Over the last six years, Belarus’ foreign policy has evolved significantly in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Compared to Ukraine’s political turmoil and subsequent war in Donbas, neighbouring Belarus seemed like a kingdom of stability. Minsk was quick to adopt a neutral role and put itself forward to host the main venue for negotiation on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
In an effort to preserve its status as an independent sovereign state and return a degree of equilibrium to its foreign policy, Belarus has begun to distance itself from Moscow. It did not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea and formulated the so-called security guarantees towards all neighbouring states, pledging not to allow third countries to use its territory to commit military aggression against neighbours. Suddenly, a country traditionally viewed in the West as little more than a vassal state of Russia, has acquired a new role of a guarantor of regional security and stability.
On the grounds that it serves all sides for Belarus to stay outside of regional tensions, Belarus’ government focused on modernizing its armed forces and building the national industrial defence sector. It also looked to implement a 360-degree defence concept, which pays equal attention to security threats from western and eastern directions. Minsk also thwarted Moscow’s plans to establish an air force base on its territory.
Embracing this peacekeeping mantra helped achieve two aims at once: Belarus has revamped relations with the West as well as created space for it to occasionally distance itself from Russia, should the need arise. This “distancing” has helped Minsk gain previously unimaginable freedom of manoeuvre with both the West and Russia. Previously, when Lukashenko felt that Belarus’s independence was under threat, he relied on timid overtures to the West to secure concessions from Russia. But now the situation is changing again and as the presidential election approaches, the room for manoeuvre is shrinking for Belarus.
There are other lessons to be drawn from what happened in Ukraine. Both the West and Russia should realize the vital importance of Belarus’ neutral role in the region instead of making it yet another “battleground” in the East-West rivalry. Paradoxically, for all players in the region the best-case scenario is that Belarus remains a sovereign, independent and stable state. Moreover, considering the potential of border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan to evolve into a full-scale war, it is in the interests of all sides to have Belarus stay outside of regional tensions. Premature moves on either part would have the potential to destabilize this artificially maintained equilibrium and exacerbate the confrontation. Giving up self-centred approaches and placing a cooperative regional security at heart is certainly the way forward.
For both the EU and the US, positioning engagement with Belarus as a way of countering Russian influence could antagonize the Kremlin and potentially pave the way to an outcome all parties are trying to avoid (as happened in Georgia and Ukraine). Shifting from a strategy of isolation to one of support for Belarus’ neutral stance, while avoiding an openly anti-Russian rhetoric serves best to ensure security in the volatile region.
For its response, the Kremlin should not view Belarus’ recent claims to autonomy in its foreign policy choices as escaping Russia’s sphere of influence or betraying the partnership. Belarus’ strategy is an understandable behaviour of a small state aimed at mere political survival in a region that is largely framed by a rivalry between Russia and the West. Moreover, Belarus has been a staunch Russian ally and an active member of Russia-led integration projects in the post-Soviet space such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Therefore, Belarus’ rapprochement with the West is not a matter of choice between two different integration vectors as was the case with Ukraine, but a logical reaction to a crisis in relations with Moscow. It is for this reason that Belarus has made a concerted diplomatic move to deepen its economic, political and military ties with China and accepted the US offer to deliver American oil “at competitive” prices.
For Belarus, demonstrating progress in the Minsk process is essential to maintaining its peacekeeping role in the region. The more entrenched Minsk’s status as a neutral negotiation platform the more likely it is to repel Moscow’s pressure to establish a Russian military presence on Belarusian soil. This is where relations with Ukraine come to the fore. After a landslide victory in 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pledged to end the war in Donbas, but he is currently facing disappointment over the lack of success in resolving the simmering conflict and regaining control over its separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. The new ceasefire for eastern Ukraine, a precondition for implementing the Minsk agreements, appears to have faltered again, with more than one hundred violations recorded within days of it having gone into effect on 27 July. The Minsk agreements have failed to bring peace to Ukraine, and it is in the interest of both parties to seek options to revamp the process.
Western partners and institutions have always been harsh critics of Belarus authorities and the human rights situation, but it is largely thanks to Minsk’s mediatory role in the Donbas conflict that their rhetoric has become notably softer. While Moscow has adopted a wait-and-see approach vis-à-vis the vote in Belarus, the ongoing election campaign is having an increasingly negative impact on Minsk’s relations with the West, and the EU in particular. Brussels has strongly condemned the jailing of Belarussian opposition politicians and is considering imposing sanctions on Belarus. So far, however, there were no deviations from previously planned programs and projects. However, as the presidential election approaches, state repression and violence may only intensify.
Cutting all ties with Belarus will not resolve the situation, as history has shown that human rights in Belarus deteriorated more when it was isolated from the West. Moreover, sanctions will push a politically unstable and economically weak Belarus into Russia’s entangled embrace, from which there might be no way out. Engaging rather than pushing away is the only way forward, otherwise Belarus risks becoming a security challenge and threat to other countries in the region.