Belarus and Ukraine Should Combine Efforts in Countering Russian Expansion
February 7, 2020 an international expert discussion “The RF’s Hybrid War Against Belarus” took place in Kyiv. The event was organized by the Non-Governmental Analytical Center “Ukrainian Studios for Strategic Studies” and the Solidarity Movement “Razam” (Belar. — “Together”).
During the meeting, representatives of Ukraine and Belarus discussed the essence of the Russian Federation’s hybrid war against Belarus, a threat to both states and the region as a whole.
At the invitation of the organizers, the President of the Independent Analytical Center for Geopolitical Studies “Borysfen Intel” Victor Hvozd spoke before the participants of the conference on the forms and methods of Russia’s “hybrid war” against Belarus.
Our meeting today is devoted to the analysis of an important and relevant topic concerning the methods of Russia’s actions to restore its control over the post-Soviet territories. Such intentions of Moscow directly affect the interests of all former Soviet republics, which are paramount objects of Russian expansion.
This, in turn, requires an adequate understanding of the mechanisms for Russia’s implementation of its plans, which will allow to effectively counteract the Kremlin’s policies. And, even more so, — to create favorable conditions for the countries of the former USSR to achieve their own state and national development goals.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in various forms of “hybrid warfare” is now widely known. This issue remains subject to increasing attention of both, Ukrainian and foreign experts, and has already been reflected in applied and theoretical studies.
At the same time, Ukraine is just one of Russia’s expansion directions. As noted above, Moscow is also trying to return to the sphere of its exclusive influence other post-Soviet countries, Belarus included.
Despite the different approaches of Ukraine and Belarus to choosing their foreign policies, Moscow’s policy poses common threats to both our countries. This is precisely what determines the expediency of defining the features of Russia’s “hybrid war” against Belarus, which will allow us to share relevant experience and combine efforts in defense of our interests.
Especially, when Minsk is quite obviously moving to a more independent from Russia policy. In particular, the Minsk meeting of President of Belarus A. Lukashenko and US Secretary of State M. Pompeo on February 1, 2020 testified to this.
Given these circumstances, in my speech, I will express our vision of the main directions of Russia’s actions against Belarus, and will also focus on those aspects that contribute to or hinder Moscow’s achievement of its goals. Based on this, I will propose some approaches to establishing cooperation between Ukraine and Belarus in deterring Russia.
Once again, I will emphasize the importance of this task in the context of the topic of our meeting. For example, Russia’s achievement of its goals for Belarus would, in fact, deprive the latter of its statehood. In turn, this would have critically negative consequences for Ukraine, which would find itself surrounded by Russia in the east, in the south and in the north.
So, let’s start with a more detailed analysis of the issues raised.
2. Belarus Between Russia and Europe. Historical Aspect
First of all, the reason for this is Belarus’ geographical position between Russia and Europe. It is through Belarus that the strategic corridor Moscow — Minsk — Warsaw — Berlin passes, which on the one hand is the main link between Russia and Europe, and on the other — the main direction of combat actions in case of conflicts between them.
For example, it was through Belarus that were conducted the invasion of Moscow by Napoleon’s troops in 1812, Kaiser’s Germany in 1915 during World War I and Hitler’s Germany in 1941 during World War II. Counter-offensives of the Russian Empire’s troops in 1812 and of the Soviet Army in 1944 also marched through Belarus.
3. Belarus Between Russia and Europe. The Present
During the Cold War, this direction became the main axis of confrontation between the USSR and NATO. And now it is the same axis of confrontation between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance that is now on the borders of Belarus and the Russian Federation. At this, both the parties carry out a symmetrical build up of their armed forces, as well as conduct military exercises with opposite aims.
Thus, within the framework of the “West” joint strategic command and post exercises of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus, they rehearse an offensive to capture the Baltic states and part of the territory of Poland. In turn, the USA and NATO have resumed the conduct of a series of exercises characteristic of the Cold War, during which they rehearse repulsing of Russia’s armed aggression.
4. Belarus’ Role and Place in Moscow’s Geopolitical Plans
- to create a buffer zone with NATO in Russia’s most important section of the country’s central administrative and industrial region, including Moscow;
- to expand access to Belarus’ transport infrastructure, which is the main link connecting Russia with leading Western European countries, first of all, Germany;
- to obtain a foothold for the deployment of Russian troops in the interests of deploying a frontier position in front of NATO, as well as to get additional capabilities for combat actions against Ukraine (from the north) and the Baltic states (from the south).
