Russia is supporting Alexander Lukashenko behind the scenes. But Lukashenko is also working hard preparing the ground for inviting Russian troops into Belarus if necessary.
After a period of mixed messages, Russia appears to have decided it would prefer to keep Lukashenko in place than risk an unknown replacement, or dangerous unpredictability while that replacement is found. But for as long as protests continue at scale despite renewed repressive measures, continued support for Lukashenko by security and military forces will be critical if he is to retain power. As foreign media interest in the plight of Belarus wanes, the Belarusian leadership is benefiting from indirect support from Russia – but has also put all the conditions in place for a military intervention.
Initial fears that unrest in Belarus might trigger a hostile military move by Moscow have receded as the Belarusian security forces have remained in control. But Russia does not need an overt invasion and seizing territory to exert political leverage in Belarus. Other measures, both friendly and unfriendly, draw on a long-established playbook of influencing neighbours.
Russia has given the Belarusian leadership support in its information campaigns aimed both at its own population and at the outside world. Russian journalists have been drafted in to replace their counterparts at Belarusian state media who went on strike in protest. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has endorsed claims by the Belarusian authorities that the opposition had released a radical anti-Russian manifesto. And in Russia itself, the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny has provided a distraction which has diverted much of Western media, diplomatic and political outrage from events in Belarus.
Reports of the intensive rounds of talks between Belarusian ministers and their Russian counterparts refer to a number of agreements reached. Russia could support Lukashenko through preferential trade arrangements, and effectively increase subsidies to the Belarusian economy by ending demands for higher prices for energy supplies. In addition, Belarus will be the first foreign country to receive test batches of the COVID-19 vaccine Russia says it has developed.
Taken together, these measures come as close as Russia gets to exercising “soft power” – a concept notoriously hard to convey in Russian. The key question is what Lukashenko may have promised in return. In particular, Russia also does not need to establish a military presence in Belarus by force if it can arrive unopposed by invitation from Lukashenko.
Lukashenko has been pushing hard the line that Belarus is facing external aggression on its borders with Poland and Lithuania, combined with foreign attempts to destabilise Belarus by fomenting a colour revolution in the westernmost region of Grodno. This builds on earlier warnings of foreign-inspired separatism and NATO aggression and the relocation of at least one major unit to the region from the border with Russia. Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin has echoed the warnings of military conflict or civil war.
On Saturday, visiting exercise command posts, Lukashenko said that “for the first time in a quarter century we have had to take a most serious decision and bring the bulk of the Armed Forces to full combat readiness, and redeploy forces westward”. This, he said, was because “NATO forces are on the move towards our border”, intending to provide the “external component” of the “colour revolution” planned for Belarus. And Sunday’s ludicrous pantomime of posturing with an assault carbine and body armour to visit the Palace of Independence must have been intended to bolster the impression of imminent danger.
But by pointing to the Grodno region and its borders with Poland and Lithuania as the area of maximum danger, Belarus is playing out with great precision the scenario for its Zapad military exercise with Russia in 2017. In Zapad, combined Russian and Belarusian forces subdued the fictitious state of Veishnoriya, superimposed on those same western border regions of Belarus, and took on foreign aggressors (thinly disguised Poland and Lithuania) escalating into a broader conflict with NATO. Even without escalation, the next step practised during Zapad is the invitation of Russian forces into Belarus to assist in restoring order. A new permanent presence of Russian forces in the country – something Belarus has until now consistently resisted – would present a whole range of new and serious security challenges for Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states.
Lithuania and Poland have pointed out firmly that there are no unusual military activities on their side of the border, accompanied by a constantly repeated but slightly less defensible claim by NATO that it has “no military buildup” near Belarus.
When, inevitably, no NATO aggression materialises, and if Lukashenko or Khrenin do not feel the need to simulate it, they can still declare triumph and bolster Lukashenko’s domestic position by pointing to a successful exercise in deterrence – facing down the NATO would-be invader through a display of readiness and resolve.
But the current war hysteria also provides other options. It offers a justification for further repression in the Grodno region and elsewhere, involving the Armed Forces (which can be activated for supporting the internal security forces in a state of emergency or “war condition”); but in the meantime, having the regular army busy in border regions or remote training areas keeps them away from towns and cities, making them less susceptible to opposition messaging and less likely to join protestors.
Exercises in this region of Belarus are to continue until the end of August, and intensify with the calling up of reservists. Meanwhile, on the far side of the Suwałki gap in Kaliningrad, Russia’s forces have also been on the move, conducting live fire exercises with armoured units and the Baltic Fleet. The increased activity on both sides should be watched closely for preparing or providing cover for an unexpected move. The border regions with Poland and Lithuania must be a key focus of attention. Like Lukashenko adopting fancy dress, using helicopter gunships to intercept balloons from Lithuania also draws ridicule; but if Lukashenko feels sufficiently insecure that the fictitious foreign threat needs to be hyped still further, more serious border incidents or “provocations” might be claimed.
Perversely, the best insurance against dangerous adventurism by Lukashenko may be the failure of opposition protests to achieve tangible results. The more confident Lukashenko and his uniformed ministers are that the crisis has passed, the less need there is to act out his dangerous fantasy of NATO belligerence – with or without calling Russia to his aid.