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March 2023 Blog: Belarus – Ukraine relations: A road of a thousand steps has no alternative


The Russian-Ukrainian war has significantly changed the relationship between Belarus and Ukraine. The end of the war would foster an opportunity for transforming the relationship between Belarus and Ukraine, which are currently characterized by the high levels of mistrust towards each other. In this blog, I outline practical steps that could be implemented to expedite the change.


The Belarusian-Ukrainian border is 1,084 kilometers long. That is why back in September 2022, I emphasized that Belarusians and Ukrainians have to make a 1000-step journey to achieve mutual understanding. Our relations today are close to a freezing point, as evidenced, in particular, by the Razumkov Center's survey. However, despite Russia's desire to further internationalize the war with Ukraine and fully drag Belarus into its military campaign, there is still room for a dialogue as long as the Belarusian military does not join the aggressor on the battlefield.

To this end, the lack of knowledge and understanding between the Belarusians and the Ukrainians in the post-1991 period is a significant challenge that should be addressed urgently to improve their relations. We should proceed from at least two background ideas: "Without a democratic Belarus, there is no secure Europe" and "Without an independent Ukraine, the independence of Belarus will always be in question." The Ukrainians clearly realized the significance of the first statement when Russian troops crossed the Belarusian territory and entered Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The second needs further explanation.

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Although both Belarus and Ukraine suffered the biggest human losses during World War II, our nations see their statehood from a much wider historical perspective and do not predominantly attach it to the WWII narrative. At the same time, since the mid-XIX century, we have been presented with manipulative messages about the "triune Slavic people - Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians." In this pseudo-historical construction, which solely served the interests of the Kremlin, Russians always remained the “elder brother”, while Belarusians and Ukrainians had no chances to rise up to the same level. Therefore, for the current Belarus-Ukraine relations, the concept of ‘brotherly nations’ is counterproductive, and a new narrative needs to be found.

Unfortunately, for a long time, Belarusians and Ukrainians have been looking at each other through this ‘ice floe’, or the prism of Russian propaganda (like in Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen). After the 2020 protests, suppressed by the Lukashenka regime, this ‘ice floe’ turned into a real iceberg. Here, we need to highlight at least two important factors. First, it is a factor of the Russian language. While it is one of the official languages in predominantly Russian-speaking Belarus, Russian is perceived as the language of the aggressor in Ukraine, despite the presence of the Russian-speakers there too. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct a dialogue between our nations in Belarusian and Ukrainian, which are generally mutually comprehensible. The second obvious factor is a negative impact of the Russian missile attacks launched from the Belarusian territory between February and October 2022. Russia’s use of the Belarusian territory has resulted in a shift in the perception of Belarus and Belarusians among the majority of Ukrainians. As a consequence, many now hold a dichotomous perspective on the role of Belarus in the war.

In its turn, the Ukrainian government has taken a principled stance by not granting political recognition to Aliaksandr Lukashenka as president after the election fraud in August 2020. However, the trade between the two countries continued, and the Belarusian authorities have earned substantial profits, amounting to around $2.9 billion. Moreover, Volodymyr Zelenskyy's team has been reluctant to start a dialogue with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as the Office of the President of Ukraine currently does not envision any practical benefits in establishing such contacts. This stance continues to raise concerns among supporters of Tsikhanouskaya. At the same time, the Ukrainian government openly supports the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment, the largest unit of Belarusian volunteers in the Ukrainian Defence Forces, though not the only one. To foster greater trust between Kyiv and the Belarusian democratic forces, the Ukrainian government should emphasize that business as usual with the Lukashenka regime is no longer acceptable, and the dialogue with Belarus’ Democratic forces is overdue.

To engage in this dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities and Belarusian pro-democracy forces, it is advisable to rely on representatives of the Belarusian diaspora. They have demonstrated a clear and unwavering rejection of Lukashenka’s regime. They also keep valuable contacts with family members and friends still living in Belarus. Given the oppressive nature of the current police state in Belarus, maintaining this bridge with Belarusian society is crucial.

While it is important to acknowledge the challenges that Belarusians are facing, it is worth noting that the concept of “Belarus as an occupied territory” is not well-perceived in Ukraine. As a nation under direct assault by Russia, it is challenging for Ukrainians to fully grasp the “unique circumstances” of Belarus. Hence, a more carefully tailored narrative to explain the latter’s circumstances should be developed.

However, it is clear that we must assess the mutual claims between the Belarusians and Ukrainians, and establish a dialogue between our societies that can serve as a foundation for future state-level discussions (although Belarus and Ukraine still maintain official diplomatic relations). If the Ukrainian state is unable to lead this dialogue for one reason or another, representatives of civil society and the expert community should help. In the current circumstances, this dialogue should be conducted in the format of the Baltic-Black Sea region, countering the "Russian world" narrative.

By and large, Belarusians and Ukrainians have no other alternative but to engage in a dialogue to seek ways of understanding each other to overcome animosities. The Russian-Ukrainian war has served as a catalyst for the development of political nations in both Belarus and Ukraine. As these nations continue to evolve, it is crucial to further identify and strengthen points of connection between Belarusians and Ukrainians. And the more such points there are, the more successful our interaction will become.


Dr Yevhen MAHDA, Associate Professor at Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, the National Technical University of Ukraine, iSANS expert

Translated by Katsiaryna Lozka