Photo : BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP
06 March 2023, Monday | NIAS Europe Daily Brief #453
By Indrani Talukdar
In Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine, apart from the two conflicting parties, other neighboring states, whether a member of NATO or not, are also involved. Belarus is a case of a non-NATO member supporting Russia in the ongoing conflict. Until 2021, Belarus had not recognized Crimea as a part of Russia, but in November 2021, it recognized Crimea as ‘de facto Russian’.
Belarus-Russia: A growing bonhomie
The relations between the Presidents of Belarus and Russia has been strengthening especially after the 2020 presidential election in Minsk. Back in 2020, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko showed certain openness towards the West, while maintaining proximity to Russia. But, the rigged elections of 2020 and the violent suppression of demonstrations was the turning point.
The closeness between Belarus and Russia has culminated in the form of active military exercises. One of the major exercise called "Union Shield 2023" was held in September 2022 and another one in January 2023. Russia using Belarus as the launching pad to attack Ukraine and the formation of a regional group of forces mostly consisting of Belarusian military personnel cements this alliance. Minsk justifies the regional group as a culmination of a treaty signed between two states in 1999.
Ukraine’s threat perception
Ukraine perceives this grouping as a reservoir of Russian troops to help Moscow against Kiev, as it opens another way to invade Ukraine. The threat is not only directed towards Ukraine, but also to the West. With the culmination of this 1999 treaty Poland’s border becomes exposed to Russian defense system that has the possibility of permanently getting stationed in the Belarusian-Russian border. In December 2022, President Lukashenko announced the start of the combat duty of Iskander-M (the short-range ballistic missile system capable of carrying nuclear weapons) and of the S-400 air defense missile system received from Russia. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that Russia would provide training for Belarusian pilots of jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons (Belarus claims that its jets have been modified to be able to carry out this task, although Belarus does not have nuclear weapons). With the nuclear weapons getting mentioned time and again by the Russians the level of threat rhetoric for Ukraine and for the Central European countries security has increased.
Meanwhile, apart from using of Belarusian territory and Belarusian-Russian defense activities, Belarusian supply of military equipment to Russia such as tanks and ammunition, military training to the mobilized Russians, and health care, logistics and other services (e.g. accommodation, fuel-processing and military equipment repairs etc.) which are a part of the 1999 treaty, could also be seen as a tactic from Russia’s side to divert Kiev’s resources from the front line where it is most needed. Apart from diversion of Kiev’s resources, the direction of the offensive might also be shifted to the west of the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. If that happens then it would mean a cut off from the main logistical arteries of arms and military equipment supplies to Ukraine from its partner countries. The development in this western side has resulted in the increase in tension between Belarus and Ukraine. President Lukashenko last month said that Belarus would join the offensives against Ukraine if Ukraine’s army attacks the country first. Minsk has claimed that there has been a significant grouping of Ukrainian troops near Belarus’s border and warned that this posed a threat to its security. Kiev on the other hand is claiming about invasion from Belarus side. In this whole conundrum, Russia seems to have gained an upper hand strategically.
Belarus getting integrated to Russia, which is a part of the ‘Great Russia’ ambition of the Kremlin, appears to be a reality. The close relationship between the two can be traced back to the Tsarist Empire’s time. Unlike Ukraine, they both are a part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as well as of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In 2022, Belarus was part of CSTO operation in Kazakhstan.
What does it mean for Belarus?
Nevertheless, for Belarus the internal conditions and the sanctions imposed by the West since 2020 have complicated the situation for President Lukashenko. The country seems to be divided between the Kremlin and the West. President Lukashenko and some of the defense officials are in the Kremlin camp whereas the Belarusian opposition and the majority of the citizens favors the West. For President Lukashenko to get openly involved in the war would mean mobilization of the Belarusians themselves (the number of defense personnel is not high) which might not go down well. There is tension between the president and the citizens because of his repressive ways of ruling. Hence, ordering his army to join Russia’s in Ukraine could renew the Belarusian pro-democracy protests like in the lines of the Orange Revolution and Maidan Square. If his security forces are involved in fighting in Ukraine then they might not be able to maintain order inside Belarus.
