Amid ceasefire in south-eastern Ukraine, Belarus strengthens border security
Having secured its status as a regional negotiations platform, official Minsk is strengthening national security. The Kremlin’s attempts to freeze the conflict in eastern Ukraine have prompted Belarus to strengthen border security with the conflicting parties – Russia and Ukraine. The Belarusian government will continue to work with Russia and Ukraine and to gain benefits from making concessions to both parties in the conflict.
Pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government have signed a cease-fire deal which came after talks in Minsk, which also included representatives from Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
On September 5th, the Trilateral Contact Group (Russia - Ukraine – OSCE) met in Minsk for the third time in the last two months. Official Minsk also hosted the Eurasian Union – EU – Ukraine summit in late August. Before the most recent meeting of the Contact Group in Minsk, when a cease-fire deal was signed, talks between the parties in the conflict had not had any significant results.
In addition, amid growing Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine, the Belarusian authorities have strengthened security at the borders with Ukraine and Russia.
It should be noted that Belarus and Russia have not had their border delineated and demarcated. In fact, when the Belarus and Russia Union State was founded in the late 1990s, the border between Belarus and Russia was only a formality and was not controlled by either Belarusian or Russian border services. As of 2011, transport controls were abolished. However, when Russia was preparing for the Olympic Games in Sochi in February 2014, she resumed passport control at the Belarusian-Russian border from the Russian side, which continues to function. There are reports that Russian border guards pay particular attention to the documents of the Ukrainian citizens entering Russia – checking if they are on banned/restricted lists or if they are subject to criminal prosecution.
Amid escalation in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, President Lukashenko signed a decree to strengthen border security in areas adjacent to the state border between Belarus and Russia. Presumably, the Belarusian leadership is following the Kremlin’s request to strengthen border security. The president’s press service emphasised, “This will enable the border service to carry out its duties and tasks within this area, as well as to ensure proper cooperation with the border authorities of the Russian Federation, aiming to detect and prevent illegal migration, drug trafficking and illegal cross-border movement.”
The Belarusian authorities realise that the fact that Kiev lacks control over the Russo-Ukrainian border in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions has led to military conflict escalation and Russian troops penetrating eastern Ukraine.
In addition to enhancing border security with Russia, Lukashenko signed a decree to simplify procedures and reduce costs for demarcating the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. Previously Belarus’ Foreign Minister Makey said that the demarcation process could take up to seven years. By demonstrating its desire to expedite the demarcation of the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, Minsk is sending a signal to Kiev that there are no threats from the North.
Official Minsk is taking cautious steps to strengthen national security. The Belarusian authorities are preparing the grounds and infrastructure for establishing border control with Russia.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.