Debates: International experts discuss the possibility of fresh approaches to the conflict in Ukraine that involve the active participation of Belarus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus in Minsk, February 25, 2016. Photo: RIA

The Ukrainian crisis has almost become yet another “frozen conflict” in the post-Soviet space. Even after Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (the four countries that comprise the Normandy Four negotiating format), signed the Minsk Agreements and committed to their implementation, the conflict has not moved any closer to an end.

Despite verbal commitments, both parties of the conflict – the government in Kiev and the rebels in the country’s east – continue to violate the agreements. Moreover, it is very hard for external powers to make them adhere to certain rules of the game.

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So, the right question to ask is if there are any alternative formats or approaches to the Ukrainian conflict that could breathe new life into the negotiations and push the parties involved towards a settlement.

This is exactly what Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko recently proposed: he suggested that Belarus could play a constructive role in the conflict as it is an unbiased third party which has a deep-seated interest in resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Lukashenko basically proposed that Belarus could organize and conduct elections in Donbas and the Belarusian army could monitor the disputed part of the Russia-Ukraine border, thus, providing an objective third-party monitoring and control.

Russia Direct approached international experts and asked them whether such an initiative is viable at all. Can it contribute to new thinking and, thus, to a certain breakthrough in resolving the Ukrainian conflict? What are the odds that Russia, Ukraine or their European partners will support it as a way to implement the Minsk agreements and pacify the conflict in Eastern Ukraine?

Alexander Titov, Lecturer in Modern European History, Queen's University Belfast

The Minsk II process is a dead end for all intents and purposes. It was not clear until the last moment if the last Normandy format meeting in October 2016 would even take place, as the Russian President Vladimir Putin was refusing to participate unless there was concrete progress on it by the Ukrainian side. The meeting took place but it’s unclear what it actually achieved. Even the most basic issue of upholding a ceasefire in the Donbas is not working, with both sides accusing each other of daily violations. This is basically how the situation has been since the last Minsk agreement of February 2015.

Obviously, something needs to change. So, the proposal by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to organize elections in the separatist Donbas, and to secure the Russian-Ukrainian border currently under separatist control, seems like a fresh idea in the otherwise stale process.

Is it likely to produce a breakthrough? The basic answer is no. The involvement of Belarus will not solve the fundamental problems that made the Minsk II deal unworkable so far. The core issue is that the Minsk deals were a result of crushing Ukrainian military defeats that forced Kiev to sign up for a political settlement it never wanted. Minsk II would legitimize the separatist leaders through elections and amnesty, and guarantee a special status of the breakaway regions through constitutional reform.

Ending the conflict in the Donbas might remove the principal legitimizing argument in support of the current authorities. Furthermore, granting constitutional autonomy to the Donbas separatists would severely undermine the whole Ukrainian national project. So, until these core issues are sorted out (e.g. through a regime change either in Kiev or Moscow), talking about the mode of implementation of Minsk II via involvement by Belarus (or anyone else) is simply putting the cart before the horse.

Vyacheslav Sutyrin, Senior Associate Fellow at the State Academic University for the Humanities (Russian Academy of Sciences)

It is not for the first time that Lukashenko voices his readiness to sort out the mess in Ukraine. Some think that it is just a chest-thumping exercise. However, Lukashenko remains the most popular politician in Ukraine.

There is an understanding in Minsk that the format of the negotiating platform for the Ukraine crisis, which Belarus uses to build up its image of a regional security donor, is contextual and can easily become unwanted under certain circumstances. This is why Lukashenko is searching for new formats to settle the Ukrainian crisis.

His proposal looks more like a probing of the situation and reaction given also the U.S. presidential elections. Lukashenko’s proposal will require re-formatting of the Minsk Agreements and many things will depend on whether Putin and Trump manage to come to a consensus over Ukraine.

In these circumstances, Lukashenko demonstrates his readiness to be actively involved in the settlement process in Ukraine.

