For two years, Belarus studiously tried to avoid answering the question “who does Crimea belong to?” not wishing to alienate either of its two neighbors, Russia and Ukraine. It seemed to be a no-win situation for the authorities in Minsk. After two years of deliberation, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei answered that no one was demanding that his country make a determination on the de jure status of Crimea, it was not a state that required recognition, Belarus did not have a large trade volume with Crimea and that the priority was to preserve the integrity of the main part of Ukraine.

Makei’s careful non-answer appears calculated to leave Belarus able to work with both countries. The most fascinating part of the story, however, is the various positions and about-faces Belarus went through to reach this conclusion.

The first public statement by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Crimea came five days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 speech calling for the Russian parliament to create a legal framework for making Crimea part of Russia. Then, Lukashenko said, “Today, Crimea is part of the Russian Federation. Whether you recognize this or not changes nothing.”

Immediately afterward, Lukashenko tried to backpedal, saying that he does not like seeing the territorial integrity of a country violated. But the damage was already done and Ukraine recalled its ambassador. Lukashenko’s statements have been more cautious ever since.

Three days later, in an interview with Ukrainian TV host Savik Shuster, Lukashenko said that he agreed that Crimea was seized by force. However, he said that the Ukrainian authorities were to blame by surrendering and thus de facto admitting that Crimea was no longer theirs. He said that if Kiev wouldn’t fight for Crimea, then it was not for him to say that Crimea belongs to Ukraine.

Then came the UN General Assembly vote. One hundred countries sided with Ukraine while ten—including Belarus—supported Russia. Minsk and Moscow have reached an understanding on voting together in international organizations, and Belarusian diplomats feared breaking it by condemning Putin’s annexation of Crimea or abstaining. The next day, however, the Belarusian foreign minister explained—almost apologetically—that he did not support the resolution because it was confrontational, whereas Minsk always favors peaceful settlement of disputes.

Minsk swung back toward Ukraine again. A crowd of journalists swarmed around Lukashenko in the streets of Kiev during his visit for the inauguration of President Petro Poroshenko in June 2014. Lukashenko said, “Today, the territory de facto belongs to Russia, but this decision was not made de jure.” Lukashenko advised Kiev to try to achieve the return of Crimea “without attacks or insults” and asserted that Ukraine should be a unified and integral state.

Speaking with Russian journalists in October 2014, Lukashenko again declared that it is wrong to violate sovereign territorial integrity. Then he contradicted himself in his very next sentence, saying that Russia was not to blame. He then suggested that Belarus could not give a final opinion on the status of Crimea because then Russia would lose the neutral platform for the Minsk talks on settling the conflict in the Donbas.

Belarus has remained under constant pressure to specify its position on Crimea. In early 2015, at the European Union’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, all participants were asked to sign a joint statement containing the words “annexation of Crimea.” Belarus signed, but with the caveat that, on Crimea, it maintains the position it stated earlier, effectively trying to have its answers be two different answers.

Fortunately for Belarus, there is some wiggle room, as Crimea never declared itself independent the way that Abkhazia and South Ossetia did. International law is relatively clear-cut on issues of recognition and non-recognition, but the transfer of territory from one state to another is much more a matter of de facto politics.

So how has Belarus treated Crimea “de facto”? There has been no order to treat Crimea as part of Russia and as a result the map of foreign missions posted on the website of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry still shows Crimea as part of Ukraine. When Belarusian trains were still running to Crimea (until December 2014), the website of the state railway company listed the destination as “Simferopol, Ukraine.” All textbooks and official maps released by state cartography enterprise Belkartografia cite Crimea as Ukrainian. Conversely, however, no goods delivered from Crimea whose place of origin is marked as “Russia” are sent back. Belarusian officials may still treat Crimea as Ukrainian, but they are willing to accept Russian documentation and work with Russian officials on Crimea-related issues.

This pragmatic maneuvering has not only prevented a deterioration in Minsk’s relations with Kiev and Moscow, but also substantially improved its relations with the West. By forging a middle position, Lukashenko has been able to market the concept of Belarus as a neutral platform for negotiations, shrugging off his pariah status and even convincing the West to lift sanctions that had been in effect for ten years against him and 200 other Belarusian officials. Those are wins he could hardly have imagined two years ago, when he took his first position on Crimea.

  • Artyom Shraibman