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The 'intertwined' fate of Belarus and Ukraine

The Warwick Ukraine-Belarus (WUB) Hub is a new initiative building on the foundations of the Oxford Belarus Observatory. WUB Hub expands the earlier project’s coverage to include Ukraine and Ukrainians in its work, and it will grow through its events and collaborative activities with other institutions.

Paul Hansbury

The famous opening line of Anna Karenina claims that happy families are alike, but that unhappy ones are unhappy after their own fashion. In recent years, many Belarusian and Ukrainian families have suffered considerable unhappiness. While their stories are very different, their fates are in some ways inextricably linked.

The main reason for their linked fate is Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which will reach the two-year mark next month. Prominent scholars argueLink opens in a new window that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine reveals its colonial mindset. Indeed, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, questionsLink opens in a new window the very existence of both Belarus and Ukraine as independent states through his insistent rhetoric of a ‘triune’ Slavic people. The strongest refutation of Putin’s view requires Belarusians and Ukrainians to stand against it together.

The war has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians, wounded yet more, and Russia’s bombing has destroyed homes and much of Ukraine’s cultural heritageLink opens in a new window. The carnage persists even as the global news agenda shifts its attention to the Middle East. As Ukrainians worry that the world will increasingly neglect their plight, many Belarusians who took part in large pro-democracy protests in their country in 2020 also feel their cause vanishing from global view.

Common pasts, different paths

Belarus and Ukraine took different paths when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Ukrainians tried to embrace democracy, but politics was dirty and marred by corruption and malfeasance. A bitter election campaign in 2004 saw Russia try (and fail) to bring its preferred candidate to power. When Viktor Yanukovych claimed a dubious victory, Ukrainians took to the streets in great numbers and helped to overturn the result. But Ukraine’s ‘revolution’ was unfinished, and five years later Yanukovych won the presidency.

A renewed series of street protests began in 2013, after Yanukovych reneged on a commitment to sign a far-reaching ‘Association Agreement’ with the European Union. The reasons for the president’s decision were not hard to grasp: a grateful Russia soon agreed to $15bn in credit and cheaper gas for Ukraine.

Once again, outraged Ukrainians, whose European hopes had been dashed, took to the streets. Violent clashes in 2014 eventually saw Yanukovych flee the country. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began a low-intensity war in eastern Ukraine. In February 2022, Putin announced his ‘special military operation’ and massively expanded the war.

Belarus followed a very different trajectory after 1991. Belarusians elected Alyaksandr Lukashenka president in 1994 and he set about restructuring the political system in the service of his dictatorship. He used a combination of manipulation and violence to suppress dissent or any semblance of democratic politics. A succession of fraudulent elections brought some brave Belarusians onto the streets in protest, but their actions were of limited effect.

That changed in 2020 when Lukashenka claimed a sixth mandate through a blatantly falsified election. The official result handed his rival, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, only 10%, despite the obvious popularity of her campaign rallies in the weeks before the vote. Indignant Belarusians flooded onto the streets of Minsk, numbering perhaps three hundred thousand or more at the height of the protests – but their ‘revolution’ also stalled.

The regime cracked down hard. Police arrested tens of thousands, with evidence of torture and maltreatment documentedLink opens in a new window in a recent documentary film (see below). At least four people have diedLink opens in a new window in prison. At least 300,000 Belarusians went into exile.

The European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, and others, imposed extensive sanctions on Belarus. None recognised the election result and they endorsed Tsikhanouskaya’s activities in various ways. Russia, which did recognise the proclaimed result, stepped in to provide Lukashenka with extensive support. The suppression of political dissent in Belarus continues to this day. But three years after the rigged election, the international attention towards Belarus has declined precipitously.

Relations during the war

One of the major consequences of Russia’s support for Lukashenka has been a steep increase in Russian influence in Belarus. This was brought home in February 2022, when Russia used Belarusian territory as a staging ground for one prong of its invasion of Ukraine. Throughout 2022 Russia used Belarusian territory to fire missiles into Ukraine and Belarus provided ancillary support to Russia in the form of field hospitals, supply line infrastructure and training facilities.

In this context, relations between the Belarusian and Ukrainian authorities were strained. The government of Volodomyr Zelenskyy, however, kept diplomatic channels to Belarus open, aiming to keep Belarus’s involvement in the war as small as possible. The Ukrainians judged that open criticism of Lukashenka would only encourage him to offer even more support to Russia for the waging of its war. As a corollary of their policy, the Ukrainians did not follow western states in building relations with Tsikhanouskaya or the exiled Belarusian democracy movement.

As well, since February 2022, many Ukrainians have viewedLink opens in a new window Belarusians with suspicion, as nothing more than co-aggressors in Russia’s invasion. This is despite the fact that geography and a common past mean that many Belarusians and Ukrainians have relatives in the other country. Several hundred Belarusians have gone to Ukraine to fight as volunteers in the Territorial Defence Forces of Ukraine; many of them see liberating Ukraine from Russian forces as the first step in ridding their country of Lukashenka.

Multiple futures

As Tsikhanouskaya said in her remarksLink opens in a new window in Davos recently, the fates of Belarusians and Ukrainians are ‘intertwined’. If Russia prevails in its war, its ability and confidence to influence political and cultural affairs in both Ukraine and Belarus will grow; the possibility of Russia occupying both countries in such a situation is high. Western states may be able to haggle over the fate of Ukraine to a degree, while Belarus could be left entirely at Putin’s mercy.

If Ukraine succeeds in driving Russian forces from its territory, on the other hand, then the result will affect Belarusians, too, since Lukashenka – reliant on Russian support – will be weakened. It will be seen as an opportunity for Belarusians to revive their push for democracy.

One of the aims of Warwick’s Ukraine Belarus Hub (WUB Hub) is to improve public and policy understanding of relations between Belarusians and Ukrainians, and to emphasise their joint struggle for freedom and democracy. In part, this means helping people from both countries to connect and understand each other’s hopes and ambitions, and by encouraging knowledge exchange about the challenges they face.

Belarusians and Ukrainians have shared experiences of Russian oppression. As western leaders bicker over continuing military and financial support for Ukraine, community-level ties between Belarusians and Ukrainians are more important than ever. The future of eastern Europe hangs in the balance.