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Containing Lukashenko In an effort to keep Belarus out of the war with Russia, Kyiv may encourage the rise of right-wing opposition in Minsk
When the Russian military invaded Ukraine in February 2022, this was done partly from Belarusian territory. By late March, however, those troops retreated back across the Belarusian border, and Minsk has since been a relatively demure partner to Russia, leaving warfare to Moscow while Belarus itself struggled to regain its economic balance, threatened by the collapse of oil export to Ukraine. Meduza’s special correspondent Elizaveta Antonova traces the precarious history of Ukraine’s efforts to keep Belarus out of the war, and how Kyiv’s pragmatic choice of allies has led Ukraine to encourage the right-wing forces opposing Belarus’s current president Alexander Lukashenko, rather than establish ties with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s democratic government-in-exile.
‘A warm relationship’
In an interview published on YouTube earlier this year, Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Chief Kyrylo Budanov reflected on Ukraine’s early efforts to resist being drawn into a full-scale war with Russia. “We used all possible channels of communication, all the possibilities we had, to avoid being embroiled in this war,” he said, mentioning a specific Verkhovna Rada deputy. “Mr. Shevchenko,” Budanov said, “has been helping us for a fairly long time. We use his communication abilities and his ties, and have never made a secret of it. He is effective.”
Lawyer and entrepreneur Yevheniy Shevchenko got himself elected to the Ukrainian parliament on a Servant of the People ticket in 2019, after Volodymyr Zelensky had won in a snap presidential election and dissolved the Ukrainian parliament. Like many others, Shevchenko was viewed as an “accidental” person in politics, and his party, Servant of the People, was widely criticized for its alleged lack of scruples in nominating candidates.
Months after the election, in October 2019, Shevchenko decided to take part in a Russian TV show called “The Big Game,” hosted by the Kremlin’s mouthpiece, Channel One. While on the show, the politician blamed “Ukrainian nationalists” for instigating the conflict in the Donbas. Later on, he only proved consistent in his views, making multiple public statements to the effect that Ukraine should bring back some features of “the Soviet system.”
Other Servant of the People members dismissed Shevchenko as a mere buffoon. By May 2021, he was expelled from the party’s Rada faction, albeit without losing his seat in the parliament itself. In conversation with Meduza, a senior Ukrainian official describes Shevchenko’s public persona is “maximally undesirable for Ukraine.” “He had always been pro-Soviet, and not so much pro-Russian as pro-Belarusian,” reflects the speaker who asked to remain anonymous.
A year before the invasion, the “pro-Belarusian” deputy began to pay regular visits to Belarus, cultivating “a warm relationship” with both Alexander Lukashenko and his 18-year old son Nikolai, the same Ukrainian government insider tells Meduza. But the basis of their good relations had been established as far back as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, when, amidst controversy and fierce street protests against alleged falsifications, Shevchenko posted his congratulations to Lukashenko on Facebook, thanking him for his “soulful attitude towards Ukraine.”
“I really do love Lukashenko, both as a person and as a politician,” Shevchenko said to the Ukrainian journalist Savik Shuster, when trying to explain an incident in which he showed up to a parliamentary session bearing a Belarusian state flag. “To me, he is a charismatic leader, a people’s president,” Shevchenko rhapsodized on Shuster’s show. The flag episode paid off when Shevchenko was invited to meet with Lukashenko in Minsk. In April 2021, the Ukrainian politician himself tells Meduza, they met in person for the first time.
Lukashenko’s press service and the propagandist Telegram channel Pul Pervogo both covered the meeting. “It turns out,” Lukashenko said to the Ukrainian deputy, “that there are still people in Ukraine who respect Belarus.” The visitor, in turn, flattered Lukashenko by telling him that “36 percent of Ukrainians would like to see him as their own president.” (Where he got that number remains unclear.) Lukashenko then suggested that Russia could be very helpful to Ukraine in “restoring the Donbas,” but Ukraine’s leadership was beholden to other forces. The start of the full-scale invasion was still ten months away.