In the near term, implementation of his initiative seems almost impossible. However, the situation is changing and the ruling coalition in Kiev can also be reformatted. Another important factor are upcoming elections in France and Germany in 2017 – two nations that are key members of the Normandy Four negotiating format. And again, a lot will depend on the Moscow-Washington negotiations. However, it is quite possible that participation of Belarus in the settlement of the Ukrainian conflict will be discussed over the next two years.

Also read: "The cost of war in Eastern Ukraine, two years later"

Dmitry Polikanov, Vice President of the PIR-Center and Chairman of Trialogue International Club

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko voiced a number of spontaneous initiatives on resolving the conflict in Ukraine. During his press conference with the Russian media, he called for a more active role of Belarus as a mediator capable of holding local elections in the breakaway regions and monitoring the Russian-Ukrainian border. Even though Lukashenko is known for his sudden and sometimes extravagant proposals, there is a certain rationale in his words concerning Ukraine.

Lukashenko has always been quite flexible in promoting his country’s interests and in maintaining his own power. In the last few years he has transformed his image of a bloody dictator and the black sheep of Europe into a reasonable and moderate East European politician. He did not shut the door to the EU and sometimes proclaim his eagerness to develop cooperation with Europe. Some of his officers, while allies of Moscow, are sent for training to NATO. At the same time, he is the major beneficiary of anti-Russian sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions, as his economy is flourishing from the transit of forbidden goods. These days, as he notices changes in the U.S. foreign policy and the fuss in European capitals over Ukraine, he is ready for taking this chance to “be useful.”

In fact, if local elections in Eastern Ukraine are held by the Belarusians, there will be much more trust in their results in Moscow, and Kiev can always say that there was no pressure on its side during the campaign. The same relates to the border patrols. If accepted, these measures will help to overcome the impasse of the Minsk agreements. And certainly, they will help Lukashenko to stay in power even longer and to ensure the smooth transition to a successor selected by him.

Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, former diplomat in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs in the U.S. Department of State and at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow

Lukashenko's proposal is feasible, but not relevant. The problem is not that whether forces could be deployed to guard the border, or to supervise elections. The problem is that there is no political will in the current Ukrainian government to implement the Minsk Accords.

De facto, no political force in the current government has sufficient popular support to make any meaningful moves to implement the Accords. The four coalition parties, according to a recent poll, have a combined support of just 8.8%.  Poroshenko's personal rating is not much higher.

The obvious solution is to hold early parliamentary elections in order to empower some political course of action. The current parliament, understandably, opposes this, for it would mean the removal and repudiation of those who were brought to political influence by the Maidan.

What we have is a stalemate within the Ukrainian political elite that no external influence can resolve, because the victory of one side means the utter destruction of the other.

Pavel Verkhniatsky, Director of the Kiev-based Center for Operational Strategic Analysis (COSA)

The proposal made by the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko will not find support in Ukraine and will not have any implementation due to several reasons.

First, Belarus is a part of the Union State of Russia and Belarus and Russia is a party to the conflict.

Second, Belarus’ recent vote and position in regard to the UN Resolution recognizing Crimea as an occupied territory. Belarus voted against the resolution, thus siding with Russia, which is a part of the conflict with Ukraine.

Third, Belarus has a very specific experience in organizing elections.

Serena Giusti, assistant professor at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa

The Belarus President’s offer to play a role in the Donbas local elections seems more a boutade than a real political opportunity. Lukashenko himself has admitted that neither the West nor Russia have reacted to his proposal to help organize local elections and mitigate the still incandescent situation.

In the occasion of the two rounds of negotiations – for Minsk I and Minsk II Agreements – between Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia hosted in Minsk, Belarus’ political elite cleverly exploited the context of the Ukrainian crisis for rebranding itself as a ‘normal’ country and improving its international image and status.

Nevertheless, the EU still sees Lukashenko as “Europe’s last dictator” and considers the country as a “consolidated autocracy.” The EU pressure has not had much effect on the course of the country’s domestic politics. The main reason for that is the country’s strong economic dependency on Russia. As a result, Brussels cannot seriously affect Belarus’ economy with sanctions or other restrictive measures. On the contrary, the way the West has exerted pressure on Lukashenko’s regime risks being counterproductive. Generally, interference from abroad is depicted as a challenge to Belarusian sovereignty, while Lukashenko presents himself as the only bulwark against such threats, consolidating his internal legitimacy. Moreover, the more the West ostracizes Belarus the more the latter seek to reinforce its partnership with Russia.

