As an ally to both, the European Union can facilitate their mutual understanding and engagement.
On February 24th 2022, hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, issued an emergency statement: ‘Dear Ukrainians, on behalf of our country, I express my solidarity and support, and on behalf of Belarusians, I would like to say: we are ashamed that our country’s territory is used in this war. And we are ready to do whatever it takes to stop the aggressors and this catastrophe.’
Tsikhanouskaya has invested almost all her political capital in support of Ukraine, while the Belarusian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has fully supported Vladimir Putin’s aggression and threatened Kyiv with a second front. And yet Ukraine has largely ignored the democratic Belarusian opposition and been cautious about opposing Lukashenka. The twisted intricacies of relations in the Zelenskyy-Lukashenka-Tsikhanouskaya triangle point to the leverage the Belarusian regime has over Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians inside the country and in forced exile joined anti-war protests after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tsikhanouskaya’s team announced an anti-war mobilisation of Belarusians and published a national plan to resist the aggressor and show public support for Ukraine despite the illegal actions of the government of Belarus.
The plan included calls to disable Russian military equipment stationed in Belarus, slow Russia’s advance and paralyse infrastructure in Belarus used by the Russian military. Tsikhanouskaya called for the formation of a Belarusian corps of volunteers to fight for Ukraine, serve as doctors or logisticians and provide other forms of assistance to the country. She also announced a nationwide collection of donations.
A partisan resistance unfolded in Belarus in the first months of the war. Its members conducted a ‘rail war’, blocking the movement of trains with military equipment, setting fire to electrical equipment and hacking the electronic control systems of the railway. Their actions slowed the advance of Russian troops, who were forced to switch to other methods to deliver their equipment.
In March 2022, a battalion of Belarusian opposition volunteers, Kalinouski, joined the Ukrainian army. Kalinouski later grew into a regiment, which participated in the defence of Bucha and the liberation of Kherson and Irpin, and is now defending Bakhmut. Kyiv has paid due respect to the Kalinouski regiment and decorated some of its members as ‘heroes of Ukraine’. In February this year, the Belarusian anti-war resistance claimed an attack against a Russian A-50 airborne early-warning and control aircraft, stationed in Belarus and used by Russia during air raids on Ukrainian infrastructure and cities.
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The Ukrainian authorities do not however seem to be interested in co-operating with the Belarusian political opposition. The adviser to the head of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidential office, Mykhailo Podolyak, confirmed that the Ukrainian leadership ‘does not see the point in developing relations, because they do not see any clear anti-war activity’ from the democratic opposition of Belarus.
This deliberate ignorance has at times developed into opposition. For example, Tsikhanouskaya was supposed to speak alongside the presidents of Poland and Lithuania at a ceremony in Warsaw on the anniversary of the 1863 January uprising, but the Ukrainian side opposed her speech and the organisers were forced to cancel it.
At the same time, the Ukrainian authorities seem to be downplaying Lukashenka’s responsibility in the war. In January, the deputy head of the Ukrainian military intelligence agency argued that it is hard for Lukashenka because ‘he is one of Russia’s targets’ and that he is trying his best not to enter the war despite pressure from the Kremlin.
Furthermore, the European Union has not included Belarus in its last three sanctions packages, despite promises to the contrary. According to the Europe editor of Radio Liberty, Rikard Jozwiak, Ukraine has asked the EU not to extend sanctions to the Lukashenka regime, although the Ukrainian foreign ministry has denied this.
A paradoxical situation is emerging. Ukraine officially advocates the introduction of visa sanctions against Belarusians, 97 per cent of whom reject the idea of joining Russia in the war, but it is allegedly unofficially trying to protect the Belarusian regime—which is actively helping Russia occupy Ukrainian territories and kill civilians—from sanctions.
In many respects, the Ukrainian authorities’ ambiguous position towards the Belarusian opposition and Lukashenka is pragmatic: the Belarusian democratic forces and the Belarusian people are too weak to change the ruling regime in Belarus and unable to help Ukraine with the supply of tanks or aircrafts. Kyiv may however also be constrained by the huge leverage the Belarusian government holds over Ukraine.
Lukashenka controls the Belarusian army and has threatened to send it to Ukraine on several occasions. Given that the last shelling of Ukraine from Belarusian territory took place six months ago on October 6th, there may be an unspoken, mutually-beneficial agreement between Lukashenka and Ukraine not to cross each other’s red lines.
Kyiv may also need to preserve relations with Belarus for humanitarian reasons. Despite Minsk’s involvement in Russia’s full-scale aggression, Ukraine and Belarus officially maintain diplomatic relations: Ukraine still has an ambassador in Belarus and probably other lines of communication with Lukashenka’s regime. While de jure Ukraine closed the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, the Mokrany-Domanove checkpoint remains de facto open. The checkpoint is one of the few routes Ukrainians from the occupied territories can use to reach the territories controlled by Ukraine.
Ukraine’s reluctance to condemn Belarus is not new. Relations between Lukashenka and Ukraine, as with those between Belarus and most European countries, became strained after the elections in Belarus in 2020, which the Ukrainian parliament recognised as undemocratic. The Ukrainian government however showed more restraint than its partners from the EU.
Despite the international sanctions imposed on Belarus, business between Ukraine and Belarus blossomed in 2021. Kyiv likely hoped to protect its own economic interests and prevent Belarus from openly siding with Russia to attack Ukraine. During the first few weeks of the war, some Ukrainian politicians and local citizens claimed that Belarusian troops had crossed the border into the regions of Chernihiv and Kyiv occupied by Russia at the time, but these accusations were never officially confirmed by either side or by foreign intelligence.
While the Belarusian democratic opposition and Zelenskyy’s administration pursue the same goal—defeat of Russia, full liberation of Ukraine, and restoration of the sovereignty of Belarus—their bilateral co-operation is constrained by Lukashenka’s leverage over Ukraine and the democratic opposition’s insufficient finances and power. Lukashenka’s unwillingness to send Belarusian troops to the front is not the result of Ukraine’s self-restraint but of his and Putin’s rational calculation and understanding of the risks it would entail.
As an ally to both Ukraine and the Belarusian opposition, the EU could therefore try to promote mutual understanding and facilitate engagement between the two sides. It could conduct purposeful negotiations with Ukraine and help the Belarusian opposition to build its capacity and relevance in the eyes of Kyiv—for example by providing weapons to Belarusian volunteers after negotiations with Tsikhanouskaya or including them in the training provided for Ukrainian soldiers on operating western military equipment, and by supporting the Belarusian partisan movement.
This was first published by the European Council of Foreign Relations