The Ukraine war has put President Lukashenko in a three-pronged dilemma-firstly, the domestic conditions that could get out of control, getting completely integrated to Russia (which Belarus might not want to) and moving further away from the West. If Belarus becomes integrated in Russia then the country’s future under President Lukashenko would be of the similar fate that of Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov. Belarus’s fate depends on President Lukashenko decisions.
At present, President Lukashenko’s interest lies in protecting his power within his own country and blaming the West and its propaganda for the domestic unrest. Russia’s win over Ukraine, with or without his involvement is important for his survival. An overall ‘genuine’ stability within Belarus seems a distant dream with the war still going on and President Lukashenko still being in power.
About the Author
Indrani Talukdar is a Faculty at Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service, Delhi.
War in Ukraine: Day 374 & 375
By Padmashree Anandhan
War on the Ground
On 04 March, Ukraine’s East Group of Armed Forces spokesperson reported on Russia destroying the bridge linking Bakhmut with Khromove, a nearby village. According to the report the situation remains difficult and has become the prime target for both Ukraine and Russia.
On 05 March, Ukraine border service reported on the incapability of the forces to get through the “zone of permanent fire damage.” In the report it stated the investigation on Russian losses was on going and observes the attacks by Russia to be severe across Donetsk. In a statement: “The enemy set up positions by the forest strip, firing at Ukrainian positions. Due to effective spotting by our aerial reconnaissance, the target was destroyed.”
The Moscow View
Claims by Russia
On 05 March, RT reported on Ukraine’s new automatic system which screens out “malicious websites” used in scamming and phishing. According to the report, the system will list out such websites every 15 minutes that can be blocked. The Ukraine’s National Center for Operating and Management of Telecommunication Networks said: “The system is not intended for filtering domains and restricting access to Internet resources that are used to spread malicious programs, propaganda, disinformation, etc., as well as for Internet resources restricted under sanctions.”
On 04 March, Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu visit to Donetsk was reported in RT. Upon the visit the Defence Minister discussed on “medical units and broader supply issues.” The visit comes amidst heavy shelling in the Bakhmut area.
On 05 March, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz after meeting US President Joe Biden stated that only on Russian withdrawal can initiate negotiation. He mentioned how static the next months can be, but Germany will continue to support Ukraine in all domains. Scholz assured the help to Ukraine and expressed his intention to talk with other EU member states to guarantee security for Ukraine.
On 04 March, NATO’s Commander in Chief, Christopher Cavoli reported on the total loss of personnel for Russia were 200,000 soldiers and 1800 officers since the war began. In an average he observed close to 23,000 artillery rounds to be fired each day by Russia.
On 05 March, Italy’s Minister of Entrepreneurship and National Production highlighted the importance of helping Ukraine build the transport corridor linking Northern Italian cities. This is expected to facilitate as “logistics and port platform” to alternate the sea blockade Ukraine experiences. The Minister said: “One of the cornerstones on which measures to restore Ukraine will be based is precisely the railway infrastructure and port logistics platform of northeastern Italy.”
On 05 March, RT reported on highest record of oil exports to India. According to the report India ranked the third highest importer of Russian crude oil after China and the US. It also highlighted an increase of 28 per cent in the oil exports on month-on-month basis. In 2021 Russia had imported less than one per cent and as of 2023 it amounts to 35 per cent.