But Minsk-Moscow relations have been often ambiguous. Despite the project of the Commonwealth of Russia and Belarus, Moscow has several times cooled its friendship with Minsk, including raising gas prices.

So, Belarus does not have enough capacity and capabilities for being a peace-keeper in the Donbas. Furthermore, despite the ever-changing relations with Moscow, Lukashenko is not perceived as a neutral leader in the conflict. His offer is nothing more than a risky distraction for the parts involved in the crisis which rather need to find a reasonable and shared solution.

James Sherr, an associate fellow and former head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)

The proposal will be a non-starter from Ukraine's point of view. Return of the eastern border to Ukraine is one of the clearest provisions of the Minsk accords, and for Kyiv, fixed and non-negotiable. Control of the border by Ukraine's state border service is a prerequisite of territorial integrity and state sovereignty, whatever the eventual provisions of 'special status' in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Moreover, Kyiv is adamant that OSCE authority for verifying cease-fire commitments, monitoring elections, with full unrestricted access, be undiluted and undiminished.

Ukraine can be expected to decline Lukashenko's proposal politely but firmly. Russia's recent announcement to augment substantially its forces in Belarus provides additional reason to reject this initiative. Poroshenko knows that any other course will have sharp and adverse consequences in the Verhovna Rada and possibly on the street.

Andras Rasz, Senior Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The proposal surprised many both in Belarus and abroad; however, a detailed assessment shows more doubts than promises.

First and foremost, deploying an election observation and border assistance mission to Eastern Ukraine would obviously require the consent of all the fighting sides. Hence, already in the very beginning, Minsk would have to face the problem of whether or not to recognize the separatist authorities of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics as partners. A recognition would not only alienate Ukraine, thus making Kiev’s consent unlikely, but would also seriously damage Belarus’ efforts to normalize its ties with the West.

In case of a non-recognition, the separatists could render the whole procedure impossible from the very beginning. Actually, separatist leaders reacted only with moderate enthusiasm to Lukashenko’s proposal, mentioning that Belarus could delegate observers to the elections, while emphasizing that they could organize the election locally by themselves.

Second, another political problem would arise from the very fact that it is Belarus that organizes the elections. Due to the severely non-democratic track record of post-1994 Belarusian elections, Donbas local elections organized by Minsk could easily be contested by any of the sides, if results do not meet their expectations. It would be simply too tempting to question the whole procedure, arguing that as Belarus did not organize a single democratic, representative election even at home in the last 22 years, how could it manage a democratic one abroad?

Third, besides these political doubts, sending Belarusian soldiers to Eastern Ukraine might be problematic from the point of view of domestic politics, concerning both the public attitude and legal aspects. As a legacy of the tragic losses suffered in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, sending soldiers abroad has always been a very sensitive question for the Belarusian society.

Fourth, Belarusian armed forces have very limited experience in participating in international crisis management missions. Belarus has joined UN peacekeeping operations only in 2010, and since then only a minuscule number of Belarusian soldiers or policemen have gained practical experiences. According to UN data, in August 2016 there were only five Belarusian servicemen participating in the UN peacekeeping missions, meaning that the Belarusian contribution has been mostly symbolic. Even though the CSTO has been exercising peacekeeping operations with its Collective Peacekeeping Forces – one may mention the Indestructible Brotherhood exercise in late summer 2016 in Belarus - they have never seen live action.

Belarus has a long history of conducting thoughtful and cunning diplomacy. Hence, it is highly unlikely that all these arguments were not weighted properly before President Lukashenko made his proposal on Nov. 17. Consequently, as the proposal is obviously unrealistic, one may conclude that its main aim was not to really become a primary election organizer in Eastern Ukraine. Instead, the objective was probably to gain additional visibility and political capital for Belarus by demonstrating the country’s readiness to contribute to the settlement of the war in Ukraine, and thus appear as a responsible player of the international arena.