The common perception of Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka as an unquestioning ally of the Kremlin might lead one to believe that Minsk has been an enthusiastic cheerleader of Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine. The reality is more complex however. Belarus may not have condemned Russia’s interventions in Ukraine publicly, but it has not been vocal in its backing either. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly recognised and established links with the new government in Kyiv after the events of Euromaidan. Lukashenka, unlike Putin, attended the inauguration of Petro Poroshenko as Ukrainian president following his election in May 2014. Minsk has reiterated its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Lukashenka did not publicly congratulate Putin on the ‘reunification’ of Crimea with Russia and when asked merely noted that Crimea was de facto as opposed to de jure part of the Russian Federation. Belarus has also not recognised the independence declarations of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Furthermore, Minsk has not joined Moscow in imposing an import ban on various food products from the West in response to sanctions against Russia.
Lukashenka’s rule in Belarus continues to rely on economic, and to a lesser extent political, support from Russia, which limits his room for manoeuvre. Based in the 2009 national census, Belarus is also home to 785,000 ethnic Russians (8.3% of the population) and Russian is the mother tongue or everyday language of convenience for the vast majority of the population. With Russia demonstrating in Ukraine its willingness to intervene in the affairs of another country to protect what it proclaims to be the interests of ‘compatriots’, concerns in Minsk are not unexpected. In 2002 Putin semi-jokingly suggested simply incorporating the six oblasts of Belarus into the Russian Federation as a simple solution to the ongoing discussions about turning the treaty signed in 1999 on creating a Union State of Russia and Belarus into practice. Lukashenka has rejected since then any attempts at what he has explicitly termed an Anschluss.
Nonetheless, Ukraine itself is also an important partner for Belarus. According to official statistics, Ukraine traditionally accounts for 10-12% of Belarusian exports, and is the third largest market for goods from Belarus after Russia and the Netherlands. Ukraine is usually also one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment. Energy resources, as always in the case of Belarus, play a significant role. Oil and petroleum products (refined from cheap Russian oil) make up the bulk of Belarus’ exports to Ukraine. In addition, Minsk is heavily dependent on importing electricity from Ukraine. As such it is in the interests of Belarus to have good relations with any government in Kyiv. Minsk has recently hosted peace talks on the situation in eastern Ukraine, although it should be noted that Belarusian officials themselves do not play a significant role themselves in the negotiations.
Belarus faces a delicate balancing act, maintaining good ties with Ukraine without antagonising Moscow to the extent that there are negative economic and financial consequences or worse, attempts to explicitly stoke pro-Russian sentiments in Belarus to undermine Lukashenka. Walking this tightrope will be difficult, but it is also a game which Lukashenka has had two decades of experience playing in different forms. Indeed, one consequence of events in Ukraine has been an apparent increase in trust and support for Lukashenka in Belarusian public opinion, as the politician with the experience and track record in managing relations with Moscow. Lukashenka is likely to need to exploit all his reserves of political cunning to navigate this crisis in the third corner of the Slavic triangle to his own political advantage.