Belarus reluctantly reverses its security policies
Meeting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka on 14 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that in the next year Belarus and Russia would hold joint exercises or similar events almost monthly. Belarusian special operations forces on 21 September joined the Russian “Caucasus-2020” military drills. Simultaneously, an unprecedented number of Russian paratroopers – three battalion tactic groups – are taking part in the so-called Slavic Brotherhood exercise near the Belarusian cities of Brest and Hrodna (14-25 September). Alongside Lukashenka’s fierce anti-Western rhetoric and Belarus’ Russian arms purchases, these new developments demonstrate how much the Belarusian government has had to give in to Putin following the rigged Belarusian parliamentary election on 9 August.
War games on the borders
Just how dramatically Belarusian security policies have changed can be gleaned by looking at the balance of military cooperation between Minsk and Moscow. During his visit to Belarus on 16 September, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu complained that only 30% of the two countries’ annual cooperation programme had been implemented, and urged that at least 70% be fulfilled by the end of the year. Such low numbers are more to blame on the tension between Minsk and Moscow that existed until August, rather than on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Increased military cooperation with Russia fits into the militaristic political campaign recently launched by Lukashenka. Speaking at a women’s forum on 17 September, Lukashenka announced: “we were forced to return the troops from the streets… mobilise half the army and close the state border with the West, above all with Lithuania and Poland… strengthen the border with our brotherly Ukraine.”
This bombastic statement turned out to be an exaggeration. Border crossing points continue working as usual. By “closing the borders”, Lukashenka apparently meant the earlier Belarusian army deployment behind the borderlines. Beginning on 17 August and until the beginning of September, the Belarusian army and border guards held a series of exercises in Belarus’ Hrodna region that borders Lithuania and Poland.
While before that he blamed Russia for disturbances in Belarus, as early as 21 August the Belarusian president switched to accusing the US and EU of organising the protests inside Belarus and increasing military activities on Belarus’ borders. Although he talked about the danger of irredentism in Hrodna region, Lukashenka also emphasised that the “Belarusian problem [of post-election protests] today for Russia is no less important than it is for Belarus. It is Russia that is under attack first of all”. He went on to repeat the same opinion again later.
How sincere is Minsk’s militarism?
Since the beginning, Minsk’s militarism has looked strange. Not least because concurrently with adopting militarism, the Belarusian defence ministry has strived to reduce the damage it is causing. In the second half of August, the ministry held three conferences with foreign military attaches accredited in Minsk to explain the situation. Meanwhile, Belarus’ neighbours have doubted the extent of the threat posed by Minsk. On 17 August Lithuanian defence minister Raimundas Karoblis criticised Belarus for creating tensions by launching extraordinary exercises on the borders with Lithuania and Poland, but added that “we do not see up to now any military threat from Belarus. Although these are extraordinary exercises, they include standard, regular procedures.”
Already on 12 September at a conference of the country’s security agencies Lukashenka signalled his willingness to review recent army deployments on the western border. “If NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania have completed the so-called exercises and do not move there anymore, we should respond appropriately. Without need, we cannot keep the armed forces there in such numbers for a long time. Especially since it is not cheap,” stated Lukashenka in an address to defence minister Viktar Khrenin. The latter replied that NATO was effectively only repeating what it had done in the spring by moving one battalion near the Belarusian border. Therefore, Khrenin added, the Belarusian army activities around Hrodna had been wrapped up and the troops returned to garrisons.
The Lithuanian military noticed the Belarusian manoeuvres and on 15 September, supreme commander of Lithuanian armed forces Valdemaras Rupšys said that because of increased military exercises by Belarus and Russia along the Lithuanian border, “there are some concerns, but there is definitely no direct military threat.” Lithuanian defence minister Karoblis added that extraordinary exercises in Belarus were losing their momentum and new drills with Russia were not new, but planned well beforehand. No wonder that on the same day, the head of the international military cooperation department at the Belarusian Defence Ministry Aleh Voinau revealed that as far as international cooperation was concerned, “some tactical-level events with Poland and Lithuania still remain on the agenda,” although he warned that Minsk could stop cooperating with these partners.
