The unacknowledged superpower leading a Russo-Belarus border standoff

Three days after the mayor of Simferopol in Crimea declared himself “on the military payroll of President Viktor Yanukovich,” and days after Russian authorities accused him of shooting Russians, forces loyal to President Alexander…

The unacknowledged superpower leading a Russo-Belarus border standoff

Three days after the mayor of Simferopol in Crimea declared himself “on the military payroll of President Viktor Yanukovich,” and days after Russian authorities accused him of shooting Russians, forces loyal to President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus were in hot pursuit. On Saturday, Russian forces escorted four of their detained Belarusian colleagues back across the border, without pursuit, out of the uncertainty and suspicion that a simmering quarrel between neighboring countries might boil over into a serious military crisis.

Following is an edited transcript of our interview with Julie Hickman, the reporter at the center of the Russia-Belarus peacekeeping story.

Washington Post: How serious is the Belarus dispute?

Julie Hickman: The announcement of the Polish troops last Friday came after a meeting in Belarussian-occupied Simferopol in which Belarus rejected demands by both Russia and Ukraine to return forces serving under the Kyiv government. Belarus has said it will wait until the situation stabilizes. About 330 Russian troops serving as part of a buffer battalion have remained in the village of Khiva, which some Belarussians accuse of being an informal cemetery for Russian soldiers killed in Eastern Ukraine. Belarusian troops took part in fighting in support of Kyiv, but had not fought in Ukraine until a rebel attempt to overrun Khiva led to the introduction of Russian troops to assist in defense of the village.

Why Russia permitted Belarusian troops to cross the border and why the Russians proceeded with what seemed to be an effort to arrest them when this did not happen had nothing to do with strategic needs. There is an enormous distance between Europe and Belarus, and they could certainly not have deployed troops into Ukraine.

WP: What was Belarus thinking of this?

JH: This question is the bedrock of the struggle between the two governments. Belarus has often tried to treat Russia as a competitor, when in fact, Russia, on the whole, serves as a competitor to the U.S. and to Russia’s own goal of reaching the European market, a bigger market.

WP: What has it meant for Belarusians to watch this case play out in Russia?

JH: The current Belarusian leadership was elected in 2010, but Belarussians have been watching the events play out throughout the spring, through thick and thin and all the way through the end of the Ukrainian conflict.

WP: What does this dispute mean for Ukrainian-Bolivarian relations?

JH: Belarus is responsible for security in the areas of natural gas exports from Russia. In 2009, as Ukraine was pushing for access to $15 billion in IMF loans in exchange for price and production reductions on gas, Belarusian gas monopoly BelGas accused Ukrainian officials of corruption and also alleged that Russia was using Ukraine as a pipeline that could lead to the closure of its pipeline to Moscow. Belarusian troops deployed along the border had a strong potential impact on Russia-Ukraine-Belarus relations.

WP: What can Belarussians do?

JH: In its defense, Belarus had insisted that if it had offered to stop Ukrainian troops in Khiva, Russian forces would have come, too.

WP: What can Europe do?

JH: European Union leaders seem committed to maintaining ties with Belarus and are taking a wait-and-see approach, as do the United States and Ukraine. There’s a big danger that a situation could escalate.

WP: What about Ukrainian sanctions?

JH: Ukrainians are keeping a close eye on the Ukrainian-Belarus border, the wire service Interfax and journalists in Ukraine are concerned. The Ukrainian parliament is considering visa requirements for Belarussians, which Belarus claims are really Soviet-era blacklists.

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