Ukrainian government stated its determination to support the legitimate interests of the Belarusian people, who “deserve a decent life in a democratic country, where human rights and the rule of law are respected”.3
After the Ryanair incident, the Ukrainian authorities began to think about moving the negotiations of the OSCE Trilateral Contact Group on Donbass to another venue, pointing at Belarus’ dependence on Russia and the inadequate behavior of the Belarusian authorities in the international arena.4 As a result, Minsk lost the important symbolic status that made it possible for the Lukashenko Administration to manoeuver between Kyiv and Moscow for years by converting it into various economic and diplomatic dividends in its relations with the West.
The Belarusian authorities tried to form a pro-Belarusian lobby in Ukraine, staking, however, on outright weak political figures. For instance, Lukashenko met with Ukrainian House Representative Yevheniy Shevchenko, and Natalia Kochanova, Speaker of the Council of the Republic (the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament) held a meeting with a delegation of the Socialist Party of Ukraine led by Oleksandr Moroz. These contacts had no effect on Belarusian-Ukrainian relations, except for some annoyance in Kyiv.
Shortly after, Lukashenko made a number of statements about Ukraine, which the Ukrainian authorities interpreted as interference in the internal affairs of the country. For example, Lukashenko said that if he stepped over the Ukrainian border, he would become the most popular politician there supported by 90% of the population, and would be able to “make Ukraine be Ukraine”. He also threatened that together with Russia, Belarus could bring Ukraine “to its knees”, if Minsk stopped supplying fuels and lubricants. However, Lukashenko continued to voice security guarantees, promising that foreign troops would not attack Ukraine from the territory of Belarus.5
Meanwhile, according to an opinion poll conducted by Ukrainian Rating sociological research group, 59% of Ukrainians had a negative attitude towards Lukashenko in 2021, and 34% generally liked him. The number of Ukrainians who showed a positive attitude to Lukashenko has been steadily decreasing (45% in 2020; 67% in 2019), i.e. the number of supporters in Ukraine halved over the two years, while the share of Ukrainians who considered Belarus a hostile country in 2021 more than doubled from 22% to 48%.6
Having failed to form a pro-Belarusian lobby and to play on pro-Belarusian sentiments in Ukraine, Minsk once again tried to draw attention to itself by speculating on the recognition of Crimea as a Russian territory. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry only responded to this blackmail with a warning about “irreparable repercussions” for bilateral relations.7
At the end of the year, Lukashenko started using the possibility of cutting off transit from Ukraine to Lithuania as leverage. Lithuania previously banned transit of Belarusian potash fertilizers through its territory, while Ukraine continued transiting and importing fertilizers from Belarus.
Security: chronicle of escalation
In 2021, Belarus stopped positioning itself as a “donor of regional security and stability,” which previously implied certain security guarantees for the neighboring countries and predictable military-political behavior on the international arena. Three events – the crisis caused by the Ryanair incident, the migration crisis at the Belarusian-European border, and the Belarusian-Russian joint strategic exercise West-2021 – predetermined a qualitative change in the regional security situation and, as a consequence, the West and Ukraine’s new perception of Belarus as a source of hybrid and military threats.
The Belarusian authorities toughened their anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in the second half of 2021. Lukashenko said on July 2 that sleeper terrorist cells formed jointly by Ukraine, Germany, the United States, Poland and Lithuania were detected in Belarus during a large-scale anti-terror operation. Lukashenko ordered to shut the border with Ukraine, claiming that large amounts of weapons had been smuggled into Belarus from there.8
The migration crisis at the western border of Belarus did not directly affect Ukraine, but made Kyiv seriously consider reinforcement of its border in the north. Like other Western capitals, Kyiv saw the border crisis as an element of the Kremlin’s anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian hybrid strategy in addition to the cut supplies of natural gas to Europe and the escalation of military activities at the Russian-Ukrainian border, which began in spring 2021.
Speaking about the West-2021 exercise, Lukashenko said that he planned to purchase Russian weapons worth over USD 1 billion (including the S-400 air defense systems) and to deploy them near Ukraine’s border, citing alleged boot camps in Ukraine arranged for future actions against Belarus.9
Possible aggression against Ukraine from Belarus began to be perceived as a probable payment that Lukashenko promised to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who actually saved him in 2020.10 On November 23, Ukraine entered the active phase of the Polesye special operation at the border shared with Belarus conducted jointly with the National Guard, police and army in coordination with its State Border Guard Service.