‘Never say never’
The night of February 24, 2022, Russian paratroopers landed at the Hostomel airfield just outside of Kyiv, having arrived from Belarus in helicopters. Russian land forces were simultaneously moving towards Kyiv, also from Belarusian territory.
It was at that critical moment that the Zelensky administration resolved to “mobilize” Yevheniy Shevchenko. The senior Ukrainian government official who spoke to Meduza about these events recalled that, in the very first days of the war, Shevchenko was “glued to the phone practically around the clock” and even traveled to Belarus. The decision to get him involved in talks had come down from the Defense Intelligence Directorate, the government insider says.
“He had a personal connection,” the speaker says, referring to Shevchenko’s acquaintance with the Belarusian president, “but at the moment when war broke out he decided to support Ukraine and to ensure communication at the presidential level. He’d talk to Lukashenko himself as well as his son Nikolai.” (This information matches Lukashenko’s own account of being in touch with the Ukrainian deputy.)
A source with access to Ukraine’s state security apparatus says that Ukraine’s bet was on finding a way to “influence Lukashenko psychologically,” and this proved to be a good idea.
In conversation with Meduza, Yevheniy Shevchenko said that his main task had been to persuade Lukashenko to get in touch with Zelensky and to offer him help in arranging the first round of talks with Russia. After the attacks from Belarusian territory, Zelensky himself was refusing to call Lukashenko. Shevchenko therefore takes credit for Lukashenko’s call to Zelensky on February 27, when the Belarusian leader guaranteed the safety of the Ukrainian delegation in his country. The next day, the two delegations met outside of the Belarusian city of Gomel, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the border with Ukraine.
The talks nearly fell through, since by the time the Russian delegation had already arrived, the Ukrainian negotiators were still in a deadlock with Minsk: Belarus insisted they should arrive by crossing the Ukrainian border with Belarus; the delegates refused to fly over the Russian military formations deployed in their way.
“No one would have taken that kind of risk,” Shevchenko says. “Our party wanted to fly to Gomel through Poland, but Lukashenko was refusing to let NATO helicopters into Belarus.” Resolving the deadlock was once again up to Shevchenko, who describes what happened as follows: “In the end, there were several helicopters, some of them for security cover. I learned about that later. At the time, I was in Kyiv with Budanov, talking to Belarus on the phone.”
Shevchenko is confident that his efforts bought Ukraine the time it needed to reverse the Russian advance towards Kyiv. “I think the talks lulled the Kremlin into believing that everything was settled and Ukraine would fulfill [the Russian side’s] demands. This probably led them to step down the intensity of combat on the approach to Kyiv.”
Vladimir Putin’s behavior seems to confirm this assessment: since that spring, he has repeatedly accused Ukraine of breaking the “practically achieved agreements” that, according to the Russian president, made Russia retreat from Kyiv in order to make room for dialogue. (In reality, Ukraine’s unexpectedly fierce resistance to the invasion, and the Russian military’s supply problems, were also important factors in the reversal.)
Kyiv’s next task was to prevent new offensives originating from Belarusian territory. According to the Ukrainian official already quoted in this article, Shevchenko did not take part in that mission. “The Ukrainian side was finally able to explain to Lukashenko all the risks to Belarus in the event that it took direct part in land combat,” the speaker explains.
A source with knowledge of the Ukrainian state security apparatus suggests that Western governments were using their own channels to ensure Belarus’s non-involvement at that time. “Certain signals,” for example, he says, were being conveyed to Belarus through Vladimir Makei, its then-foreign-minister who died in November 2022, at the age of 64.
Meduza’s sources are reluctant to say more about this phase of the talks. “Let’s talk in detail after the war,” one of them says. “Until then, you have to take into account some people’s weird behavior.” According to the Ukrainian official quoted earlier, Shevchenko is no longer necessary at the present stage of dialogue with Belarus: “What matters is to stay on top of what’s happening in Belarus through defense intelligence,” he explains.
