Posted : Nov 21, 2016

Author: Alexey Khlebnikov


Debates: International experts discuss the possibility of fresh approaches to the conflict in Ukraine that involve the active participation of Belarus.

The Ukrainian crisis has almost become yet another “frozen conflict” in the post-Soviet space. Even after Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (the four countries that comprise the Normandy Four negotiating format), signed the Minsk Agreements and committed to their implementation, the conflict has not moved any closer to an end.

Despite verbal commitments, both parties of the conflict – the government in Kiev and the rebels in the country’s east – continue to violate the agreements. Moreover, it is very hard for external powers to make them adhere to certain rules of the game.

So, the right question to ask is if there are any alternative formats or approaches to the Ukrainian conflict that could breathe new life into the negotiations and push the parties involved towards a settlement.

This is exactly what Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko recently proposed: he suggested that Belarus could play a constructive role in the conflict as it is an unbiased third party which has a deep-seated interest in resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Lukashenko basically proposed that Belarus could organize and conduct elections in Donbas and the Belarusian army could monitor the disputed part of the Russia-Ukraine border, thus, providing an objective third-party monitoring and control.

Russia Direct approached international experts and asked them whether such an initiative is viable at all. Can it contribute to new thinking and, thus, to a certain breakthrough in resolving the Ukrainian conflict? What are the odds that Russia, Ukraine or their European partners will support it as a way to implement the Minsk agreements and pacify the conflict in Eastern Ukraine?

The Minsk II process is a dead end for all intents and purposes. It was not clear until the last moment if the last Normandy format meeting in October 2016 would even take place, as the Russian President Vladimir Putin was refusing to participate unless there was concrete progress on it by the Ukrainian side. The meeting took place but it’s unclear what it actually achieved. Even the most basic issue of upholding a ceasefire in the Donbas is not working, with both sides accusing each other of daily violations. This is basically how the situation has been since the last Minsk agreement of February 2015.

Obviously, something needs to change. So, the proposal by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to organize elections in the separatist Donbas, and to secure the Russian-Ukrainian border currently under separatist control, seems like a fresh idea in the otherwise stale process.

The core issue is that the Minsk deals were a result of crushing Ukrainian military defeats that forced Kiev to sign up for a political settlement it never wanted

Is it likely to produce a breakthrough? The basic answer is no. The involvement of Belarus will not solve the fundamental problems that made the Minsk II deal unworkable so far. The core issue is that the Minsk deals were a result of crushing Ukrainian military defeats that forced Kiev to sign up for a political settlement it never wanted. Minsk II would legitimize the separatist leaders through elections and amnesty, and guarantee a special status of the breakaway regions through constitutional reform.

Ending the conflict in the Donbas might remove the principal legitimizing argument in support of the current authorities. Furthermore, granting constitutional autonomy to the Donbas separatists would severely undermine the whole Ukrainian national project. So, until these core issues are sorted out (e.g. through a regime change either in Kiev or Moscow), talking about the mode of implementation of Minsk II via involvement by Belarus (or anyone else) is simply putting the cart before the horse.

It is not for the first time that Lukashenko voices his readiness to sort out the mess in Ukraine. Some think that it is just a chest-thumping exercise. However, Lukashenko remains the most popular politician in Ukraine.

There is an understanding in Minsk that the format of the negotiating platform for the Ukraine crisis, which Belarus uses to build up its image of a regional security donor, is contextual and can easily become unwanted under certain circumstances. This is why Lukashenko is searching for new formats to settle the Ukrainian crisis.

Lukashenko’s proposal will require re-formatting of the Minsk Agreements and many things will depend on whether Putin and Trump manage to come to a consensus over Ukraine

His proposal looks more like a probing of the situation and reaction given also the U.S. presidential elections. Lukashenko’s proposal will require re-formatting of the Minsk Agreements and many things will depend on whether Putin and Trump manage to come to a consensus over Ukraine.

In these circumstances, Lukashenko demonstrates his readiness to be actively involved in the settlement process in Ukraine.

In the near term, implementation of his initiative seems almost impossible. However, the situation is changing and the ruling coalition in Kiev can also be reformatted. Another important factor are upcoming elections in France and Germany in 2017 – two nations that are key members of the Normandy Four negotiating format. And again, a lot will depend on the Moscow-Washington negotiations. However, it is quite possible that participation of Belarus in the settlement of the Ukrainian conflict will be discussed over the next two years.

Trialogue International Club

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko voiced a number of spontaneous initiatives on resolving the conflict in Ukraine. During his press conference with the Russian media, he called for a more active role of Belarus as a mediator capable of holding local elections in the breakaway regions and monitoring the Russian-Ukrainian border. Even though Lukashenko is known for his sudden and sometimes extravagant proposals, there is a certain rationale in his words concerning Ukraine.

Lukashenko has always been quite flexible in promoting his country’s interests and in maintaining his own power. In the last few years he has transformed his image of a bloody dictator and the black sheep of Europe into a reasonable and moderate East European politician. He did not shut the door to the EU and sometimes proclaim his eagerness to develop cooperation with Europe. Some of his officers, while allies of Moscow, are sent for training to NATO. At the same time, he is the major beneficiary of anti-Russian sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions, as his economy is flourishing from the transit of forbidden goods. These days, as he notices changes in the U.S. foreign policy and the fuss in European capitals over Ukraine, he is ready for taking this chance to “be useful.”

In fact, if local elections in Eastern Ukraine are held by the Belarusians, there will be much more trust in their results in Moscow, and Kiev can always say that there was no pressure on its side during the campaign. The same relates to the border patrols. If accepted, these measures will help to overcome the impasse of the Minsk agreements. And certainly, they will help Lukashenko to stay in power even longer and to ensure the smooth transition to a successor selected by him.

Lukashenko’s proposal is feasible, but not relevant. The problem is not that whether forces could be deployed to guard the border, or to supervise elections. The problem is that there is no political will in the current Ukrainian government to implement the Minsk Accords.

De facto, no political force in the current government has sufficient popular support to make any meaningful moves to implement the Accords

De facto, no political force in the current government has sufficient popular support to make any meaningful moves to implement the Accords. The four coalition parties, according to a recent poll, have a combined support of just 8.8%.  Poroshenko’s personal rating is not much higher.

The obvious solution is to hold early parliamentary elections in order to empower some political course of action. The current parliament, understandably, opposes this, for it would mean the removal and repudiation of those who were brought to political influence by the Maidan.

What we have is a stalemate within the Ukrainian political elite that no external influence can resolve, because the victory of one side means the utter destruction of the other.

The proposal made by the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko will not find support in Ukraine and will not have any implementation due to several reasons.

First, Belarus is a part of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. While Russia is a party to the conflict, it makes Belarus Moscow’s ally.

Second, Belarus’ recent vote and position in regard to the UN Resolution recognizing Crimea as an occupied territory. Belarus voted against the resolution, thus siding with Russia, which is a part of the conflict with Ukraine.

Third, Belarus has a very poor experience in organizing fair elections.

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