Against the background of the strident discussion of the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border, critical issues for Belarus attract little attention. What else, besides migrants, are the Russian media focusing on, and what questions do they raise? Besides the usual issues of recognition of Crimea, the next package of UE sanctions, and military cooperation, the topics of Belarusian electricity sales to Ukraine and Russian gas sales to Belarus are in evidence.
Electricity supply to Ukraine
Ukrainian purchases of electricity from Belarus did not go unnoticed by the Russian media and prompted a wave of comment and spin.
The Russian media created a narrative focussed on the rescinded Ukrainian ban on the purchase of electricity from Belarus and Russia, emergency deliveries under special contracts, and commercial deliveries.
"Russia 24" TV claims that Belarus has terminated electricity supplies to Ukraine and uses this event to remind viewers that “Zelensky banned the purchase of energy from Russia and Belarus for a year”, but when the situation “became difficult, he lifted the ban" and pleaded with “Moscow and Minsk to resume sales."
The viewer is repeatedly influenced to regard "Minsk-Moscow" as an entity, opposed by Kyiv, which for a year and a half “wanted to completely disconnect from the CIS systems”, but is now forced to "ask for emergency assistance” since the CHP "had little coal and not enough power". The core analysis is that "Ukraine asked Belarus to help and start supplying electricity: the country is in crisis, there is not enough coal and gas for Ukrainian thermal power plants."
Viewers are informed that Belarus continues to supply electricity to Ukraine under the contract signed for November, and Ukrainian intermediaries misinterpreted a letter from Belenergo regarding a change in contract terms that was "sent to specific companies to which electricity supplies in November 2021 are not planned."
Kommersant also devotes several articles to this subject, attributing reports that "contracts were cancelled" to Ukrainian publications "Ekonomichna Pravda" (EP) and Strana.ua. They note that, according to EP, "Ukrainian state company ‘Energoatom’ was among those who received the letter", but also that Belenergo refutes this, and repeat that the letter "was sent to specific companies to which electricity supplies in November 2021 are not planned." However, Belenergo "does not indicate the names of these companies."
After Lukashenka's statement about his desire to visit Crimea, the Russian media showed renewed interest, inferring that the Belarusian authorities recognise Crimea as Russian. The Kremlin noted that "Mr Lukashenko has a long-standing invitation to visit [Crimea]".
Kommersant refers to the situation as "Alexander Lukashenko moved to "non-recognition" of the Crimea” and describes in detail "how the readiness of the President of Belarus to visit the peninsula was perceived in Moscow and Minsk".
According to Kommersant, the Belarusian parliament has stated that "we are definitely discussing the recognition of Crimea as Russian territory." Kommersant also notes that after such a statement, "Mr Lukashenko will have to consider how to avoid destroying economic ties with Ukraine" and that the Belarusian opposition will have to consider its position carefully because they lack unity on this issue.
However, Kommersant also reminds its audience that the position of the Belarusian leadership on the Crimea "remains ambiguous":
- on the one hand, Minsk votes against all international resolutions that "condemn the annexation of the peninsula to Russia."
- on the other hand, the Belarusian authorities have not yet officially recognised Crimea as Russian territory, and not even proposed airline connections have materialised.
- yet overall, "Lukashenka [usually] blames Ukraine for the loss of Crimea."
Kommersant quotes Andrei Savinykh, the Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Belarusian House of Representatives, who believes that Lukashenka’s statement undoubtedly means recognition of Crimea as Russian territory, “Both de facto and de jure Crimea has long been recognised by the Russian Belarusian side... the only thing that was missing was some kind of political statement to formalise this for the media."
Kommersant further notes that the likely consequence of a visit to Crimea by Alexander Lukashenka would be "an even greater deterioration in relations" between Belarus and Ukraine with "loss of trade having a considerable impact on the Belarusian economy." However, according to political analyst Dzermant, who frequently acts as an auxiliary spokesman for the regime, "Minsk hopes for Moscow's help. There are compensatory mechanisms" that Russia can provide to Belarus.
Russia 1 TV advises viewers that "the Crimean authorities expect strengthening relations [with Belarus]" following the statement of "Alexander Lukashenko that he wants to visit the Republic of Crimea".