Minsk and Kyiv have always maintained multiple channels of communication, the former Belarusian diplomat Pavel Slunkin points out. (Having quit in 2020 in protest against the falsifications that handed the presidency to Lukashenko, he now works as a political analyst, frequently tapping into the connections he made while in the Foreign Service.) There’s ongoing communication between the two countries’ state security systems, foreign ministries, and intelligence services, Slunkin believes, even if contacts have been less intensive lately.
In Kyiv’s assessment, the risk of a military strike from Belarus is virtually nil. “Belarus’s resources are limited. You’d have to be a total idiot to enter this war now,” says the senior Ukrainian official quoted earlier. The source close to the state security services agrees with this estimate. “We always have to consider the worst-case scenarios, and we keep an armed grouping ready to reinforce the Belarusian border. But Belarus doesn’t currently have its own assault groupings, and there’s no sign of it moving troops towards the border.”
The presence of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus doesn’t trouble this speaker, either: “Some 6,400 troops are now in Belarus,” he says about the Wagner personnel exiled in the country. “This is all infantry, and they’re armed with nothing but rifles. They have no heavy equipment of their own, and I doubt that Lukashenko would give it to them.” Just in case, though, the source observes, Ukraine has long since mined the area close to the Belarusian border. As for Wagner fighters, he believes them likelier to be used for “destabilizing” nearby Poland or the Baltic countries.
Still, the ex-diplomat Pavel Slunkin thinks that the best principle for dealing with Lukashenko is “never say never.” “For the whole 30 years of his political career, Western leaders called him a dictator, accused him of human rights violations, denied his legitimacy, and sanctioned Belarus. So many times it seemed: this is rock bottom, no further dialogue could be possible. And then they’d talk to him anyway.” And Kyiv might have to as well.
Thirty pieces of silver
In the course of the invasion, Kyiv broke off diplomatic ties with Russia. The Ukrainian embassy in Minsk, on the other hand, is still operating, despite the fact that all Belarusian foreign service staff left Ukraine back in the spring of 2022. Nor did Kyiv refrain from commenting on the Belarusian diplomats’ abrupt departure: when the Belarusian ambassador Igor Sokol was crossing the Ukrainian border on his way out of the country, he was handed “30 pieces of silver” by the border guard, who had orders to convey his superior Serhiy Deyneko’s “contempt” for those who were leaving.
Despite episodes like this, the former diplomat Pavel Slunkin believes that diplomatic relations will continue between the two countries. Kyiv needs its embassy in Minsk for consular work with Ukrainians, including war refugees who ended up in Belarus.
Still, in April 2023, Kyiv recalled its ambassador in Minsk Ihor Kyzym, right after an official meeting took place between Alexander Lukashenko and the Russian-installed head of occupied Donetsk Denis Pushilin. Shortly afterwards, Kyzym was fired, and no one else has been appointed as his replacement in Belarus since. Ukrainian commentators speculated about diplomatic relations possibly being broken off next.
If that scenario were to be realized, official contacts between the two countries would dwindle to military channels, used mainly to minimize risks by exchanging warnings (or threats). According to Pavel Slunkin, this can take the form of encrypted messages or even direct contacts between certain figures, but this needn’t be at the ministerial level.
Preserving contacts between the two countries’ defense ministries and state security organs is a basic fact of wartime diplomacy, Slunkin explains. For example, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has described taking a call from his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin after the invasion had already started: “The fact is that Reznikov picked up, even under the circumstances,” Slunkin underscores. “The interests of the Belarusian regime don’t have to coincide 100 percent with what Moscow wants, and sometimes one just wants to talk.”
