Are Belarus And Ukraine On The Verge Of A Trade War?

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Belarus strictly follows the reciprocity principle in its relations with the West. The Eastern European country firmly responds to European Union sanctions, and has even taken a step further by completely closing off the country’s border with neighboring Ukraine.

Such a decision came weeks after Kyiv decided to halt flights to and from Belarus, and also to prohibit Ukrainian air carriers from using Belarusian airspace. In response to the Ukrainian actions, Belavia Belarusian Airlines terminated all flights to Ukraine. Moreover, Minsk also introduced several trade barriers against a range of goods from Ukraine. But that’s not all. On July 2, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered closure of the country’s border with Ukraine. Formal reason was an alleged inflow of weapons to coup-plotters detected by Belarusian security services.

“I am astounded by the amount of weapons being smuggled from Ukraine to Belarus. I mentioned that last year. Many didn’t believe me. This is why I’ve instructed the border guard to fully close off the border with Ukraine”, Lukashenko said. 

Indeed, Semyon Semenchenko – the former deputy to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, and the commander-founder of the volunteer battalion Donbass fighting against the pro-Russian forces in the East of Ukraine – recently said that he and his activists, under the leadership of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, trained “Belarusian activists” to carry out a coup d’etat in Minsk. Ever since the war in the Donbass broke out in 2014, Belarus managed to preserve friendly relations with Ukraine, and even reportedly sold weapons to the Ukrainian Armed Forces to fight the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). Now that relations between Minsk and Kyiv have deteriorated, Lukashenko apparently allowed LPR prosecutors to interrogate Roman Protasevich – a Belarusian dissident who was arrested after his Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Minsk on May 23.

There were even indications that Belarus could soon launch direct flights to Crimea – the de facto part of the Russian Federation that Kyiv sees as an occupied Ukrainian territory – as a response to Ukrainian and Western sanctions and air embargo on Minsk. Even if that happens, it is not very probable that Minsk will formally recognize the Kremlin’s incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation, although direct flights to the peninsula would undoubtedly add fuel to the fire. 

Belarus has already demonstrated it is capable of responding to the Western sanctions in an asymmetric way. Lukashenko recently promised to “punish the EU” by not stopping drug trafficking and illegal migrants.

“In the past we stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves”, Lukashenko said, talking about Belarus’ new approach towards the EU. 

European Union officials claim that Lukashenko is deliberately letting migrants from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia fly to Belarus and then cross into the EU via Lithuania – a country that declared emergency following the “influx of migrants”. Belarusian President seems to be playing the same game that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played during the European migrant crisis in 2015 – using refugees as pawns to blackmail Brussels. It is worth noting that over the past few years, a significant number of citizens of the Russian North Caucasus republic of Chechnya arrived to Belarus hoping to get asylum in the European Union, which means that Lukashenko could have more than one trump-card he could use against the EU.

From Belarusian policymakers’ perspective, EU sanctions are just another Western attempt to eliminate competitors and take control over the Eastern European country. Backed by Russia, Lukashenko is expected to keep responding to EU actions. Belarusian authorities recently demanded that the German Goethe Institute cease its operations in the Eastern European country within a month, and Minsk will likely keep breaking ties with Western-backed Ukraine.

In 2016, Belarus reportedly jointed the Russian embargo on Ukrainian dairy products, and Ukrainian dairy companies now intend to initiate a ban on the import of milk and dairy products from Belarus. Although such a measure could, at least in the short-term, do a harm to the Ukrainian economy, Kyiv will likely try to diversify its exports. According to Ukrainian officials, in 2020 Ukraine has opened 12 new markets for the export of dairy products, and in 2021 eight new markets for the export of agricultural products. Kyiv now expects to start developing economic ties with countries such as Lebanon, Ethiopia, Kuwait and Japan. It remains to be seen, however, if such an ambitious plan will work.

In the foreseeable future, Belarus could impose additional counter-sanctions on Ukraine, which could lead to a trade war between the two former Soviet republics. Such a confrontation will undoubtedly have an enormous impact on both Ukrainian and Belarusian citizens, who will have a hard time crossing borders, as well as on the two countries’ economies. 

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