The placement of an 8,000-strong contingent of Ukrainian security forces at the border with Belarus was used by Minsk as a pretext to justify a complete rethinking of its position on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Alexander Volfovich said that under the guise of combating illegal migration, Ukraine deployed army groups, heavy weaponry, helicopters and combat aircraft, which could lead to a local conflict.11 Lukashenko stated that in the event of an escalated armed conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk or directly with Russia, he would enter the war on Russia’s side.12
In early December, Lukashenko announced the joint Belarusian-Russian military exercise Union Resolve 2022 near the Ukrainian border in the next two months, and promised “big decisions” regarding Ukraine after the New Year holidays, which would affect the entire region “from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea.”13
Trade and economic cooperation: in spite of geopolitics
Although Belarusian-Ukrainian political relations deteriorated significantly, the trade and economic cooperation reached an all-time high in 2021. Paradoxically, this happened despite a decrease in the bilateral cooperation intensity caused by the coronavirus pandemic, sporadic trade conflicts, fierce rhetorical skirmishes between the two governments, and the tense geopolitical situation.
Over at least the past two decades, trade in goods with Ukraine consistently brought Belarus the largest surplus and, to a certain extent, compensated for negative effects in trade with Russia, China, and the European Union. In 2021, Ukraine became the second largest foreign trade partner of Belarus after Russia. The trade turnover of goods between the countries approached USD 7 billion.
Exports of Belarusian goods to Ukraine increased by 71.9% to USD 5.4 billion for the second time in the past decade. Imports grew slower by 7.2% to nearly USD 1.5 billion. Overall, Ukraine accounted for 13.6% of Belarus’ exports and 3.6% of imports.14
In 2021, Belarus earned over USD 3.9 billion in foreign trade with Ukraine. Before that, the best surplus of USD 3.5 billion was reported in 2012. For comparison, in foreign trade in goods, Belarusian enterprises showed a trade deficit last year, mostly in trade with Russia, China and Italy (minus USD 7.2 billion, USD 3.2 billion and USD 0.6 billion, respectively).
Belarus became Ukraine’s sixth largest trade partner after China, Poland, Germany, Russia and Turkey. In terms of export interests of Ukrainian economic entities, the Belarusian market was only the 14th after China, Poland, Turkey, etc.
According to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, the country mostly exported oil products, mineral and nitrogenous fertilizers, petroleum coke, bitumen, coal, gases, tractors, tractor trucks, trucks, electric energy, and wood-fiber boards. Ukraine supplied farm products and foods (soybeans, soybean meal, oilcake, corn), railway rolling stock, steel products, and agricultural machinery.15
The exports of mineral fuel, crude oil and products of its refinement from Belarus totaled USD 2.86 billion. Oil products accounted for 59.3% of Belarusian commodity exports to Ukraine. Fertilizers were second, accounting for 11.8% (USD 570.6 million).
The Belarusian export of services to Ukraine increased to almost USD 210 million, making Ukraine one of the largest importers of services after Russia, the U.S., Germany, Cyprus, Lithuania, Poland and China. Ukraine’s import of services (around USD 185 million) grew slower than the export. Belarus’ surplus in this segment increased from USD 5.6 million in 2020 to about USD 24 million. According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, transportation services topped the list of exports and imports of services in money terms. Belarus made a high profit from exporting software on demand, while Ukrainians earned dearly from tourist services.16
The Intergovernmental Belarus-Ukraine Mixed Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation had long been the main coordinator of the trade and economic cooperation. Its work was frozen after the outbreak of the political crisis in August 2020. The national Chambers of Commerce and Industry took over in 2021. Business delegations held a number of meetings as well. Belarus and Ukraine established a Business Council17 in September in addition to the Belarusian-Ukrainian Business Cooperation Advisory Council, which also suspended its activities in 2020.
A well-developed distribution network of more than a hundred Belarusian companies operated in Ukraine in 2021. The Belarusian Automobile Plant (BelAZ), Minsk Tractor Plant (MTZ), Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) and “Atlant” had dealers in Ukrainian regions, while Ukraine had 314 enterprises with its capital in Belarus (115 of them were joint ventures).
Intensive business contacts, however, did not prevent trade conflicts that arose as a result of Ukraine’s tightened foreign policy towards Belarus, which agreed with the position of Western countries. In response, the Belarusian government issued a resolution on May 26, which introduced licensing of a number of commodities coming from Ukraine, namely confectionery, chocolates, juices, beer, chipboards, fiberboards, wallpaper, etc.
In retrospect, the year 2021 was a turning point in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations, which predetermined the participation of Belarus in the Russian-Ukrainian war on the side of Russia. Ukraine did not give Lukashenko any substantial reason to abandon the guarantees given to Ukraine back in 2014. Although the Belarusian army was not directly involved in combat operations against Ukraine, the country provided its territory to Russian troops for the invasion, which is equal to military aggression from the point of view of both international law and the position of Ukraine’s leadership and its Western partners.
As long as the Russian-Ukrainian war continues, and Belarus has not withdrawn from it, political dialogue or trade with Ukraine in previous formats is out of the question. At the same time, the war may well transform into a regional conflict that can spread to the territory of Belarus. The future relationship with Ukraine will largely depend on Belarus’ ability to fit into a new geo-economic and geopolitical reality that will emerge during and after the war.