International support grows for Belarusian peacekeepers in Ukraine
At a press conference on 17 November 2017 in Minsk, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel described his meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, in which they “talked a lot about Ukraine,” in positive terms.
The upbeat summary is a remarkable surprise. On 15 November, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey announced his country’s willingness to dispatch peacekeeping forces to Eastern Ukraine. In addition, for the first time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced Russia’s support for the deployment of Belarusian peacekeepers, which Minsk has repeatedly proposed since 2014.
Thus, Belarus appears to be on its way to secure the support of key international players for an active role in defusing the Ukrainian crisis. The deployment of peacekeepers in Eastern Ukraine offers Belarus a chance to raise its international status.
Minsk finally accepted as a peacekeeper?
Minsk has sought to play a peacemaking role in the Ukraine crisis for years now. A new window of opportunity emerged on 5 September when Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in Eastern Ukraine. On 9 November, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US government—it did not specify what part—suggested the deployment of 20,000 peacekeepers in Eastern Ukraine because it believed Putin might be interested in ending the conflict.
The Belarusian government is undoubtedly involved in horse trading over the Donbass region, home to Ukraine’s two separatist “republics.” On 17 October, President Lukashenka met with the director of Russia’s Foreign intelligence service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin. Without any direct mention of Ukraine, official sources say their meeting dealt with the “coordination of activities and adjustment of directions of joint work aimed at protecting national interests.” These are serious grounds to assume that Lukashenka and Naryshkin discussed Ukraine.
Indeed, as early as in October 2014, at the very beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Lukashenka offered to send Belarusian peacekeepers to the Donbass region. Belarusian officials have continued to cautiously articulate the idea to no avail. As recently as October, the Kremlin still did not support the deployment of Belarusian peacekeepers to Ukraine.
Certainly, the position of the most important party to the conflict—Ukraine itself—is unclear. First, Kommersant, a Russian daily newspaper, on 15 November quoted a source within the Ukrainian administration saying Kyiv would prefer Polish and Lithuanian peacekeepers. The same source continued to say that Russia would hardly welcome such an option. As a compromise, Kyiv might instead agree to Belarusian and Kazakh peacekeepers.
Second, relations between Minsk and Kyiv are improving but not ideal. On 15 November, Ukrainian Parliament First Deputy Chairwoman Iryna Herashchenko accused Belarus of “stabbing Ukraine in the back for the second time” after it had voted in the UN General Assembly against a Ukranian–sponsored resolution on human rights violations in Crimea. The first time was exactly a year earlier in 2016 when Belarusian representatives voted against a UN resolution on investigating human rights abuses in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. “Voting by the Belarusian delegation contradicts loud statements about its neutrality,” Herashchenko said. Minsk, however, insists that it always votes in the UN against “country resolutions.”
Ukrainian radical politicians have attacked the idea of Belarusians helping to restore peace in Eastern Ukraine. On 16 November, a prominent member of the Ukranian parliament, Ihor Mosiychuk, said that Belarusian peacekeepers could become a “Troyan horse.” It would be Russian occupation forces disguised as Belarusians entering the Donbass region. Mosiychuk, who represents a major right-wing radical party, said, “Belarus has behaved not as a neutral state, but as a satellite of the aggressor country, the Russian Federation.” For proof, he cited recent Belarusian voting at the UN, the joint “West” 2017 military exercises with Russia, and “the kidnapping by the [Russian] FSB of a Ukrainian political prisoner, Igor Grib, from Belarusian territory.”
He also urged Ukrainian diplomats to do everything to remove Belarus from the sphere of Russian influence.
“Diplomats [will work to distance Belarus from Russian influence] at their level using various methods. However, we should clearly realise—and I am talking now sincerely and seriously—that we cannot achieve this without forming serious subversion and intelligence groups, and carrying out subversive acts on the territory of Belarus and Russia, including within cyber space.”
It would be somewhat self-defeating if Ukraine did, indeed, pursue such a disruptive policy. Belarus already persecutes citizens who support separatists in Eastern Ukraine. As recently as 16 November, a court in the southern Belarusian city of Rechytsa sentenced another Belarusian, Vitali Mitrafanau, on grounds of fighting for the self–proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine. He had been detained by police in July. In September, a Vitebsk court in the north of Belarus convicted a Belarusian for the very same reason. The former was sentenced to two years of hard labour, the latter for two years of restricted freedoms.