By Femy Francis
Kaja Kallas won with record high to form a coalition government
On 05 March, the Reform Party in Estonia won with a landslide of 37 seats in the 2023 Riigikogu elections where Kaja Kallas will be returning as the Prime Minister forming the coalition. Kallas said: “It seems that the voter has spoken. From what I gathered from the screen, we did quite well for ourselves." She also received 31,821 personal mandates a record high for any Estonian politician. The turnout of the elections was around 615,009 and over half participated through online voting creating another record-high event since Estonia's independence. (“Reform Party takes landslide win in 2023 Riigikogu elections,” ERR News, 06 March 2023; “Top six takeaways from Estonia's 2023 Riigikogu elections,” ERR News, 06 March 2023)
Thousands of protests against the negligence of the train crash
On 05 March, Protests were held in front of the Greek parliament on Syntagma Square against the government and the rail company for the deadly rail crash. The protest also saw violence as the police clashed with the protestors who gathered and released black balloons in memory of the lost lives. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed his sympathies and regret for the train crash killing 57 people said: “As prime minister, I owe a big apology to everyone, but above all to the victims' relatives.” A 59-year-old was held responsible for the accident under Negligent Homicide. The negligence by the rail company and the negligence of the government with the staff responsible were heavily criticized. (“Greece: Thousands protest train crash as PM offers apology,” Deutsche Welle, 05 March 2023)
Meloni says Frontex didn't announce an “emergency signal” for the shipwreck
On 04 March, Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced that Frontex didn’t not issues an emergency when the EU border coast guard informed about the crowded nature of the boat which later sank 60 people. The victims were from Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan where roughly 80 survived the accident. The Frontex did share evidence regarding potential distress at sea, where the number thermal screen found a high number of people in the boat. There were two patrol boats taking part in the rescue mission which was halted due to bad weather conditions. When the tragedy was revealed to the public the GDF did not mention the warning made due to thermal signs for distress signals. (“Italy did not classify Frontex’s communication as ‘emergency’ before the shipwreck,” Euractiv, 05 March 2023)
Budget for 40 new hospital plan hit by inflation
On 05 March, Financial Times reported that the UK government in the face of high inflation is struggling to keep up with the flagship pledge, of building 40 new hospitals by 2030 with a budget shortage of EUR 2 billion for the NHS. The health department and the treasury are facing a dilemma and are likely planning to put the project on halt, prioritizing five hospitals that need urgent attention with roof fixing. While the building of the new hospital was the main part of Boris's campaign in 2019, most of the projects focused on refurbishment with only 10 projects securing full planning permission. Downing Street is facing the dilemma as if to announce cuts in infrastructure cuts in one statement or individual announcement for singular projects. (Sarah Neville, Jim Pickard, “Inflation hits UK government pledge to build 40 new hospitals,” Financial Times, 05 March 2023)
Sunak plans to bar cross-channel migration
On 05 March, Financial Times reports that Rishi Sunak will be introducing new laws halting anyone reaching the UK by small boats. In a move to control cross-channel migration, the government plans to place a bill where they would set boundaries with tightening of rules. They aim to stop both people trafficking and illegal migration across the channels. He also plans to meet French president Emmanuel Macron for improving cooperation in halting illegal migration. Sunak said: “I have made the issue of illegal migration one of my top five priorities — pledging to stop the boats once and for all." The democrats have criticized this move s half-baked and that they were no pragmatic legal steps taken to stop unsafe routes for asylum seekers. (Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe,“Rishi Sunak to introduce new laws to stem cross-Channel migration,” Financial Times, 05 March 2023)
Controversial media reforms criticised
On 05 March, Les Echos reported the controversial media law that reforms Ukraine's media regulations. The reforms extend biased powers to the regulators extending their influence to not only radio and television but to social media platforms like Youtube. Giving the right to regulators to impose fines and revoke the license to publish content without a court decision. They would also establish strong censorship tools by giving disproportionate powers to regulators. The move has been criticised by many as curbing the freedom of expression as the state plan to extend its control over them. The law also strictly prohibits material questions o the territorial integrity of war or any pro -Russian propaganda. (“In Ukraine, a law reforming the media is controversial,” Les Echos, 05 March 2023)
