Belarusian Analysts Look for Way out of Russia’s War in Ukraine
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 35
On March 11, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka paid a working visit to Moscow and held talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that lasted five hours. Immediately ahead of the meeting, both presidents called the challenge of Western sanctions an opportunity to regenerate Russia’s and Belarus’s own economies. Lukashenka also reported that Belarus purportedly connected the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to the Belarusian grid, “forcibly,” that is, despite the professed lack of interest on the Ukrainian side (YouTube, March 11).
Electricity supply to the non-operational (since 2000) nuclear station (and site of the worst nuclear accident in human history, on April 26, 1986) is necessary for cooling the plant’s spent fuel assemblies. Excessive heating of spent fuel pools may release radioactive substances into the environment (Interfax, March 10). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s report about how exactly Chernobyl’s electric line had come to be severed during the ongoing Russian full-scale attack on Ukraine was ambiguous. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi expressed grave concern, but he also agreed with the Ukrainian regulatory body that Chernobyl’s disconnection from the grid would not have a critical impact on the basic safety functions at the site (RIA Novosti, March 9). In any case, it is telling that Belarus, which received roughly 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from the 1986 explosion, claims to have restored the supply of electricity to the station.
A summary of the outcome of the latest Putin-Lukashenka talks, posted by the Belarusian presidential Telegram channel “Pul Pervogo,” declares that the war in Ukraine can be stopped anytime, but that it depends on the Ukrainian side. The summary also announces the pending delivery to Belarus from Russia of the “most up-to-date pieces of weaponry” and states that “Russia has taken the most serious and unprecedented steps to support the economy of our country.” Mentioned as well is the bilateral commitment to closer cooperation in the industrial, agricultural, and logistical sectors (T.me/pul_1, March 11). Putin’s assistant, Vladimir Medinsky, who heads the Russian delegation in the ceasefire talks with Ukraine, notably participated in one fragment of the Russian-Belarusian summit (President.gov.by, March 11).
On the eve of Lukashenka and Putin’s March 11 meeting, opposition-minded Belarusian media sources suggested that the Russian president would insist on Belarus’s direct participation in the war, and Lukashenka would not be able to wiggle out from under that pressure this time (Svaboda.org, March 11). However, in the wake of the summit, some concluded that “we must give Lukashenka his due. So far, he has apparently defended the non-participation of Belarusian troops in the war against Ukraine. Moreover, he went on the offensive in negotiations with the Russian side, imposing an economic agenda beneficial to Minsk. Yet another interesting nuance—the increase in the Belarusian military presence on the border with Ukraine did not transpire: five battalion tactical groups are still stationed there [and no more].” These observations abundantly reference the now-inaccessible (in the West) official BelTA wesbite (Facebook.com/YuryTsarik, March 12).
At least two opposition-minded Belarusian pundits, Valer Karbalevich (Svaboda, March 10) and Sergei Nikolyuk (SN, March 9), suggest that the current war in Ukraine confirms Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. “This is the purest variety of that clash,” declares Nikolyuk. From another angle, independent analyst Artyom Shraibman thinks that the war is going to linger and that one of the ways out of it might be a military coup in Russia. For Belarus, opines Shraibman, the crucial “question remains how quickly Lukashenka will realize the depth and hopelessness of this abyss, and whether he will risk entering a third round of distancing from Russia, given enormous risks both of distancing and of rejecting this idea” (Telegra.ph, March 12).
Meanwhile, Belarusian pundits loyal to the government are paying close attention to a slowdown in the Russian advancement in Ukraine. Yury Shevtsov still pins hopes on the completion of the war effort before the conflict undergoes Syria-zation, that is, a broad participation of international mercenaries on both sides (T.me/yuryshevtsov, March 11). He also predicts the number of refugees from Ukraine to the European Union will soon reach three million people (T.me/yuryshevtsov, March 12). In his 2018 book bearing the prophetic title The War in Ukraine and Transformation of Europe, Shevtsov anticipates the possibility of a humongous, 15 million-20 million population decline in Ukraine within 15–20 years (p. 91).
Alexei Dzermant, one of the ideologues of Eurasianism, in turn observes that in the March 6 episode of Vladimir Solovyov’s talk show on Russian TV, in which Dzermant participated, “a number of experts began to doubt whether it was necessary to continue the military special operation because the Russian army had already […] destroyed the military infrastructure of Ukraine.” “I did not agree with them,” writes Dzermant. The operation should continue until “the backbone of Bandera [referring to World War II–era Ukrainian partisan fighter Stepan Bandera] militarism” is broken, which is impossible “without the defeat […] of the most combat-ready part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and without establishing control over most of Ukraine” (T.me/dzermant, March 9).
One should point out that even before the war, the broadcast just mentioned used to be one of the most jingoistic on Russian TV. YouTube has denied its platform to it; and the Italian authorities confiscated two of Solovyov’s summer residences on Lake Como in Lombardy because of EU sanctions (Lenta.ru, March 5). If on Solovyov’s show of all places some guests now appeal to putting an end to the war, it may be a telling hint of many Russians’ growing anxiety over the conflict that the Kremlin started. A similarly interesting data point may be the purported request of the Russian embassy in Minsk, conveyed to the initiators of the Russian World rally in the Belarusian capital, not to use a Russian flag during that event (Facebook.com/michael.malasch.5, March 12).
Seeing such occurrences as signs of hope may look far-fetched. But more solid grounds for cautious optimism can be found in the fact that Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, which kicked off in Belarus, are proceeding almost daily. Moreover, according to Mikhail Podolyak, the head of Ukraine’s Presidential Office, the Russian side no longer insists on “de-nazification” and “looks much more reasonably at the developments of the situation” (VN, March 12). The working groups have been formed, and the sides are close to a compromise, he alleged (Kommersant, March 12). Whether or not this optimism is justified remains to be seen.