Yevhen Mahda: narratives in the triangle of contradictions Belarus – Russia – Ukraine 

Yevhen Mahda: narratives in the triangle of contradictions Belarus – Russia – Ukraine

Along with their lengthy co-habitation in a unified authoritarian state, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are connected by the Kremlin-imposed concept of triune Eastern Slav ethnos. Its weakness is the willingness of Russians to claim the internal status of an «elder brother», while offering Ukrainians and Belarusians to settle for the «junior» role.

For ages, Kyiv and Minsk had to accept this role. However, the XXI century changed the situation considerably. Notably, it is not about the formal independence declaration or Belavezha Accords that killed the Soviet Union in December 1991.

Recent years are marked by Ukraine’s and Belarus’ choice in favour of building their political nations, a step seen as a grave threat in Russia. The process of political nation-building is unique for each nation mentioned, even though affected by Russian impact.

In the abovementioned triangle of contradictions, speaking about Russia’s narratives vis-à-vis Ukraine and vice versa makes no sense. The reason for it is the hybrid war waged by Russia against Ukraine since February 2014, which has claimed at least 13 thousand Ukrainian lives (UN data) and an unknown number of Russian lives, as the official Moscow denies deaths for obvious reasons. The climax of the Russia-Ukraine hybrid confrontation is potentially interesting in the context of developments in Belarus, one of few post-Soviet countries not to experience a military conflict in its newest history.

The narratives in the abovementioned triangle deserve attention in terms of how they are shaped and promoted. With their strong president-led power hierarchies, Russia and Belarus build their narratives in centralised ideological centres under control of presidential offices. Both countries have their specific powerful grip on media. Ukraine is in a different situation, as there are multiple public actors in a position to shape narratives dedicated to bilateral relations, in both the government and the opposition (more details below). As for the media, TV owners in Ukraine frequently pursue conflicting interests and only have ad hoc cooperation with the government.

The fact that Belarus, Russia and Ukraine live in illusions regarding the situation in neighbouring states is an important peculiarity of narrative-building in the triangle of contradictions.

While in Russia-Ukraine relations the hybrid war plays its negative role, the Belarus-Russia and Ukraine-Belarus relations cannot be sufficiently affected by high-quality communication. In most cases, Ukraine and Belarus view each other through the prism of Russian propaganda efforts, distorting the perception significantly. Let us proceed to the analysis of the most common narratives of the recent years in the Belarus-Russia-Ukraine triangle. Remarkably, some of them are longstanding and some emerge as a prompt response to events, either domestic or external. Rather than a comprehensive description, these narrations enable quite a good understanding of developments in the «triangle of contradictions».

Narrative related to Covid-19 deserve a special mention. Belarus is consistent in its official strategy of communicational minimisation of the pandemic consequences, to poor practical effect. Russia has made efforts to utilise the coronavirus outbreak for promoting Sputnik V vaccine in neighbouring and other states. The Ukrainian government positions itself as a winner against coronavirus; yet, this information is not confirmed in reality. This aspect is highly symptomatic for three states with their significantly different public reactions to the spread of coronavirus.

Belarus. The perfect storm

  1. «Belarusians are Russians with a quality mark». This Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s quotation can be referred to as the key idea of Minsk’s policies vis-à-vis Moscow. Lukashenka’s long-lived ambition to contribute to the building of, and taking the lead in, the Union State of Russia and Belarus, defines many aspects of Belarus’ external policy.
  2. «Belarus is Russia’s Western-most outpost». Rather than a simple courtesy to Russia, this is a part of Lukashenka’s international image. Lukashenka uses it in its bargaining for Kremlin’s loans or economic preferences. After losing in intensity during the rapprochement with the EU, this idea made an impressive comeback in August 2020.
  3. Maidan has cost Ukraine a lot of trouble. Probably one of the most heavily used messages of the Belarusian state propaganda, which has significantly lost in relevance in August 2020, when the political crisis started in Belarus.
  4. «Belarusians would come to Ukraine only by tractors». This narrative is Lukashenka’s reaction to a common opinion in Ukraine that Russia could use Belarus as a base for its troops against Ukraine. Notably, Belarus has repeatedly prosecuted its citizens for fighting in Donbas.
  1. West inspires the protests and Ukraine is accomplice. Lukashenka’s response to developments in Belarus is a consistent continuation of his political stance. It looks that he cannot face the fact that the society is critical about his rule.
  2. Ukraine provides weapons to Belarusian opposition. The Belarusian authorities use this narrative repeatedly, and produce fake TV stories and ‘witness interrogations’. With no hard evidence given, the peaceful nature of the Belarusian protests effectively debunks such statements of Lukashenka and his officials.
  3. Zelensky is still young; he will grow and learn. Lukashenka uses this patronising approach to his Ukrainian counterpart to emphasize his experience as a state leader and to win sympathies of Russia amidst its rocky relations with Ukraine.
  4. Belarus is a self-sufficient state, Switzerland of Eastern Europe. Official Minsk started promoting this narrative in pursuit of its own interest in 2014, when the Belarusian capital hosted talks on regulating Donbas hybrid conflict. While the purpose of this narration was to show Belarus’ distance from Russia to unsophisticated observers, it did not entail quitting the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or the Eurasian Economic Union, or departing from support to Russia in international organisations.
  5. Belarus is ready to offer peacemakers for Donbas. The continuation of the previous narrative, which ignores the shortage of trained peacemakers in Belarus and Kyiv’s lack of trust on this issue. Sometimes, it appears that Lukashenka seeks to secure a place in case of a blue-helmets mission to the East of Ukraine.
  6. Only a man can run Belarus. An openly sexist point made by Lukashenka as a response to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s increasingly strong campaign, and support thereto by Maria Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala. Presumably, this narrative is comparable to police violence by the negative reaction of the collective West that it has caused.
  7. A pro-Russian party is about to emerge. Serving as a tool of Kremlin’s pressure against Lukashenka, this narrative is not based on a solid understanding of public and political situation in Belarus.