‘Some kind of magic’
Like many Western governments, Kyiv refrained from acknowledging Alexander Lukashenko as the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election in Belarus. After Minsk had grounded a Ryanair plane to arrest the dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, Ukraine closed its airspace to Belarusian aircraft. Still, against this political backdrop, Kyiv was engaged in brisk trade with Minsk. “The Ukrainian government drew a clear distinction: we don’t recognize Lukashenko politically, but we also have some economic interests,” Pavel Slunkin says, explaining Kyiv’s reasoning.
“Just before the war, Lukashenko made a lot of money on trade with Ukraine and cargo transit through it, even as Belarusians were asking the whole democratic world, including Ukraine, to sanction [Belarusian] state enterprises,” laments a source close to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign. “But Tsikhanouskaya and the democratic forces do not criticize Ukraine,” he adds, as if to qualify his previous remark. “They understand that there can be different circumstances.”
The increase in trade between the two countries may well have been a product of Ukraine’s energy dependence on Belarus, as well as Russian aggression. In 2014, just as the war in the Donbas started gaining momentum (with Russia playing an active part), Kyiv began to shrink energy imports from Russia — and to replace them with oil from Belarus. But although Belarus does extract some oil, it mostly buys it from Russia, explains Lev Lvovsky, research director at the Belarusian economics think-tank BEROC. Ukraine found it more acceptable to buy processed Russian oil from Belarus than to trade with Russia directly, and Minsk made a good profit on those political scruples.
As the full-scale war drew nearer, Ukraine (already third on the list of Belarus’s top trade partners after Russia and the E.U.) only increased its share in Belarus’s income. In 2021, Belarus supplied half of all energy exports to Ukraine, and its total trade volume with Ukraine came to $6.9 billion.
With the start of the invasion, though, all trade between the two countries collapsed. In May 2022, Belarus classified its national trade data, leaving experts to speculate about the true extent of the economic damage. While Ukraine can rely, to a degree, on foreign aid, Belarus’s economy took a major uncompensated blow: “In March 2022,” the BEROC economist Dzmitry Kruk explains, “there was still some export momentum, but April and May were disastrous for Belarus: oil processing shrank by a third.” As for the oil industry comprising 11 percent of the country’s GDP, it was reduced to servicing the domestic market.
“But later on,” the expert observes, “we started seeing some kind of magic that we still don’t fully understand. Since later summer, we started seeing oil processing volumes going up again, and this can only be possible when there is oil export.”
Fragmentary information suggests that this oil is being exported to Russia. “The main question,” Kruk muses, “is whether it stays in Russia or goes somewhere else through the Russian ports. Most likely, this must be some kind of chain.”
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‘Right-wing groups will be riding high’
In May 2023, the prestigious Charlemagne Prize in European politics was being awarded in the German city of Aachen. When this year’s laureate, Volodymyr Zelensky, spotted the prior year’s honoree Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, he shook her hand.
This contrasted with all of Tsikhanouskaya’s past efforts to establish a relationship with Kyiv. Although the former presidential candidate had by then met with the U.S. President Joe Biden and a number of other Western leaders, and had long tried to build a rapport with Zelensky, Kyiv had until then seemed reluctant to mingle with the Belarusian democratic opposition.
Valery Kovalevsky, a member of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, says he’s in no position to comment on the reasons for Kyiv’s policy. “We can only gauge that there’s either action or inaction. Very often, what we have is inaction, a lack of contacts, a lack of reply to invitations to meet, publicly or otherwise.”
In conversation with Meduza, Tsikhanouskaya herself admits that at the very beginning of the war, relations with Kyiv were “tense”:
There was shelling from the territory of Belarus, and Belarusians had to assume the burden of responsibility for a criminal war. Besides, Ukraine was avoiding any public contact with the leaders of the democratic movement, partly, perhaps, to avoid an escalation in tensions with Minsk.
Tsikhanouskaya appears confident that things are gradually changing, and says she is hopeful about a real meeting with Zelensky in the future. Belarus’s United Transitional Cabinet will keep supporting Ukraine regardless of how this relationship develops, she says, since a victory for Ukraine would open up the prospect of change in Belarus itself.
