How Belarus Disappointed Russia in Ukraine and Syria

New Ukrainian Armoured Vehicle Designed with Belarus Help. Image: Ukraine Ministry of Internal Affairs

Minsk consistently avoids supporting Moscow in Ukraine and Syria. To put it mildly. After all, on 7 December, Ukrainian Internal Minister Avakov inaugurated the new Ukrainian armoured vehicle Varta designed in cooperation with "Belarusian engineers".

It became just one more of a series of examples of Belarus-Ukrainian defence cooperation. Later on, the Belarusian Defence Ministry denied claims that it supported Russia's position in the latter's dispute with Turkey.

Belarus risks estranging its Russian ally, but not because it wants to earn extra money in Ukraine or from conservative Arab regimes. Minsk strives to improve relations with Russia's opponents because the Kremlin has shown itself willing to make radical foreign policy moves.

Kremlin Trash: Belarusian arms for ISIS

Last week, Russian propaganda outlet Eurasia Daily published a commentary with the eloquent title "Belarusian 'Neutrality' is Hypocrisy on Spilled Blood." It summarised a series of articles in which experts close to the Kremlin accused Belarus of anti-Russian policies in Ukraine and Syria.

When prominent Russian experts criticise Minsk in half a dozen articles on Eurasia Daily it means that the Kremlin wants its Belarusian partner to understand the seriousness of the accusations. The leading expert on Belarus at the Institute for Studies of CIS Countries, Alexander Fadeev, pointed out that Belarus supplied Ukraine with fuel, dual-use goods and components for arms systems. He emphasised that Minsk did it not only for economic but also political reasons: in other words, to improve relations with the West.

Lukashenka not only earns money in Ukraine but also says to the West: “I am yours, don't stage a Maidan in Belarus”

On 11 December, a Russian political analyst working at the prestigious Higher School of Economics called Andrei Suzdaltsev developed this idea further. According to him, Lukashenka not only earns money in Ukraine but also says to the West: “I am yours, don't stage a Maidan in Belarus”.

Russian political commentator Evgeny Satanovski earlier accused Belarus of working with Turkey and Qatar against Russia in the Middle East. Now he has taken his criticism of Minsk to the extreme. According to him, while previously Russia's opponents in the Middle East – Qatar and UAE – purchased arms for ISIS in Serbia and North Korea, now they do it mostly in Minsk. Satanovski underlined, “They [ISIS] are going to use these weapons. Whether it will be against us [Russians], Syrians, Iranians or civilians whom they murder is a secondary question.”

Cooperation with Ukraine: impossible to hide

Ridiculous accusations of Belarus selling weapons to ISIS will not fool anybody. In fact, it is Belarusian policy in Ukraine and not Syria which enrages Moscow. And evidence of Belarus-Ukrainian cooperation abounds. A year ago it seemed that Belarus might merely take advantage of the situation to earn some money supplying Ukraine with war materials. Now, almost two years into the Donbas war, Minsk continues to cooperate with Kyiv, proving that this collaboration is part of Belarus' longer-term strategy in the region.

Kyiv-based journalist Ihor Tyshkevich has recently published in Khvylia a new investigative overview of Belarus-Ukrainian cooperation. He believes that this year Belarusian firms could earn about $90-$100m from military-relevant deals (without fuel) in Ukraine.

Something of this business is evident, like the rise of Belarus' share in the Ukrainian aircraft fuel market from 0% before the war to 45%, or statistical data on bilateral trade which show transfers of numerous goods for probable military use.

Indeed, while in 2014 Belarus sold Ukraine $5m worth of aircraft, in the first half of 2015 this figure rose to $14.4m. In 2015, Kyiv bought from Belarus special trucks worth $1.7m, i.e., the respective export rose by 210% compared with 2014.

Many possible indicators of cooperation lack direct evidence, yet look convincing. For example, Tyshkevich points out that the Ukrainian army has started to receive large quantities of the new anti-tank missile system Stugna. Ukraine produces only the missile used in this system, while the rest is delivered by Minsk-based firm Peleng.

Why Minsk risks working with Kyiv

The statistics show that though Belarus has earned some money from these transactions, this alone is not enough to be worth the risks which these Ukrainian deals pose to Belarus-Russian relations. Minsk is not looking for money.

Minsk strives to maintain and improve relations with opponents of Moscow in the region and beyond (first of all the EU)

The Russian experts quoted above got it right: politics determines the behaviour of Belarusian government. First of all, Minsk strives to maintain and improve relations with opponents of Moscow in the region and beyond (first of all the EU) because the developments in Crimea and the Donbas have profoundly shocked it. It is not sure that something of this kind could not happen in Belarus and is looking everywhere for partners who would help prevent or, if necessary resist, such an eventuality.

At the same time, Belarus has reached the limits of its cooperation with Russia as set by the Kremlin. In the field of military industrial cooperation, Minsk has suffered numerous disappointments. For instance, its plans to establish jointly with Russia an assembly production of aircraft in Belarus in the early 2010s ended with nothing.

Earlier, in the late 2000s, Belarus negotiated with the Kremlin even more far-reaching plans for producing top defence products in Belarus. Among them were short-range ballistic missile systems (Iskander), surface-to-air missile systems (Tor) and launchers for mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (Topol). To no avail, too.

Ukraine gives Belarus military technologies

For some of these opportunities Minsk then publicly turned to China, and more discreetly to Ukraine, especially after Crimea. Interestingly, the Belarusian general Piatro Rahazheuski who had negotiated with Moscow possible Belarusian participation in producing Iskanders and Tors later on opted to work with Ukrainians.

This former Deputy Defence Minister of Belarus and later Deputy Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee is now the director of the Belarusian office of the Ukrainian Motor Sich Company. Motor Sich has given Belarus something Russia denied: the Ukrainian company established a helicopters repair facility in Orsha and plans to extend it.

Ukraine helps Belarus with expertise and technology, not only concerning aviation but also tanks and missiles

Tyshkevich asserts that Ukraine helps Belarus with expertise and technology, not only concerning aviation but also tanks and missiles. Russian scholar Suzdaltsev on Eurasia Daily agrees: "Lukashenka is trying to get from Ukraine the arms which Russia – taking into account the not very trusting relations between Minsk and Moscow – cannot give him."

Tyshkevich and Suzdaltsev assume that Ukrainians might have participated in designing the Belarusian Palanez multiple launch rocket system. Officially a Belarus-Chinese product, Palanez shoots further than the Chinese WS-2 and WS-3 systems which presumably served as prototypes for Palanez. Since its first public demonstration in May, the media have speculated about Ukrainian (and Russian) involvement in designing this weapon.

All in all, Belarus' contacts with the Ukrainian and Arab regimes opposing Russia cannot be dismissed as the opportunistic pursuit of easy money. Minsk dislikes the policies of the current Russian government which threaten to redraw international borders. Moreover, it has realised that the Kremlin takes its alliance with Belarus for granted and does not deal with it as a partner.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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