Predominantly tactical in their nature, the Belarusian narratives more often than not are reactive; they probably depend on wishes of Lukashenka and his entourage, and short-term political factors.

Russia. Exceptional thrift

  1. The Godfather and other communication attacks. For years, Kremlin has been using TV channels, anonymous Telegram channels and its own agents for pressurising Lukashenka and softening his position.
  2. No interference in Belarus’ internal affairs. This point clashes with aspirations to maximally drag Belarus into Russia’s influence zone and turn it into a de facto satellite.
  3. Belarus depends on preference-price supplies of Russian oil. This narrative comes into play during economic contradictions between Russia and Belarus, sometimes as a response to Belarus’ attempts to increase the transit price for the Russian oil.
  4. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is not Marina Mniszech. A pseudo-historical narrative showing Kremlin’s deep concern about Tsikhanouskaya’s activity and congruent with events of early XVII century, encouraging the perceived common interests of Moscow and Minsk against Western influences.
  5.  Comparing the Belarusian opposition to Nazi collaborators. Consistent with «Russia’s politics of history» aiming at promoting the version of USSR’s key and unique role in the victory against Nazism, and using historical memories for its self-interest.
  6. Moscow is ready to cooperate with the Belarusian political elites. Reinforced by active stance of the former Russian ambassador Mikhail Babich, this narrative made Lukashenka noticeably nervous. Amidst the political crisis in Belarus, marginal media continue promoting this point with a goal to consciously annoy Lukashenka and demonstrate that Kremlin has a win-win strategy in Belarus.
  7. West inspires protests in Belarus. Though coherent with Lukashenka’s analogous message, this narrative pursues a different goal when performed by Russia, namely to show that the West is targeting Russia’s monopoly of influence over the post-Soviet space, and Belarus in particular.
  8. Ready to defend Belarus, if needed. CSTO membership implies this; however, Russia started more actively promoting its message on readiness to protect Belarus on the background of developments in Nagorny Karabakh, when Russia failed to provide direct military assistance to Armenia (also CSTO member), despite Azerbaijan’s military advance. The primary signal, though, was Vladimir Putin’s statement about reserve troops standing ready to assist Lukashenka in August 2020.
  1. Belarusian opposition is dependent. Presumably expressing the ‘elder brother’s’ opinion, this statement undermines the strength of the Belarusian opposition as an actor capable of upholding the country’s independence. Nevertheless, Kremlin actively engages with Belarusian politicians ready to toe Moscow’s line.
  2. If the political crisis continues, Belarus can lose regions. Russia tested the idea of dismembering a post-Soviet state in the wake of a revolutionary change in Ukraine by illegally occupying and annexing Crimea, and creating the so-called DPR and LPR. Attempts to establish ‘people republics’ in Odesa and Kharkiv have famously failed. Unpleasant for both Lukashenka and his potential successors, the threat of disintegration is used against Belarus deliberately.
  3. Maidan technologies are used against Belarus. One more case of a seemingly common narrative pursuing different goals. For Russia, criticising Maidan and its political derivatives is about fighting for the paradigm of ‘sovereign democracy’; Kremlin sees social protests uncontrolled by the political establishment as a threat.