According to Vladimir Konstantinov of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea, "the speech of the President of Belarus is a recognition of the reunification of Crimea with Russia." By way of confirmation, Russia 1 quotes the Belarusian Foreign Minister in an interview with RIA Novosti that the position of Belarus on the Crimea "remains the same", and "in reality ... Crimea is now Russian territory."
Air Defence Forces and Russian Bases
Russian media pay special attention to military cooperation between Belarus and Russia
Russia 1 reports a patrol by two "Long-range bombers Tu-22M3 of the Russian Aerospace Forces" over Belarusian airspace, noting that during the flight, "ground control by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus was carried out within the framework of the Unified Regional Air Defence System of the Union State."
Russia 1 also covers the story in its "60 minutes" broadcast, noting that "such patrols by strategic bomber aircraft were previously cyclical in nature, [but] from today will be performed regularly."
However, the top news story in military cooperation was the lease extension "of the communication centre of the Russian Navy in Vileika and the Volga radar station in Baranavichy” by 25 years.
Kommersant once again reminds its audience that the "military doctrine of the Union State" was ratified on November 4th by Lukashenka and Putin and Lukashenka plans to "strengthen the regional grouping of troops of troops the Union State.”
Meanwhile, Russia 24 speculates that Belarus may receive " a squadron of Russian Mi-25P attack helicopters " in the coming year, complementing two battalions of BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers.
Amidst the border migration crisis and the Crimean issue, a protocol for pricing natural gas supplies to Belarus commanded less coverage.
Kommersant, reported that the heads of the energy ministries of Russia and Belarus, Nikolai Shulginov and Viktor Karankevich, signed a protocol on procedures, but that "the price of gas is still unknown."
In September, Russia, and Belarus "failed once again to agree on the conditions for creating a single gas market," but, according to Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko, the parties "must determine" the pricing principles Russian gas by July 1, 2022.
Russia 24 also mentions the signing of a protocol on the determination of the price of gas supply and transportation in 2022, referring to the press service of the Belarusian Ministry of Energy. Nevertheless, it is noted that "the specific level of gas prices will be fixed in a joint document with Gazprom PJSC, based on the precedent of 2021", but the price itself is not stipulated. It is noted that Belarus "expects 2022 gas prices to be $ 128.5 per 1 thousand cubic meters, as in 2021."
Audiences are regularly reminded that Belarus' debt to Gazprom has grown "from $165.6 million at the end of May 2020 to $273 million by mid-July 2020," and Gazprom agreed to negotiate supplies for 2022 "only after resolving the debt issue."
The Russian media systematically conflate "Moscow and Minsk" when discussing regional conflicts and disagreements; discrepancies are presented as anomalies within the larger picture of Russia's foreign policy in the region. Moscow and Minsk respond reactively to the "unfriendly actions" of neighbouring states, and the Belarusian authorities can remain stable provided that they coordinate their position with the Kremlin. The audience is led to the conclusion that Belarus only survives sanctions due to the support of the Russian Federation and has the opportunity to help Ukraine, whose authorities have driven the country into a crisis with their decisions.
Military news, such as troop movements, air patrols, and the adoption of joint doctrine, is presented as evidence of the readiness of the Russian Federation to offer a security umbrella to a weak Belarusian partner.
Given that unification of the political agenda of Belarus and Russia serves as a backdrop, the audience gains the impression that Union State integration is an extant reality and it only remains to consolidate the technical and legal formalities
However, it is also highlighted that the position of Minsk (and Lukashenka personally) does not appear to be aligned with Moscow in all cases, which is an objective weakness of the Belarusian authorities. Simply put, anything that exceeds the scope agreed with Russia leads to problems. Crimea and gas prices are examples. It is noted that recognition of Crimea as Russian may derail ongoing and quite successful economic relations between Belarus and Ukraine, but this is followed by speculation about some "compensation" from Russia.
When combined with opacity regarding gas prices and the allegedly existing debt of Belarus to Gazprom, the mention of "compensation for the Crimea" leads the reader to conclude that the actions of the Belarusian authorities are in pursuit of a quid pro quo.