Do Ukrainians like to sit on a powder keg and wait for an attack from the North?
What will happen to the Belarusian statehood and what will be consequences for Ukraine? Presidential candidate Roman Bessmertny and editor-in-chief of Charter97.org Natallia Radzina spoke about it on air of Vitaly Portnikov's program "The Road of Freedom" on Radio Svoboda.
Vitaly Portnikov: What is going on between Russia and Belarus? Is incorporation of Belarus into Russia really possible? What will be consequences of such actions for Ukraine and for Ukrainian-Russian relations? How much is Kiev concerned about consequences of such decisions? Radio Svoboda has invited the Ukrainian politician, former Ambassador of Ukraine to Belarus Roman Bessmertny and Belarusian journalist, editor-in-chief of the opposition edition "Charter 97" Natallia Radzina to discuss it. But first we discuss the essence of the story.
Correspondent: The topic of possible annexation of Belarus by Russia appeared at the end of 2018. The approval by Russian President Vladimir Putin of the military doctrine of the "union state" and the establishment of an integration working group at the initiative of Moscow served as the reason.
The Framework Union Treaty between the two countries was signed more than twenty years ago. The document implies the creation of a confederated state with a common currency, market, judicial system, foreign policy, common energy, transport and communication systems. Discussions on the possible accession of Belarus to the Russian Federation have recently resumed against the background of economic contradictions between Minsk and Moscow related to new oil and gas duties.
The Kremlin refutes the fact that Russia intends to annex the neighboring state. According to the press secretary of Russian President Dmitry Peskov, Moscow and Minsk "are moving towards each other, not in the same direction". Nevertheless, the Russian capital increasingly calls for the creation of a real "union state," and Putin's goal, experts believe, is to head it. Thus, Putin, without violating the Russian Constitution, will be able to retain power for another presidential term.
Responding to the Kremlin's plans and increased economic pressure, the Belarusian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka called Russia not a brotherly state, but only a partner. Lukashenka has recently stated that he does not oppose a common currency in the "union state", if it is not the Russian ruble. It was interpreted as consent to merger with Russia. In the fall of 2017, during Russian-Belarusian exercises, analysts started talking about Moscow's plans to turn the neighboring country into its military outpost. There were suggestions that Russia might prepare an invasion into Ukraine through the Belarusian territory. If the annexation occurs, the Russian troops will deploy on the border with Poland, and it will worsen the strategic position of Ukraine.
Vitaly Portnikov: Natallia, how realistic is the idea that Belarus will fall into oblivion as the state, and it will be replaced by a federal district of the Russian Federation, or a republic similar to Tatarstan, or just a part of a certain "union state", only full-fledged, as many Russian media say? Or are these only bogeyman stories to force the Belarusian authorities into fulfilling the Kremlin's wishes?
Natallia Radzina: Of course, the occupation hazard of Belarus exists. But I know that the Belarusians will defend their independence, they will not turn into one of republics of the Russian Empire. For 25 years the Belarusians have been fighting for their freedom and democracy. A great number of people were in prisons, many people lost their lives and health, but they did not give up. I am sure that the same will happen if Russia tries to seize Belarus. Let me remind you that one of the leaders of the Belarusian opposition, presidential candidate for upcoming elections Mikalai Statkevich, has recently declared that it will be the second Afghanistan, if Russia attempts to occupy Belarus.
Vitaly Portnikov: Is this forecast reliable?
Roman Bessmertny: One should remember the history: Belarus has always suffered bloody battles spurred by independence, ethnic or territorial issues. This is not even Ukraine. And Putin does not need a Belarusian, because he needs to be worried about, he needs support.
Vitaly Portnikov: These are events of the last few decades, aren't they?
Roman Bessmertny: Putin needs Belarus as a resource. Nine million Belarusians need food, clothes and so on. Today he uses Lukashenka as the tool to undress the Belarusians. In this situation Putin needs military bases, outpost to attack Europe and to pose a threat. After all, he needs just the territorial dependence of Belarus on Russian policy in order to govern the world.
NATO and European Union's documents confirm this. Remember the Warsaw NATO memorandum, which mentions Belarus as a weak territory in terms of security for Europe. This is true. No matter how NATO creates the security system in Central Europe, this gap has always been a historical one. This is the ground for a breakthrough either in one or another direction, and an information or an armed sense does not matter here. Even from the point of view of the two air bases delpoyed in Belarus, it is a huge threat to the European Union.
Vitaly Portnikov: Since 2014 Minsk has maintained conditional neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Minsk is the ground for negotiations of no clear objective and result. Nevertheless, there is the term "Minsk process". On the other hand, Kiev hopes for no military actions against Ukraine to be carried out from the Belarusian territory. The Ukrainian leadership is trying to preserve this idea by constant contacts with the Belarusian leadership, starting from the visit of the acting President of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov in Minsk in 2014 to the visit of the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko in 2018.