Russia’s narratives vis-à-vis Belarus are based on its traditional ideological frames, and good knowledge of Lukashenka’s behaviours and his possible reactions to triggers. Kremlin seeks to control Belarus via its soft power technologies in a mix with financial leverage and non-public threats.

Ukraine. No single centre

  1. Ukraine is interested in stable and democratic Belarus. This is Ukraine’s official narrative existing for more than a decade. Remarkably, Ukraine has been missing a clear stance on Belarus, something that Minsk used skilfully.
  2.  Lukashenka is Europe’s last dictator. Roman Bezsmertny, Ukraine’s ex-ambassador in Belarus, is the main engine of this narrative. During his work in Minsk, he would solidify with EU ambassadors against Lukashenka. The liberal segment of the Ukrainian political community supports this point. Interestingly, they sometimes fail to grasp that escalation of this image works not so much against Lukashenka as it does for Putin.
  3. Lukashenka must quit. This is the point mostly communicated by the Ukrainian opposition; they use Lukashenka’s image for their domestic fights. Yet, the political class of Ukraine was not very quick to react to protests in Belarus, as they were waiting for a signal from the presidential office.
  4. Belarus has nothing Belarusian (language, culture, etc.). This stereotype is, on one hand, based on information coming from Belarus, and on the other hand, a consequence of lacking systemic ties between Ukraine and Belarus. It is hard to oppose as long as Belarus has two official languages, Belarusian and Russian.
  5. Ukraine’s sanctions against Belarus will be selective. This is one more effect of the missing articulated policy vis-à-vis Belarus. Preferring manual control in state governance, Volodymyr Zelensky takes interests of Ukrainian oligarchs and national economy into consideration. Moreover, Ukraine is not legally obliged to join the entire EU sanctions package against Belarus.
  6. Lukashenka betrayed Ukraine in Wagner Group case. This narrative is sensitive for the Ukrainian leadership, since Lukashenka’s actions in respect of the Russian private military company were rather predictable, while the Ukrainian security services and the presidential office found themselves in the middle of a scandal due to information leakage.
  7. Russian military and security services are at home in Belarus. Information about permanent joint Belarus-Russia military exercises, most illustratively Zapad, backs this narrative substantially, and so do the ambitions of Russia to subdue the military organisation of Belarus. Abduction of Pavlo Hryb, a Ukrainian national, in Homiel, Belarus, in August 2017, and his subsequent enforced transportation to Russia strongly upheld this belief.
  8. Belarus carries a threat of intervention into Ukraine. 1000-kilometre-long Belarus-Ukraine border, ground relief and the myth of Russian overwhelming military presence in Belarus facilitate the development of this narrative.
  9. Belarus is our economic partner (military industry, oil products and electricity). This narrative is not very common in Ukraine, a possible reason for it being that the political actors that could promote it are in the opposition, while the trade volume and dynamics between the two countries are not of particular public interest. Illustratively, TV stations controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, a co-chairman of the Opposition Platform – For Life, served as Lukashenka’s communication supporters in the height of the political crisis 2020.
  10. The Belarusian opposition must answer Whose is Crimea? As the political turmoil began in Belarus, leading to increased attempts of the Belarusian opposition to look for information platforms in Ukraine, the pressure to answer this question clearly grew significantly. Obviously, the Belarusian oppositionists should articulate their position, given that the official Minsk did not recognise the annexation of Crimea officially.
  1. Belarusian protests are different from those in Ukraine. This obvious fact should not bring out negative emotions, since economic situation and political practices influence protests in any state. In my opinion, escalation of this message indicates Russia’s attempts to drive a wedge between Ukraine and Belarus.

Ukrainian narratives about Belarus reflect the lack of consistent official position and informal information about developments both sides of the Ukraine-Belarus border. They contain harmful stereotypes about bilateral relations, elements of external informational influences and indications of misunderstanding both at the top and in people-to-people contacts.

In lieu of conclusions. Narratives in the triangle of contradictions exemplify relics of Russian imperial policies, Belarusian authoritarian rule, and Ukrainian lack of long-term thinking. Rather than facilitating resolution of contradictions, they tend to multiply them.

Yevhen Mahda,
the Executive Director of the Institute of World Policy (Ukraine), Associate Professor of the National Technical University of Ukraine

This article is published as part of the Prospect Foundation project “Online Media Literacy for Editors and Administrators of Social Media Public Pages”, managed by iSANS and supported through grants from the International Visegrad Fund.


Материал доступен на русском языке: Евген Магда — о нарративах в треугольнике противоречий Беларусь – Россия – Украина