Many Ukrainian politicians speculate on Belarus’s role in the conflict. However, they often ignore the special circumstances that limit Belarus from taking a definite position. All the same, the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko so far have demonstrated a willingness to accept Minsk as a partner.
However, powerful forces in and outside Ukraine work to sabotage Belarusian participation in the peace process. In addition to the calls of radical parliamentarians quoted above, other odd incidents occur regularly, which threaten to derail bilateral relations. On 25 October, for example, Minsk detained a Ukrainian citizen, Pavel Sharoiko, for espionage. Sharoiko is officially a journalist. However, until 2009 he openly served with Ukrainian military intelligence. Belarusian authorities have tried to downplay the incident, keeping quiet on the issue until Ukrainian activists on 17 November revealed the story, which is now generating tensions between Minsk and Kyiv.
Minsk has Ukraine’s best interests in mind
Despite Russia’s hesitancy and Ukraine’s concerns, Minsk has shown its primary interest to bring it to an end the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Indeed, Minsk has ignored other opportunities for joint military operations with the Kremlin. For instance, in recent years, international media have speculated on Belarus’s participation, together with other member states of Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), in ensuring peace in Syria. However, that scenario has never materialised. On 27 October, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced there are no plans to discuss the sending of CSTO member state troops on a peacekeeping mission to Syria.
In the 1990s, Russia also tried to convince Minsk to send Belarusian airborne troops as peacekeepers to Transnistria. Belarus did no such thing. Its participation in peacekeeping operations has so far been limited to deploying a symbolic number of Belarusian military personnel as part of UN operations, in particular in Lebanon. Indeed, this is in stark contrast to many of Belarus’s neighbours, all of whom have participated in one international operation abroad or another.
Since 2014, the Belarusian government’s offer of peacekeeping services to Ukraine has to do with the transformation of Belarus and its neighbourhood. Minsk wishes to find a new, international niche for itself through engaging in conflict resolutions. A central goal is to break out from the tired “last European dictatorship” epithet. At the same time, the volatility of the region has pushed Belarus along this course of action. Russian support is uncertain and increasingly limited. Thus, the Belarusian government has tried both to defuse at least some tensions around Ukraine and to gain more international respect.
Until now, Minsk’s efforts to become more neutral have appeared problematic. Moscow, in general, has never appreciated these attempts. The West has been unsure of Belarusian claims of neutrality. However, if Belarus does deploy peacekeepers, then arguably Russia, the West and other neighbouring states would, in effect, be validating Belarus’s right not to choose sides.
Belarus is strengthening military cooperation with UAE
From 25 October to 6 November 2017, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka held an official visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Belarusian delegation included two of Lukashenka’s sons: the elder, Viktar, and the youngest, Mikalaj. Despite taking time off for some autumn vacationing, the Belarusian leader also managed to make a couple of important agreements in the security sphere.
Belarus is developing both economic and security relations with UAE. This will likely result in new contracts in the defence industry. In addition, the UAE is providing more financial help and investment for Belarus.
An official, working vacation
Despite the fact that this year marks 25 years of diplomatic relations between Belarus and the UAE, the United Arab Emirates cannot be called a state of great importance for Belarusian foreign policy. The frequency of the Belarusian president’s visits there confirms this: one can count five visits throughout the last ten years. In 2014 and 2016, Alexander Lukashenka visited the UAE accompanied by his younger son Mikalaj and his eldest son Viktar. In 2014, he even managed to play hockey in Abu Dhabi. Lukashenka also flew to the UAE in 2007 and 2013.
It is not the first time Lukashenka scheduled a trip to the UAE from the end of October to the beginning of November. In fact, this period is usually the time for autumn vacation in Belarusian schools. Apparently, 13-year-old Mikalaj Lukashenka, in particular, enjoys these sorts of “working visits.”
Another important detail is that Lukashenka donned a tie only once during his 12-day visit. The tie made its appearance at a meeting with the Abu Dhabi crown prince. This suggests the primary reason for the visit was to take a rest and to provide a good vacation for the family, especially for his beloved youngest son Mikalaj. At the same time, the Belarusian leader managed to combine vacation with business. Indeed, Lukashenka discussed important issues in the security field.