Natallia Radzina: Do you remember what Turchynov said after the meeting with Lukashenka? "Lukashenka promised to warn me at least one day before an attack by Russian troops from the Belarusian territory". It proves that Lukashenka himself does not control his territory today. Close military and political ties, the Union State, the military and political union ... Today NATO declares expressly that the Belarusian Army is a part of the Russian one and the Belarusian special services are a part of the Russian ones. In fact, Belarus under Lukashenka is a potentially hazardous territory for both Ukraine and the West. Belarus is building the road leading directly to the Ukrainian border, 300-400 meters from the Ukrainian border, heavy military equipment can drive there. It is alleged that this is for cross-border cooperation, but it's ridiculous. The Ukrainian security services are already concerned about the construction of the road.
Of course, Lukashenka is a guarantor neither for Belarus' independence nor his own word. No promises are reliable, as he is the Kremlin's puppet. His entire regime relies on Russian money, cheap Russian oil and gas. He will not be able to survive without it and will collapse in a moment. He knows it perfectly well, so he goes to Moscow. We can see him humiliating himself and begging for Putin's money. How can this person be reliable?
Vitaly Portnikov: On the other hand, we are talking about the risk of some military actions from the territory of Belarus, as if Russia and Ukraine do not have a vast common border, as if the Russian direction is closed.
Roman Bessmertny: One should always remember that whatever Putin and the Russian army are, it's just the Redland. And the use of foreign territories is what the Redland used to suffer from. Pay attention to actions in Syria, in the Caucasus, even in Crimea - the way the operation was carried out there. To strike a blow from the northern territories through Belarus is the Redland's classics. Therefore, starting with tactical instruments and ending with a strategy, it's crucial to hook up Belarus as a participant of this process.
At first, the Ukrainian military command paid attention to this direction. During the "West 2018" exercises two directions were tested - Western (Europe) and Southern (Ukraine). It is clear what is going on. So much so, that in the last two years the Kremlin has literally and figuratively twisted hands, starting with Lukashenka and ending with the government, to deploy either troops, or equipment, or to carry out other exercises. This is an example of how this Redland will work.
Vitaly Portnikov: Natallia, you say that the Belarusians can defend their independence. Of course, there is civil society, but there are also armed forces, which are almost the key element to preserve or not preserve statehood under authoritarian regimes. We remember it from the experience of the Ukrainian Maidan: the Ukrainian armed forces stood aback from confrontation between protesters and security forces, which at that time supported incumbent President Viktor Yanukovych. Can the Belarusian armed forces at least maintain neutrality? Where will they be if Belarus becomes the arena for civil confrontation?
Natallia Radzina: I think that the leadership of the armed forces is now directly tied to the Russian generals, and they can follow orders from the Kremlin. But I do hope that there are patriots among the Belarusian leadership. As for the middle class, I belong to the family of military intellectuals and can say that neither my relatives nor my father will support invaders in this situation. I believe in the power of the Belarusian people. I know that Putin will suffer challenges in Belarus.
Roman Petrovich is absolutely right: to capture Belarus one should preserve it, and to do this Putin needs lots of money which he is running out of today. Russia spends much money on its war against Ukraine and the Syrian adventure, and it is necessary to support satellite formations such as South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Crimea. If Belarus is seized now, then, of course, it will inflict a heavy financial and political damage to Russia.
I would offer not only to discuss the probability of possible seizure of Belaru by Putin, but also to finally say that only a free democratic Belarus can be a major element to ensure security in the region. Absence of free democratic Belarus means absence of free democratic Ukraine and Russia. After all, the geopolitical influence of Belarus in the region is enormous. Assistance to the Belarusian democratic forces, independent media, civil society, which have been resisting Lukashenka's dictatorship for 25 years and today also resisting Putin's aggression should be discussed.
Vitaly Portnikov: Roman, you were an ambassador to Belarus under President Viktor Yushchenko: he actually appointed you. President Yushchenko kept in touch with Belarus, which is neither democratic nor European. He was in touch with Lukashenka. Moreover, then they said that Ukraine could become a Belarusian lawyer in Europe, just as Poland served as a Ukrainian lawyer then. Contacts of Ukraine and Belarus were active, no matter who was in charge of the Ukrainian authorities: people like Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych, or people like Viktor Yushchenko and Petro Poroshenko. It brings some dissonance in the approach to values. Or is there just a neighboring country, it is what it is, and its current state should be preserved?
Roman Bessmertny: We need to learn some details. Relations between Kuchma and Lukashenka were awful. Only sometimes, due to extreme circumstances, they had to contact. There were no relations between Yanukovych and Lukashenka at all, because the opposition candidate Sannikov was like a Belarusian Yanukovych. Today we know who Yanukovych is, but at that moment the situation differed.
Pay attention to the statistics: during Yushchenko's presidency the trade turnover between Ukraine and Belarus exceeded seven billion dollars, and now it is less than two billion. And now pay attention to what this trade turnover included: oil and electricity to the Baltic countries. The economy is a unique tool for influencing the situation.