Besides, Russia’s goals for Belarus include:
- integration of Belarus into the “Russian world”. According to Moscow, the reason for this is mainly the Slavic composition of the Belarusian population, as well as the closeness of cultural and historical traditions of the two countries;
- construction and strengthening of the integration nucleus in the post-Soviet space, with subsequent unification around it of other countries of the former USSR;
- strengthening of Russian positions in Belarus’ economy and market. In this regard, the greatest interest of Russia is caused by the Belarusian energy sector, enterprises of the defense-industrial complex, light and chemical industries and mechanical engineering;
- involvement of Belarus in supporting Russia’s policy in the international arena, including in the post-Soviet space and towards Ukraine;
- joining the military capabilities of the two countries in a collective confrontation with NATO;
- using the Union State of Russia and Belarus as an excuse to keep V. Putin in power after 2024.
5. Peculiarities of the Situation in Belarus Used by Russia for Actions Against It
To achieve its goals on the Belarusian direction, Russia uses the full range of methods of “hybrid wars”, which are also conducted against other countries of the former USSR. However, the strategy and tactics of Moscow’s actions on the Belarusian direction have certain peculiarities due to a number of historical, demographic, economic and political factors characteristic of Belarus.
Such factors are both, objective and subjective and may be perceived differently within Belarus and outside it. We consider the following factors to be the main ones:
- non-existence in Belarus of powerful national-democratic forces capable of influencing the foreign and domestic policy of the country through their own activity and wide support of the public;
- mainly pro-Russian orientation of Belarusian citizens, who see their past, present and future with Russia and have a negative attitude to the West;
- the structure of the Belarusian economy, which left in the country from the Soviet Union, and makes it critically dependent on Russia in terms of cooperative links between producers, as a sales market and source of energy;
- the policy of the Belarusian leadership, with A. Lukashenko in charge, to ensure the economic development of the country by obtaining preferences from Russia in exchange for the country’s pro-Russian policy;
- the totalitarian nature of the Lukashenko regime, which provokes the USA and Europe’s negative response and leads to a permanent tension in relations between Belarus and the West.
All these circumstances are used by Russia in the realization of its interests in Belarus, and determine the forms and methods of such actions.
6. Forms and Methods of Russia’s “Hybrid War” Against Belarus
Russia’s purposeful steps to realize its interests in Belarus began immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, at the initial stage, they were of a rather limited nature and mainly concerned the preservation of Russian influence on Belarus, as well as obstacles to its national democratic and European development.
With coming to power of V. Putin, who began to pursue an active course of revival of Russia as a great world power, Moscow’s policy on the Belarusian direction has acquired a new character. Thus, its main content has become to restore Russia’s full control of Belarus and to effectively reduce it to the level of the Russian province while maintaining formal attributes of statehood. In fact, since then, Russia’s actions against Belarus have turned into a full-scale “hybrid war”.
The main directions of such actions are:
- subordination of the information space of Belarus to Russia and promoting the pro-Russian and anti-Western ideology through it;
- formation of the Russian lobby in the Belarusian authorities, business, power structures and educational and cultural spheres;
- involving Belarus in various integration structures with Russia both, bilaterally and in multilateral formats with other post-Soviet countries;
- preserving Belarus in the economic sphere of Russia by implementing joint trade, economic and investment projects, supplying oil and gas at preferential prices, and providing financial assistance to the Belarusian government;
The IMF estimates that Russia’s annual financial support for Belarus in various forms is up to 10 billion US dollars. This makes 11 % to 27 % of the Belarusian GDP. In recent years, the volume of Russian financial support for the Belarusian economy has somewhat diminished, but remains rather significant;
- inclusion of Belarus in the Russian security space under the pretext of common threats from NATO, extremism and terrorism;
- provoking tensions between Belarus and the USA and Europe by supporting the Belarusian authorities in their conflicts with the West.
To achieve these goals, Russia takes a set of measures, including both, giving all sorts of preferences and putting pressure on the country in political, economic and information spheres.