Buying arms in exchange for Putin’s support
Minsk also made concessions to Moscow regarding the purchases of military hardware—not a small thing for cash-strapped Belarus, which has always had to buy arms from Russia with hard cash, not on a credit loan. On 24 August, the Belarusian army signed contracts with Russian manufacturers for the purchase of armoured personnel carriers BTR-82A for two battalions as well as four Mi-35M attack helicopters. The army also signed a plan to purchase air defence systems from the Russian firm Almaz-Antei up to 2025.
Until this point, the Belarusian army for years had moved towards becoming less expensive and more suited to the needs of the country. In particular, it had successfully resisted the efforts of Russia to sell it BTR-82’s and found a solution by replacing older armoured personnel carriers with Belarusian modernisations of Soviet models or new Belarusian-designed armoured vehicles. The same was true of attack helicopters: Minsk planned to gradually give them up and replace them with a mix of attack drones and Yak-130’s.
These recent contracts, alongside invitations to the Russian army to increase cooperation, indicate a political calculation by the Belarusian leadership. It hopes to find allies in the Russian establishment among those in the security sphere and defence industries. These allies should, the Belarusian government hopes, help Minsk to prevail over more liberal and Lukashenka-critical economic elites inside the Russian government apparatus.
To sum up, the Belarusian government has significantly changed the multi-directional foreign and security policies it had been pursuing over the previous fifteen years. These changes are not the result of a rational revision of the previous course. They were imposed upon Minsk by the difficult situation that the current government finds itself in as it tries to play games with Russian politics by making unprecedented concessions to the Russian military establishment.
In Belarus’ case, any meaningful struggle to change the regime has a geopolitical dimension, and only political dialogue inside the country can reduce the opportunities for external actors to intervene. Dialogue that results in negotiated democratisation and not simply destabilisation of the regime should be the aim of those interested in democratic and independent Belarus.
If you think that Belarus Digest should continue its work during this period critical for Belarus, please support our fundraising campaign with a donation.
Lukashenka runs to Putin amid protests
On 22 August while meeting military personnel in Hrodna Province, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that his opponents had — with the aim of bringing about a “colour revolution”— been attempting to divert his attention from the domestic situation by creating tension on the Western borders. He specifically blamed NATO and ordered his troops to “defend Hrodna”.
This statement may sound odd, yet its messages clearly reflect Lukashenka’s greatest ever level of dependence on Moscow, a dependence which has developed within a mere two weeks since the election. It is little wonder, that his rhetoric in recent days has focussed on the threat from the West, with Russia hailed as Belarus’ saviour. Even to keep state TV running since an employee strike last week, Lukashenka has had to bring in journalists from Moscow. This new dependence threatens to undermine Belarusian statehood, bringing it ever closer to a situation such as that in South Ossetia or Transnistria — towards becoming a semblance of a state.
No Tiananmen Square for Belarus
The violent crackdown after the election in Belarus failed to brutally suppress the opposition, as for example the Chinese government did in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. The Chinese leadership at that time remained internationally isolated but firmly in power. On the contrary, all Minsk is now demonstrating is its own fragility and inability to cope alone. It has been forced to withdraw special police forces from the streets, tolerate unannounced demonstrations throughout the country and, ultimately, to beg Russia for help.
Lukashenka’s situation deteriorated further after 19 August, when the European Council explicitly refused to recognise the Belarusian presidential election of 9 August. This may put incumbent president Lukashenka in a precarious situation when important Western European countries, and in all likelihood the US and neighbouring states, will not accept his decisions on behalf of the country as legitimate.
This signals the end of the “multidirectional” foreign policy which his government has pursued since the mid-2000s, through careful manoeuvring between opposite poles of international politics, especially between Russia and the West. Going forward, the Belarusian government may only be able to rely on Russia and China – although Beijing is geographically far away and not willing to compete with the Kremlin over a small European country.
Notwithstanding future EU sanctions, the recent decision of the EU leaders has already rendered Minsk extremely vulnerable and has affected the rhetoric and behaviour of the Belarusian leadership. In addition to suddenly switching to anti-Western and pro-Moscow rhetoric, it has compelled Lukashenka to militarise the crisis. On 19 August Defence Minister Viktar Khrenin ordered the troops to conduct a large-scale “comprehensive tactical” exercise around Hrodna on the border with Lithuanian and Russia, adjacent to the so-called “Suwalki Gap”.