The assistance to the opposition is the issue Europe and Ukraine should focus on today if they want to help defend Belarus. There are six Ukrainian districts in Belarus. Lukashenka travels everywhere, but over 25 years he has never been to these districts. He realizes what it's like to get to the meeting with those who were in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA). Do you remember the monograph of 2010: "UIA on the territory of Belarus"? It strictly defines the territory of UIA. If Ukrainian archives can add information to Belarusian ones, the history will tell us much. These issues should be developed. Lukashenka is actually a tool of Russia's expansion.
Vitaly Portnikov: One should try to take an unbiased look at capabilities and forces of Belarusian democrats, the Belarusian opposition and the Belarusian statehood in general. I constantly hear the thesis about a huge impact on the region: "Poland's influence on the region is huge, nothing can be solved without us," "Ukraine's influence on the region is huge, nothing can be solved without us". And then some countries or some players suddenly sit down at the table, as it was many times in history and decide a lot without our involvement. There are many things that can be solved without Poland: for example, Poland is not involved in the Minsk process, although it would like to participate. And it's desire is quite understandable. Many decisions on Ukraine are made without involvement of the Ukrainian leadership. Putin, Merkel and Macron, to say nothing of Putin and Trump, have their own issues to discuss. I'm afraid that many decisions related to Belarus, if this country becomes a subject, can be made without taking into account the opinion of an official Minsk.
Natallia Radzina: As for Ukraine, of course, we are disappointed. You are right to notice that no matter who comes to power, democrats or authoritarian leaders in Ukraine, they still keep in touch with the dictator and ignore the Belarusian democratic forces. After the Orange Revolution and later after the Revolution of Dignity, the Belarusians were shocked: after our support for the Ukrainians in their struggle for freedom, the first thing the new President of Ukraine, democratically elected Petro Poroshenko, did was the invitation of Lukashenka to his inauguration. Ties between Poroshenko and Lukashenka are getting closer and still democratically-focused citizens of Belarus are still completely ignored. There is no information policy on the part of Ukraine in Belarus.
As a result, we are discussing the fact that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow Ukraine will be attacked from the territory of Belarus. It may happen at any moment. But if the Ukrainians like to sit on a powder keg and wait for them to be attacked from the north, what can we say? We should finally start to think strategically and build some kind of policy towards the neighboring state, which is potentially dangerous today. But, unfortunately, such policy does not exist, and this is what should be discussed.
Roman Petrovich was the best ambassador of Ukraine to Belarus. But to name Andrei Sannikov, who beat Lukashenka in the elections, the leader of the civil campaign "European Belarus", a Belarusian Yanukovich... I don't understand where such information comes from.
Vitaly Portnikov: You may have forgotten that Mr. Yanukovych had been trying to prove to us several years before Maidan that he was about to sign an association agreement with the European Union and that he was the hope of many Europe-focused Ukrainians.
Natallia Radzina: Today Ukraine should do something, a really assistance to democratic forces of Belarus is needed. We expected waves of freedom would spread on the region, but, unfortunately, it did not happen.
Vitaly Portnikov: Or maybe President Poroshenko just doesn't have a choice.
Roman Bessmertny: Given the military-technical cooperation, it seems to me that Belarus is the only source from the point of view of providing separate fragments. And it's what can be objectively considered as a reason for cooperation. But I do not understand why today Ukraine is 70% dependent on Lukashenka's fuel and lubricants. In fact, this is a huge contributor to Lukashenka's regime.
Vitaly Portnikov: Does it mean that Lukashenka is a part of both Russian and Ukrainian schemes?
Roman Bessmertny: Sure. It doesn't matter if he is the first person, or if it's Medvedchuk. Stories that Lukashenka and Medvedchuk are discussing solutions to the problem of the Minsk process on Donbas... Sorry, Medvedchuk is fully involved in the energy business. Medvedchuk has not appeared in the Minsk process at all since last spring.
Vitaly Portnikov: By the way, there is an interesting moment about the schemes. And Mr. Medvedchuk appears with these schemes. Almost every time he is on air he is connected with Ukraine this way or another: he plays many roles. Maybe Mr. Lukashenka is more integrated into Ukrainian politics and Russian politics... We remember how he was integrated into Russian politics, but he was once banned from visiting Russian regions. May he be more integrated into Ukrainian politics and business than we think. Is this the answer to all our questions?
Natallia Radzina: Lukashenka is first of all integrated into the Ukrainian business - it is completely obvious. It's possible that the Ukrainian leadership has some corrupt ties with the Belarusian dictator, and Ukrainian oligarchs have their own interests and contacts. It's quite clear Belarus is the ground to bypass sanctions and tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia and Western countries. Today we can see that, among other things, Ukraine prefers to keep silent, not to criticize Lukashenka's regime, precisely because there are certain interests, primarily economic ones.
I am very grateful to Roman Petrovich for raising this topic all the time. I will always be grateful that you ignored the inauguration of the dictator in 2010, when we were all in prisons, and that you called and supported me when I was released. Many diplomats, including European ones, were afraid to do it, but Roman Petrovich was not.
Vitaly Portnikov: This gesture reminds us that in politics, especially in the post-Soviet space, a deed always matters between uprisings.