7. Methods of Russia’s Achieving Its Goals for Belarus
- bringing to power in Belarus a pro-Russian regime led by A. Lukashenko, which significantly slowed down its national development, curtailed democratic transformations, and completely reoriented the country’s foreign policy to Russia;
- keeping Belarus in the sphere of Russian influence within the framework of the creation of the Union State of Belarus and Russia with supranational bodies and mutual commitments in the political, economic and security spheres;
- involving Belarus in Russia’s strategic integration initiatives in the post-Soviet space, namely: the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union;
- maintaining Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia, as well as subordination of the main part of the Belarusian economy to Russian business;
- consolidation of the military capabilities of the two countries within the framework of the creation of a Russian-Belarusian joint group of troops;
- establishing close interaction between the secret services of the two countries, including in counteracting the spread of Western influence in post-Soviet territories and supporting Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine.
8. Results of Russia’s Achieving Its Goals for Belarus
All this has made Belarus Russia’s closest ally, not only in the post-Soviet space, but in the world as a whole. Thus, the precedent and basis for Moscow’s restoration of its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space were created in the form of “reincarnation” of the USSR, but in fact, of restoration of the Russian Empire.
In turn, allied relations with Russia and its support allowed A. Lukashenko to retain his power for a long period, as well as to ensure the country’s relative stability and development of the Belarusian economy.
9. Problems in Relations Between Russia and Belarus
- Belarus’ loss of some of its sovereignty, including the possibility of pursuing an independent foreign policy;
- deepening confrontation between Belarus and the West with all the negative consequences of such situation. Including political and economic sanctions imposed by the USA and EU against a number of representatives of the Belarusian leadership;
- Belarusian business’, and in fact, A. Lukashenko’s losing control of the leading branches of the country’s economy as a result of their becoming the ownership of Russian oligarchs;
- Moscow’s breach of its obligations to Belarus in the economic sphere, both, in the interests of Russian business and in order to put pressure on Minsk over various issues.
All these problems have been rising along with Russia’s growing expansion towards Belarus.
Since 2014, they have reached a whole new level, which has resulted from the Western sanctions’ negative impact on the Russian economy, and therefore on the economies of Russia’s partner countries. Besides, the interests of Belarus were directly affected by Moscow’s counter-sanctions against Western countries.
10. The Spread of Negative Perception of Russia
According to the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, from 2003 to 2019, the number of Belarusians who support full independence of the country increased by 14.9 % to 49 %, while the number of supporters of an equal union with Russia decreased by 13.3 % — to 36.1 %. At this, only 7.7 % of Belarusians want the country’s becoming part of the Russian Federation.
11. Actions of the Leadership of Belarus to Counteract Russian Expansion
In the face of increasing pressure from Russia, the Belarusian leadership has stepped up measures to curb Russian expansion. At this, in the conditions of considerable superiority of Russia’s potential and capabilities, an asymmetric approach was applied, focusing on the most sensitive aspects for both countries. The main directions of such efforts were:
- Belarus’ switching from confrontation with the West to establishing constructive relations with Western countries and international organizations;
Here, the most illustrating was the visit to Belarus (February 1, 2020) of US Secretary of State M. Pompeo, which testified to the “defrosting” of the relations between the two countries. To begin with, US representatives of this level had not visited Belarus for 25 years, and since 2008 diplomatic relations between the two countries had been reduced to the level of charges d’affaires.
As a result of the talks between A. Lukashenko and M. Pompeo, an agreement was reached to intensify cooperation between the two countries. At this, A. Lukashenko welcomed the strengthening of the USA’s role in Belarus and emphasized that Belarus would never become part of Russia. In his turn, M. Pompeo expressed the United States’ willingness to fully meet the Belarusian oil needs;
- expanding the range of trade and economic partners of Belarus, in particular, by intensifying ties with China and other countries that may be interested in Belarusian goods;
- seeking alternative sources of energy carriers and routs of their delivery to Belarus, including through the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine;
- blocking Moscow’s attempts to implement new treaty provisions within the framework of the Union State, which actually deprive Belarus of its sovereignty;
- avoiding Russia’s attempts to expand its military presence in Belarus on a permanent basis;
- limiting Russia’s information influence on Belarus while increasing support for national development and culture ideas.
The above actions of the leadership of Belarus largely rely on the totalitarian system of the Belarusian authorities, which allows to block Moscow’s attempts to undermine the internal situation in the country. At the same time, the national consciousness of the population of the country is taken into account.