Belarusian political scientist Andrei Kazakevich underlines that Lukashenka’s loss of international legitimacy “contradicts Russia’s plans of “deepened integration,” and may even hamper the selling of Belarusian companies to Russian businesses. However, the existence of several precarious polities on the borders of Russia proves that Moscow feels quite comfortable with unrecognised statelets, such as those in Donbas, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria, some of which have existed for decades. Belarus is now drifting towards this type of situation. Moreover, with a better recognition status, it is still far from these pseudo-states and, hence, even more attractive an asset for Putin.
The EU to Solve the Belarusian Issue with Putin
The new situation has already led to an unprecedented flurry of direct contacts between the EU and Russia concerning developments in Belarus. No wonder that Lukashenka has refused to talk to German Federal Chancellor Merkel, which has led to her holding talks with Russian President Putin.
Even high-ranking European officials emphasise that in dealing with the political crisis in Belarus, they will take account of Moscow’s interests. A case in point is the interview by the European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton after an emergency conference at which the EU leaders decided to tighten sanctions on Belarus. He emphasised that negotiations with Russian leader Putin would take into account the specificity of Belarus’ relations with Russia. Breton added: “Belarus is not Europe, it is on the border of Europe, between Europe and Russia, and the situation is not comparable to Ukraine or Georgia. Belarus is really strongly connected with Russia and the majority of the population is favourable to close links with Russia.”
It is possible to imagine what kind of compromise solution the EU and Russia may hammer out for Belarus: a peaceful and nominally independent state with no major human rights issues which retains most of its existing dependencies on Russia. The minimal interest most EU countries have in Belarus may make their leaders more easily agree to the Kremlin’s role in resolving the Belarusian crisis.
How sincere is Minsk’s new policy?
There is, however, another factor which makes the sudden rapprochement with the Kremlin a shaky affair, and that is the hidden but deep distrust harboured by the Belarusian government towards current Russian leadership. Minsk knows it has to struggle for balance even now. This explains, for example, why, on 20 August, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey thanked the US Under State Secretary for Political Affairs, David Hale, for American support for Belarusian independence and sovereignty. The very next day, President Lukashenka again accused the US of provoking the unrest in the country.
Nevertheless, sudden changes of rhetoric and approach (like the unexpected war games accompanied by the anti-NATO unheard of for more than a decade) are scarcely an indication of sincere conviction within the Belarusian leadership. This conviction appears forced and resembles the behaviour in recent months of the mid-level Belarusian government officials with whom Belarus Daily has been in contact — avoiding articulating the issue of the Kremlin role in Belarusian politics publicly, but complaining about it privately.
Despite being well aware of the Kremlin’s hostile policies towards Belarus, nevertheless even when confronted with undeniable facts (such as the detention of Russian mercenaries with affiliations to “Putin’s Cook”, Evgeny Prigozhin) they have continued to interpret all traces of Russian influence in Belarusian politics as private initiatives by oligarchs (especially Alisher Usmanov and Oleg Deripaska) or as a crusade by Russian liberals “linked to the Democratic Party” in the US.
Although never presented publicly in a consistent and intellectually sound manner, the suspicions concerning the role of Russia even became a theme by which the Belarusian leadership motivated the security agencies for violent crack-down on the protesters. A Russian activist detained by Belarusian special police units reported how the policemen explained their actions: “There was once a great country, the Soviet Union, and because of such fagots like you, it demised. Because no one cut you down to size on time. If you [the Russian Federation] think that you have planted your Tikhanovskaya here… then you shall know that you will not succeed in making a second Ukraine here, we will not allow Belarus to become part of Russia.”
To sum up, over the last two weeks Belarus has backtracked on much of its former progress in strengthening its statehood, including developing its international neutrality and the credibility it has won over the recent decade. All of these losses have become gains for the Kremlin. If Putin further succeeds in becoming the partner of the West in solving the Belarusian issue, he can multiply his advantage.
This is the reality which all the parties in internal political confrontation must take into account, and raise in talks with foreign governments. Neither Belarusians, nor the EU, nor even Russia will benefit from Belarus becoming a new unrecognized South Ossetia. Only Putin’s corrupt government will benefit. The idea of Putin engaging to promote democracy in Belarus is a charade.
If you think that Belarus Digest should continue its work during this period critical for Belarus, please support our fundraising campaign with a donation.