Kyiv, on the other hand, is yet to be persuaded of the “prospect of cooperation” with Tsikhanouskaya and her team. The senior Kyiv official quoted earlier says on this matter: “We don’t refuse, and we do meet with them, but it’s still unclear what exactly they have to offer.” The prospect that seems to animate him quite a bit more is the Belarusian Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, a volunteer armed formation whose aims include liberating Ukraine from the Russian troops, followed by freeing Belarus from Lukashenko.
The Kalinouski Regiment was formed in March 2022, mainly from Belarusians who fought on Ukraine’s side from 2014 onward, some of them as part of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment. On March 26, 2022, the Kalinouski battalion, which had yet to expand to a regiment, announced it was joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). The move gave its fighters an official combatant status and all the same social guarantees as extended to other Ukrainian soldiers, explains the formation’s Deputy Commander Vadim Kabanchuk (field name “Ihar”). While Belarus persecutes the formation as an extremist organization, Ukraine has welcomed it. Head of the Verkhovna Rada Foreign Relations Committee Oleksandr Merezhko, for one, is on the record saying that the Kalinouski Regiment could turn into a “legitimate Belarusian organ for Kyiv to talk to.”
The regiment, meanwhile, criticizes Tsikhanouskaya’s United Transitional Cabinet for being too timid in its struggle against Lukashenko. “Peaceful rhetoric should be dispensed with,” one of its fighters said in an interview with the Belarusian news outlet Zerkalo. “Instead of tossing flowers and shouting ‘Long live Belarus,’ you should be throwing Molotov cocktails.”
The regiment’s deputy commander, Vadim Kabanchuk, is also skeptical about Belarus’s democratic politicians: “In the current situation,” he says,
not a single actor in Belarusian politics answers to the strategic aim of de-occupation of Belarus. Tsikhanouskaya’s team insists on having a free election. How can you have a free election in a country under occupation?
The regiment’s priority is to “liberate Belarus from the dictatorship by force — next moving to democracy, with elections and all the other democratic procedures.”
In early February 2023, the regiment announced that it was going to set up a security council, jointly with the right-wing Belarusian politician Zianon Pazniak, another active Tsikhanouskaya critic. Their intent is to task the security council with “defending the national interests of Belarus.” According to Kabanchuk, the process of establishing the council has been halted for a while, but, come fall, the armed formation might become the backbone of a “national liberation movement.” That larger political structure would then open itself to cooperation with any other potentially friendly force, from Tsikhanouskaya to Pazniak.
According to Kabanchuk, it’s to the regiment’s advantage that it isn’t hampered by obligations to “Western partners,” “like other Belarusian politicians are.” “This is why we think that, on the basis of the regiment and the idea of liberating Belarus by force, all available resources — political, diplomatic, and the rest — can be concentrated,” says the deputy commander, who compares the future national liberation movement to Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, Free France.
“The de-occupation of Belarus depends directly on what’s happening at the front, and it is Ukraine that we consider to be the platform for consolidating all the powers that share our position,” Kabanchuk admits.
In the assessment of the Belarusian political scientist Artyom Shraibman (currently a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin), the Kalinouski Regiment is clearly ahead of Tsikhanouskaya’s government-in-exile in terms of garnering Kyiv’s favor, despite its relative obscurity outside of the region. “It’s part of the Ukrainian army,” Shraibman says, “and it’s ideologically close to the Ukrainian view of Belarus as a Russian puppet that must be liberated by force.” Still, Shraibman points out, Kyiv is yet to voice its official support for the regiment, since it would rather not provoke Lukashenko.
The scholar is reluctant to try predicting the regiment’s political future, suggesting only what seems probable:
If we think about apocalyptic scenarios along the lines of an occupation of Belarus, the rise of a national-liberation movement, or some other kind of violent insurrection, then, right-wing militarized groups will certainly be riding high.
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