MOSCOW — Foreign Minister Vladimir Lavrov traveled to Belarus in an attempt to mediate the dispute between Russia and the East European country amid a spat over the deployment of NATO troops on its territory.
The regional conflict threatens to sabotage efforts by Russia to build closer ties with Belarus and restore the nation’s former status as a strategic ally.
Foreign Minister Lavrov, who has previously met with Boris Nalbandian, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s son, held talks with his Belarusian counterpart earlier this week as well as a session with Lukashenko, according to his ministry. He is expected to visit Belarus over the next few days, it said.
Russia has said it will treat the deployment of NATO troops to Belarus as a hostile act, prompting Lukashenko to retaliate by banning Russian air carriers from flying in and out of Belarus.
The first military transport flight carrying Russian deportees from Belarus arrived in Iraq on Monday for the repatriation of up to 300 citizens. A new flight was scheduled to take off to Afghanistan on Tuesday.
The confrontation is a huge embarrassment for the Kremlin, as Russia had used its close partnership with Belarus to offset Moscow’s historic decline in influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia-Bolshevik relations have been closely intertwined, with Belarus one of the only Soviet satellite states that maintained the Communist regime of Josef Stalin.
Russia and Belarus are both members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance led by Russia and with other regional states. The Russian passports Belarusians pass through Moscow’s southern border with Turkey are the same as Russia’s passports for residents of eastern and southern Ukraine.
While Belarusia remains politically isolated, its foreign policy is idiosyncratic, focusing on commercial interests and maintaining good relations with Moscow. It has avoided direct military contact with Ukraine, but traded military cooperation with Russia — a former Soviet superpower — after former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a trade agreement with the European Union in 2014 in favor of closer ties with Moscow.
A convoy of Russian trucks has been traveling through Belarus, through NATO-member Poland and Germany, on its way to support Russian combat operations in Syria, despite strong protests from NATO. The convoy of trucks, some of which have been parked in roadsides in the German town of Soest, has come under heavy criticism from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German politicians.
The visit to Belarus by Lavrov is likely to refuel that controversy. While it remains unclear if the military pilots will be able to fly the route through German airspace, Lukashenko appears to have wanted the confrontation to be over quickly.
The decision to repatriate those in Belarus was made by the presidents of Russia and Belarus only after the bilateral border posts were opened on July 20 to help gather Russian citizens in Belarus who were arrested and transferred to Russian custody after their military flight was stopped at the border, according to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.
Along with those from Syria, the Belarusians included ten citizens of the rebel Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.
The Russians argued that some of those detained, the agency RIA Novosti reported, used incorrect identification documents. The local administration in the Belarusian city of Kazan confirmed to RIA Novosti that some of those who were expelled have been working on police and security issues in the city.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post. David M. Drucker contributed to this report.