Analysis of Russia’s Recent Foreign Policy toward Ukraine and Belarus

09. March 2020

The analysis looks into recent developments of Russian policy toward Ukraine and Belarus.
In general, the continuing objective of Russia is to retain and increase its influence over
all of its Western neighbours. Russia wants to continue to exert power in its Western
neighbourhood and demands a zone of privileged influence in the former Soviet space.
However, in the general policy one could observe during last year differing approach to
Ukraine and Belarus.
In the case of Ukraine there are some signs that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
administration’s strive for peace and readiness for compromise (acceptance of Steinmeier
formula as a basis for further negotiations regarding the future settlement of occupied
area of Donbass) have led to certain tactical concessions from Russia (agreement to first
Normandy Format meeting after 2016, several rounds of exchange of prisoners and a new
Russian promises of cease-fire and a new gas transit agreement). In the case of Belarus, the
Russian stance is on the contrary hardening. Russia has stopped the export of subsidized
oil to Belarus, as the former has been reluctant to move forward with the deepening of
integration and creating supranational institutions in the framework of the so-called Union
State, as well as giving Russia possibility to establish new military bases in Belarus.
The “relative softening of Russian approach” regarding Ukraine could be explained as an
attempt to use Ukraine’s new administration’s peace-orientated approach to retain Crimea
annexed to Russia and to achieve such a settlement in Donbas that leaves it in reality under
Russian control, at the same time making some concessions. But as Ukraine is clearly
not ready to adopt all Russian wishes, the new disagreements could soon lead to a new
escalation of military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Regarding Belarus, the question remains whether Russia’s goal is to pressure seriously
Belarus leadership to adopt unification plan with Russia under aegis of Union State with
common controlling state institutions. The other, less likely possibility is that the new gas
and oil export policy regarding Belarus reflects acceptance by Russian leadership of the fact
that Belarusian leader is unwilling to move to this direction. Therefore it is not anymore in
Russian interest to continue subsidizing Belarusian economy.
However, most facts point towards a serious Russian effort to bring Belarus under complete
Russian control through increased pressure. Firstly, the fact that the new Russian pressure
towards Belarus was taking place at the same time as the future position for Vladimir Putin
in Russian political system was being determined. However, after State Duma adopted the
Russian constitutional amendment that will exempt Putin from presidential term limitations,
the motive to become the leader of Union State has probably lost its actuality for Putin.
Secondly, there remains continuing Russian pressure to establish new military bases in
Belarus. Thirdly, although Russia, Belarus and Kazkhstan are all members of EAEU, the
Russia denied Belarus the transit rights to import oil from Kazakhstan.
This Russia’s approach could create additional problems to EU Eastern Partnership policy,
as the Russian goal seems to limit other foreign influences in Belarus.

The full report by ECEAP Senior Research Fellow Mr Aap Neljas can be read here:     

Russias Recent Foreign Policy toward Ukraine and Belarus_Aap Neljas