This is evidenced by the Belarusian authorities’ fairly loyal attitude to the anti-Russian protests in Belarus, which took place last December over the plans to sign a new “road map” for deepening integration within the framework of the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
In response, Russia uses pressure on Belarus to keep it in line with its policies. At this, the main tool of such pressure is, as a rule, manipulation of Russian oil supplies to Belarus.
All this leads to periodic exacerbation of relations between Russia and Belarus, as it happened at the beginning of this year.
12. Complication of Relations Between Russia and Belarus
Problems in the relations between Russia and Belarus were observed in the preparation of a new package of documents on deepening the integration of the countries within the framework of the Union State. The biggest conflicts between the two countries have raised questions about:
- creation of supervisory bodies with binding decisions for both countries;
- powers of the parties in determining the foreign and domestic policy of the Union State, including in the military sphere;
- trade taxes, prices on oil and gas and tariffs for their transit through Belarus.
Fundamental differences between the parties regarding the above-mentioned problems were confirmed during the meeting of the Presidents of Russia and Belarus on December 20, 2019 in St. Petersburg. The result was another “oil war” between the two countries in January 2020.
13. Conclusions and Suggestions
On the whole, the issues considered allow us to draw a number of conclusions concerning both, Belarus and Ukraine:
First, Belarus, like Ukraine, is at the forefront of Russia’s post-Soviet expansion due to its strategic importance for Russia. Against this background, Moscow will continue to take consistent steps to establish full control over Belarus, including through the use of forms and methods of “hybrid warfare”.
Second, unlike Ukraine, Belarus does not yet have sufficient capacity to deter Russia. Due to this, Moscow has already largely achieved its goals on the Belarusian direction. However, gradual understanding by the leadership and society of Belarus of the danger of losing the statehood leads to increased resistance to the Kremlin’s actions.
Third, existence of common threats from Russia to Belarus and Ukraine creates the basis for a concerted effort to counteract Russian expansion.
- exchange of information on the forms and methods of Russia’s “hybrid wars” against Ukraine and Belarus and of the experience in countering Moscow’s actions.
In fact, we have already started such work today;
- establishing cooperation between Ukraine and Belarus and coordinating actions to counteract Russia’s “hybrid warfare”. To this end, a high-level joint working group can be set up, as well as initial interaction at the level of relevant agencies and various political forces and public organizations.
The basis for the implementation of such an idea was created by the meeting of Presidents of Ukraine V. Zelenskyi and Belarus A. Lukashenko in October 2019 in Zhytomyr, during which they confirmed the brotherly nature of relations between the two countries;
- Ukraine’s support for Belarus’ interests in relations with Western countries and international organizations. Different forms of international relations may be used for this purpose, including: bilateral relations of Ukraine with the USA, the EU and individual European countries; Eastern Partnership mechanisms; the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, etc.;
- Ukraine’s assistance in reducing Belarus’ economic and energy dependence on Russia. In particular, this may include expanding trade between Ukraine and Belarus, as well as arranging for oil supplies to Belarusian refineries through Ukrainian ports.
The management of the Belarusian Oil Company is considering plans to import oil through the ports of the Baltic states and Ukraine on an ongoing basis. In the autumn of 2016, during the period of another aggravation of Russian-Belarusian relations, a temporary scheme of oil supply to Mozyr refinery from Azerbaijan by tankers to the Odesa seaport and further by rail through the territory of Ukraine was organized.
February 4, 2020 at the press conference in Prague, Foreign Minister of Ukraine V. Prystayko reiterated Kyiv’s intentions to assist Belarus in meeting its oil needs;
- Belarus’ participation in the process of resolving the conflict in the Donbas, both, by providing a negotiating platform and by facilitating the involvement of leading world powers.
Minsk’s willingness to do so was confirmed by Foreign Minister of Belarus V. Makei during the joint press conference with US Secretary of State M. Pompeo on 1 February, 2020 in Minsk. According to him, Belarus will do everything possible to help resolve the Donbas problem, including with the participation of the United States.
This approach will allow Ukraine and Belarus to strengthen their positions in restraining Russia, which will be important both, for their own interests and for the security of the whole of Europe.
To watch the full speech (in Ukrainian):