Is Belarusian Government About to Close Down the Ukrainian Border?
On 16 December, President Lukashenka requested that Belarusian security agencies not neglect the consequences which the situation in Ukraine created for Belarus. He referred to the recent case of a former Donbas war veteran detained with weapons and explosives at the railway station in Minsk.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian State Border Committee reported about serious rise in illegal attempts to bring weapons and munition from Ukraine.
Minsk is worried about possible movement of weapons, radical activists and ideas from Ukraine. The authorities started to fortify Belarusian border with Ukraine just as the Maidan protests began in 2013. But Belarusian government tries to avoid provoking Kyiv by turning the border into an iron curtain.
Do arms and militants come to Belarus from Ukraine?
On 15 December, Belarusian Minister of Internal Affairs Ihar Shunevich told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that his Ministry referred the materials concerning 12 participants of Donbas war to the Investigation Committee. The Committee decides about their possible criminal prosecution. The complete list of Belarusian citizens who are suspected to fight in Donbas includes more than 100 names, emphasised Shunevich.
The Minister's statement became even more pronounced politically as Shunevich underlined that among these 12 persons are those who fought on both sides of the conflict. Unlike in Belarus, in Russia fighting against Ukraine's government forces in Donbas war is not crime, but a laudable deed.
Minsk wants to prevent its citizens from taking part in the Ukraine conflict. In June, the Chairman of State Security Committee Valery Vakulchyk announced that the Belarusian combatants would face prosecution as mercenaries. In August, a state TV channel reported that security agencies found in Minsk a recruiting scheme which facilitated sending mercenaries to Donbas.
On 26 November, a Belarusian citizen who previously fought on the Ukraine side in Donbas has been detained at the Minsk railway station as he had with him arms and explosives. Belarusian non-state media could confirm the identity of the man and his participation in war.
On 17 December Leanid Maltsau, chairman of the State Border Committee, Belarusian security agency responsible for border control reported that in 2015 Belarusian border guards seized 53 items of weapons, 500 rounds of ammunition as well as some drugs on the Belarus-Ukraine border. That is a lot, because on the borders with Lithuania and Poland they interdict only single pieces of weapons.
No iron curtain on the border with Ukraine
Minsk clearly fears that instability and war in Ukraine gives new opportunities for both political radicals and criminals. As a result, Belarus started constructing its border with Ukraine as the situation in that country became unstable in November 2013. Demarcation of the border will expectedly take eight years and cost about $10m.
On 2 December the biggest Belarusian Internet-media outlet Tut.by published a story about the demarcation. So far, at the westernmost end of the Belarus-Ukrainian border it looks harmless: workers have installed border marks and removed vegetation along the five metres wide strife on Belarusian side. By now, is has been done on about 400 km out of the total 1,084 km.
The State Border Committee, however, said Tut.by that at the moment Belarusian government has not taken any decision on installing on the Belarus-Ukrainian border more sophisticated fortifications and control equipment such as alarm system, barbed wire, control strife - similar to those installed on the Belarus-Polish border.
It means that Belarusian officials feel comfortable with the situation on the southern border. Indeed, in October, Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta, the official Defence Ministry daily published a remarkable report describing loose fortification of the Belarus-Ukrainian border. The article described a border outpost which controlled 40 km of border with difficult natural conditions – lakes, Dnyapro-Buh Canal, woods and few settlements. No easy job especially given the developed smuggling routes in the region.
Soviet military standard requires a company be stationed at such border outpost. The outpost in vicinity of Pinsk described in the article hosts only a strengthened platoon. That means about 30 men. Even though new equipment like electronic control devices and drones assist them in guarding the frontier that means quite loose border control of the frontier with Ukraine.
This relaxed approach is probably dictated not only by the lack of money in Minsk's pockets but by some major decision to avoid a rupture between the two countries. A comparison with a similar situation in the former Soviet Union can illustrate this point. For instance, when Uzbekistan faced in 1990s the risks related to political radicalism, instability and war in neighbouring Tajikistan it simply introduced visa regime and mined its borders regardless of how dramatically this move tore the relations between the people.
Minsk concerned about economic issues
The statements of Belarusian officials also prove that they do not see any major threat in the south, except for general instability and economic decline. On 17 December, Leanid Maltsau, chairman of the State Border Commitee, characterised the situation on Belarus-Ukrainian border as “usual.” He emphasised “complete mutual understanding” with Ukrainian border guards.
Lukashenka himself at the conference with Belarusian top security officials on 16 December looked more concerned about economic issues involving the border with Ukraine rather than any security risks. He reminded that on 1 January 2016 the free trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU would enter into force and members of the Customs Union had to defend themselves before the arrival of the EU's goods. Belarusian government expressed concern that these goods can enter the country without customs control via Ukraine and Belarus-Ukrainian border and cause serious damage for Belarusian economy.
That corresponds with how Belarusian government behaves itself toward Ukraine in recent years. In particular it refused to support Russian interventions in that country and willingly cooperated with Kyiv in economic and defence spheres.
Ukraine notices that position. Speaking on 21 December before Ukrainian diaspora in Warsaw the governor of the Ukraine's Odesa province Mikhail Saakashvili emphasised that “there [were] effectively no differences in how Ukrainian and Belarusian leaderships assess the situation in the region.”
Belarusians and Ukrainians never in their history were divided by a real state border. Now they construct a border. Fortunately, so far this drawing a boundary resembles more cautious demarcation of own territory rather than rupture of links out of fear before security threats. After all, good fences make good neighbours.
Furthermore, Belarus constructs its fence with Ukraine after Minsk consistently supported the Ukrainian statehood since the Russia-Ukraine conflict started. If other regional and global powers acknowledge and support this policy of Minsk, it may lead to a more secure and solidarity-based region in the future.