Women proportionally engaged in lower-paying jobs
On 05 March, Frankfurter Allgemeine reports that in Germany there is a large proportion of women engaged in poorly paid jobs. The presence of women in food retail, florist and personal care, gastronomy and horse industry are proportionally high which can be compiled in the section on lower-paying jobs. According to Federal Employment Agency (BA) when it comes to more lucrative jobs except for the medical sphere women are low in number for the highest-paying jobs. There are only 6.5 per cent of aircraft pilots, 14.8 per cent of technical researchers and only 22 per cent who are managing directors and board members. The only lucrative field women have proportionate representation in is the medical field with 53.9 per cent estimated. There has been a proposal to promote women in higher-paying jobs and award equal representation. (“High proportion of women in poorly paid jobs,” Franffurter Allgemeine, 05 March 2023)
Spain to announce gender parity law
On 03 March, Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez addressed the gathering of the socialist party rally about the Equal law representation bill to be held for cabinet discussion. The legislation planned proposes to form a planned gender party law for equal representation of women in politics, business and other public fields. The law will demand a list of companies with more than 250 employees and with an annual turnover of EUR 50 million to assign 40 per cent of their women employees to management roles. The law also announces the need to bring the party obligation for women representatives in parliament to 50 per cent. (“Spanish PM Sanchez announces planned gender-parity law,” Deutsche Welle, 03 March 2023)
EU textile waste reaching Africa
On 05 March, European Environment Agency (EEA) announced that Europe is struggling to handle an ever-growing amount of used textiles which end up being exported to Africa. The remnant of textiles adds to the fourth largest source of climate change and environmental degradation. According to EEA “As reuse and recycling capacity in Europe is limited, a large share of used textiles are exported to Africa and Asia, where their fate is “highly uncertain, as limited and mostly anecdotal evidence is available.” IN 2019 46 per cent of textiles ended up in Arica where most of it was either reused or reached open landfills and informal waste streams. The Fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of carbon emissions with microplastics and synthetics reaching the ocean every year. If the use of average use of garments is double downed they could reduce the carbon emission by 44 per cent. (Valentina Romano,“ From Europe to Africa and Asia: the journey of discarded textiles,” Euractiv, 05 March 2023)
UN to opt for high sea protection to ensure sustainable use of the ocean
On 03 March, Deutsche Welle reported that the UN aims to alter historical deals to protect the high seas ensuring sustainable use of ocean biodiversity. After several rounds of negotiations, 100 countries agreed to legally bind the agreement for high seas protection. The change in the treaty aims to ensure sustainable use of ocean biodiversity which might reverse the effect on marine biodiversity. The step marks significant efforts to protect the high seas and marine life while protecting the interests of all countries involved. This deal will fulfil the motive of protecting 30 per cent of world oceans by 2030, as the ocean is a vital part of biodiversity there needs to generate a suitable wave of tidal energy and ocean biodiversity protection. (Tim Schauenberg,“ UN states strike a historic deal to protect high seas,” Deutsche Welle, 03 March 2023)
McDonald criticizes the EUs on packaging law
On 04 March, Euractiv reported on McDonald's criticism over the EU packaging waste regulation (PPWR), where they want to shift from single-use packaging to reusable ones. This shift has to be in phases with 10 per cent in 2030, and 40 per cent by 2040. A study by Kearney consulting firms found that this would inevitably lead to a surge in plastic prices to replace paper bags. The total plastic waste might increase to 300 per cent whereas reusable packaging would lead to increased consumption of water requiring 1.4 billion litres. Mcdonald's says that this move will affect their efforts to remove plastics and that the reusable method can be unhygienic which would eventually reach the landfills. The packaging law came under scrutiny to find out alternatives other than just the reusability of containers. (Valentina Romano, “McDonald’s warns EU packaging law will cause plastic surge” Euractiv, 04 March 2023)