On 2 November, Alexander Lukashenka met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was visiting the United Arab Emirates, too. In addition to discussing the implementation of previously reached agreements, the two presidents also brought up security cooperation. For example, they highlighted the resumption of work by a bilateral commission to properly demarcate the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. The meeting between Poroshenko and Lukashenka highlighted urgent issues in Belarus-Ukraine relations, which need to be solved at the highest level.
Earlier, on 27 October, the Belarus’s presidential press-office reported the agreement of a loan between the Development Bank of Belarus and the Khalifa Fund for Entrepreneurship Development. The Fund will provide the Bank with about $25m for the development of private initiatives, innovation and regional projects, and the creation of jobs in Belarus.
Economic relations between the two states are improving. From January to August 2017, exports from Belarus to the UAE amounted to $44.8m (an approximately 318 per cent increase compared to the same period last year). For the first 6 months of 2017, the amount of direct UAE investment to Belarus exceeded $11m (more, than for the whole last year).
On 5 November, Alexander Lukashenka met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander-in-Chief Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. They discussed spheres of bilateral cooperation and prospects for the further development of relations. It is probable, though, the main item on the agenda was security and defence. Especially, taking recent developments into consideration.
On 15–16 October 2017, Abu Dhabi hosted the eighth meeting of the Joint Belarusian-UAE Committee for Military-Technical Cooperation. According to the official press-release, committee members discussed the implementation of previous decisions and their aftereffects. New cooperation projects were also put forward. The sides noted the high level of cooperation achieved and confirmed their mutual interest in the further development of military-technical cooperation between Belarus and the UAE.
Earlier, during a military parade in Minsk on 3 July 2017, people could observe an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the BELAR YS-EX, which is a modification of the Yabhon Flash 20 UAV manufactured by UAE company ADCOM Systems. For their part, UAE representatives showed interest in Belarus’s own Berkut UAV, which is developed by the 558 Aircraft Repair Plant.
Four enterprises will represent the Belarusian military industry at the 2017 Dubai Airshow from 12–16 November 2017: (1) Closed joint stock company BelTechExport; (2) Open joint stock company (OJSC) KB Radar—the management company for Radar Systems holding; (3) OJSC 2566 Electronic Weapons Repair Plant; and (4) the Scientific and Production Centre of Multifunctional Unmanned Systems at the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences (which is a state unitary enterprise).
From harems to tank tractors
In late March 2016, the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MWTP) and the Al Badie Trading Establishment, a company from the United Arab Emirates, signed a contract to supply the UAE Defence Ministry with tank tractors. The all-wheel drive (8×8) MZKT-741351 tractor—equipped with either the MZKT-999 421 or the MZKT-837 211 trailer—can carry up to three tracked and wheeled armoured vehicles or 20 to 40-feet containers weighing up to 136 tons.
For Belarus, the purchase of these particular vehicles is significant. The UAE already has 20 American Oshkosh M1070A0 tractors. The Belarusian and American vehicles are propelled by the same engine, the Caterpillar C18 diesel. However, the key difference is that the Belarusian MWTP tractor has more power (812 hp). Given the almost two-fold superiority in load capacity (136 tons vs. 75), a slight lag in the maximum speed (70 km/h vs. 80 km/h) is negligible.
Indeed, MWTP has been somewhat of a success story in the UAE market. MWTP’s first contract dates back to a private order by a sheikh in 1997. The sheikh wished to have a “mobile apartment” when he took falconry trips into the desert. The full motorcade consisted of three heavy vehicles: the first one for the sheikh, the second for his harem, and the third one for goods.
MWTP successfully fulfilled the order, fitting special wheeled chassis to the MZKT-79097-30 for the desert conditions. The extraordinary contract was delivered on time and with high quality. After that, UAE leaders saw MWTP as a trusted supplier, capable of developing and fitting tractors for different needs.
While the finance and investment statistics continue to improve, Belarus-UAE relations are focusing not just on economic issues, but on security cooperation, too. The Emirates are looking for new, and relatively cheap, technologies and products in Belarus. Belarusian officials are trying to attract Arab investments and to gain access to Western military technologies, which are restricted due to sanctions. One can expect joint projects in electronic and radioelectronic warfare, as well as information security. Belarus will also try to get more involved in the UAV high-tech market in order to improve its own force capabilities and to become influential in this fast-developing, niche market.