On October 21, a regular Kyiv–Minsk flight by a Belavia (Belarusian state carrier) Boeing 737−800 passenger jet was interrupted. At 3:36 p.m., Ukrainian air traffic control demanded that the airliner, which had 136 passengers on board and took off 11 minutes earlier from Kyiv International Airport, immediately return to the Ukrainian capital. Disobeying this order risked fighter jets being sent to intercept the plane. After the Belavia plane returned to the airport of origin, law enforcement agents apprehended one passenger, Armen Martirosyan, a citizen of Armenia. However, he was quickly released and took the next scheduled flight to Minsk. Martirosyan is a columnist of the Russian site Ukraina.ru and an activist of the anti-Maidan movement who used to reside in Kyiv but, in 2014, moved to Moscow (Tut.by, October 21).
The following day, Belarus’s foreign ministry delivered a note of protest to the Ukrainian charge d’affaires in Minsk (the ambassador’s position is vacant). The initial statement of the Ukrainian Security Service in conjunction with the incident denied that a threat was ever made to send military interceptor jets (Tut.by, October 21–November 15). In response, on November 1, Belarusian authorities released the recording of the conversation between the air traffic controller and the pilot. It confirmed that the threat took place (Tut.by, November 1). On November 10, President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine delivered an apology to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus (Lenta.ru, November 10). While the episode probably reflects nothing more than a certain degree of chaos and mismanagement in Ukraine, it needlessly strained relations between the two countries.
Yet another such problematic episode took place on November 15, at the Third Committee (social, humanitarian and cultural) of the United Nations General Assembly. Specifically, the Belarusian representative to the UN attempted to block the debate over the alleged violations of human rights in Crimea and specifically in the city of Sevastopol. The attempt failed, however, and a four-page resolution accusing Russia of violating the rights of Tatars and Ukrainians in “provisionally occupied Crimea” was adopted by majority vote. Belarus and 32 other countries, including China, Russia, India, Iran, Algeria and Cuba, voted against the resolution. The first deputy speaker of the Ukrainian Rada (the parliament) characterized Belarus’s behavior as a stab in the back. The press secretary of the Belarusian foreign ministry replied by underscoring that Belarus’s position on Ukraine’s territorial integrity remains intact. However, the press secretary noted, Belarus is frequently the target of similar UN resolutions, and therefore it opposes the misuse of human rights criticism to push certain great power interests against target countries (Tut.by, November 16).
Responding to questions from a group of Russian journalists on November 17, President Lukashenka referred to Ukraine a couple of times. First, he shared his concern that Belarus’s 1,200-kilometer-long border with Ukraine is crisscrossed by an ever-increasing flow of explosives and weaponry. Previously, this east-west flow of arms was channeled through the Baltic States and Ukraine; but now it has been rerouted through Belarus. Second, Lukashenka broached the ideas of Belarus supervising local elections in the separatist (Russia-backed and occupied) regions of eastern Ukraine. He even suggested that the Belarusian army could potentially safeguard the 400 km stretch of the border between Russia and those regions (Tut.by, November 17).
For a number of years, Ukraine was the second-largest trading partner of Belarus. Their total trade achieved the highest level of $7.866 billion in 2012, with Belarus exporting more than it imported from its southern neighbor ($5.557 billion versus $2.309 billion). By 2015, the exchange had declined to merely $3.471 billion, with Belarus still enjoying a surplus (Eurasia.expert, July 22). Some initiatives to reinvigorate the bilateral trade turnover include the idea to use Belarusian refineries to process oil Ukraine receives from third countries; to start jointly producing agricultural machinery (Tut.by, November 10); and to increase exports of Belarusian cement and jet fuel to Ukraine (Tut.by, November 10).
Due to the curtailing of direct passenger air traffic between Russia and Ukraine following the outbreak of war in early 2014, most people traveling between these two countries choose the National Airport in Minsk as a layover point. Consequently, this airport has achieved the status of a hub: its share of transit passengers has, for the first time, exceeded 33 percent. On November 9, the three millionth passenger (since the beginning of 2016) was served at Minsk airport for the first time ever. By the end of the year, the volume of traffic is projected to reach about 3.5 million passengers (Tut.by, November 2).
For Belarus, the costs and benefits of the ongoing conflict in neighboring Ukraine defy comparison. On the one hand, the perils of the nearby war are numerous, and the precedent of forceful border changes in the wider region is dangerous—especially under a condition of blurred Belarusian identity and a de facto common language and information space with Russia. On the other hand, Belarus’s role as the broker of peace has significantly boosted the international name recognition of this East European country. And the West’s interest in Belarus retaining its statehood has trumped democracy promotion, so ties between the West and Belarus have been on the rise.
Above all, however, Belarus and Ukraine are culturally close and they share the same Soviet legacy and the same spatial niche, nestled between Russia and the main institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community—namely, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Against the backdrop of these powerful similarities, Belarus and Ukraine exemplify two strikingly different responses to comparable geopolitical challenges of being locked in a zero-sum struggle between two large outside forces. Russia has long evinced this attitude of “you are either with ‘us’ or with ‘them.’ ” But the EU behaved in a similar fashion when insisting (in 2013–2014) that the association agreement with Ukraine was incompatible with that country’s potential membership in the Custom Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
In the face of such challenges, Ukraine, and Belarus made different choices. One (Ukraine) undertook a stark geopolitical reorientation under the assumption that its new allies will solve the ensuing problems; while the other (Belarus) declared its willingness to maintain ties with both external centers of power, Russia and the West. Sooner or later, the verdict of history will be delivered.