Russia kidnaps a Ukrainian in Belarus undermining Belarus’s reputation
On 24 August 2017, Russian Federal Security Service agents kidnapped 19-year-old Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib on the territory of Belarus. He is the son of a minor Orthodox Church official and army reserve officer, Igor Grib. Ukrainian society is actively discussing the event and is trying to draw attention to the ordeal of Pavel Grib, who finally found himself in Russian prison in the Russian city of Krasnodar.
Officials in Minsk appear to be doing nothing to aid Ukraine, not even in helping to gain an explanation of Russia’s actions on Belarusian soil. The situation is beginning to diminish Belarus’s image of a “neutral state” and independent actor.
Forcing a 17-year-old girl to work a honeytrap
According to Igor Grib, his son went to the Belarusian city of Homiel on 24 August 2017. Pavel had arranged to meet a Russian girl there who he got to know on the internet. After crossing the Belarusian border and arriving in Homiel, Pavel disappeared. He didn’t return home the next day as promised.
Distressed, Igor Grib went to Belarus to look for his son. Belarusian police informed him that Pavel Grib was on the wanted list in Russia. The Russian Federal Security Services for the Krasnodar region and the city of Sochi alleged Pavel was suspected of terrorist activities.
According to Pavel’s lawyer, on 24 August 2017, two people in civilian clothing approached Pavel near the Homiel main bus station. They forced him onto a minibus which took him to a forest where he was handed off to other agents. Pavel was detained for several days in a windowless building, his lawyer says.
Then an investigation team arrived and formalised his detention in accordance with the Russian Criminal Code. At the police station, Mr. Grib learned that Pavel had been transferred to a detention facility in the Russian region of Smolensk, which borders Belarus.
After two weeks, Russian authorities finally provided information on Pavel Grib. He was being held in Krasnodar prison, located almost two-thousand kilometres from Belarus, and accused of terrorist activities. The 17-year-old girl from Sochi called Tatiana, who invited Pavel to meet her in Homiel, later said the Russian Federal Security Services had forced her to work for them. She claimed she was also under investigation in Russia on suspicion of terrorist activities. Now Pavel Grib is writing letters to Tatiana, declaring his love for her and telling her not to worry about him.
But the situation is getting worse. Pavel Grib suffers from a serious medical condition that requires regular application of special medication. So far, he has had no access to necessary medical care and his health is deteriorating. This issue has been underlined both by his father and Ukrainian officials. Even on 18 August 2017 when Ukrainian consuls were finally allowed to meet with Pavel Grib in Krasnodar prison, Ukrainian doctors were not allowed to examine him.
Brazen Russian provocation against its closest ally
This series of events is troubling not only for Minsk, but for all post-Soviet states. It may be the first incident in history where, on the territory of one post-Soviet state, another post-Soviet state kidnaps a citizen of a third. The Belarusian regime is shocked by Russia’s provocative behaviour. So far, Minsk appears to have no clear reaction strategy. While Minsk kept silent, Ukraine issued its first official complaint on 31 August. Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Yelena Zerkal stated that Belarus was being uncooperative with Kyiv over the issue of Pavel Grib.
The only statement on the issue released by Belarus’s Foreign Ministry (given by media officer Dzmitry Mironchik, a minor official) appears both misguided and vague. It sounds as if Ukraine is to blame for the current situation:
People, unfortunately, disappear for various reasons—either by their own will or stupidity, or as a result of the malicious actions of a third party. If the 19-year-old young man was not followed by his parents and the authorities of his own country, there is no reason to lay the blame at someone else’s door. Blaming a country that was chosen as the place for a romantic date or a secret meeting, merely a day after an official request [for information about Pavel Grib from Ukraine to Belarus] is certainly not the behaviour of a partner [country].
This kidnapping is pure provocation from Russia for two reasons. First, Pavel Grib represents no interest for Russia. He has neither access to sensitive information nor is it likely he committed any serious crime. Second, he entered Belarus without issue at the state border. It only became know after his kidnapping that he was on a Russian wanted list for unspecified “terrorist activities” in Russia’s Krasnodar region. The result is negative effects for both Belarus’s international image and Belarus–Ukraine relations.
It is necessary to emphasize that Pavel Grib has neither served in the Ukrainian military nor has he visited an Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone (for example in Ukraine’s Donbas region). More to the point, Pavel’s incarceration in Krasnodar prison servers as his very first trip to Russia. Pavel Grib could not have physically been involved in any illegal, terrorist activities on Russian territory. This also suggests that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were not aware of the Russian operation, because according to international agreements, Belarus and Russia share the same database for criminal investigations.
“Moscow has full control over Belarus”
The events surrounding the case of Pavel Grib have resulted harsh rhetoric from Ukraine towards Minsk. On 14 September 2017, lieutenant general Vasyl Bogdan, a former serviceman for Ukrainian military intelligence, declared that Moscow is in full control of Belarus and its authorities. A day earlier Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin stated, that “Russian special services are also operating on the territory of Belarus,” and Ukrainian citizens should understand that going to Belarus can be dangerous for them.
According to Ukrainian experts, at present the Belarusian government is unable to find an adequate response to the case of Pavel Grib. Instead of helping Ukrainian officials, for example communicating with Russian law enforcement agencies on behalf of Ukraine, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry does nothing besides issuing troll-like statements. Indeed, some experts from Ukraine now say they are choosing not to visit Belarus, because there is no guarantee of security.
Pavel Grib’s kidnapping and Belarusian inactivity go hand-in-hand to support the suspicions of Western observers that Belarus lacks independence and control over its own territory in the face of Russian provocation. This weakens Belarus’s role as a negotiator and diminishes its image as a neutral state or “donor of stability,” apparently so cherished by officials in Minsk.
Russia’s behaviour suggests Belarus is no longer perceived as a strategic partner. What it means to be a close Russian ally is up for question. Russia carries out aggressive activities, like kidnapping a third country’s citizens, on a close partner’s territory. This undermines the image of Belarus on the international stage and harms cooperation between neighbouring states. This does not bode well for the future of Belarus–Russia relations.
Viejšnoryja: the Belarusian Defence Ministry plays with fire
On 29 August in the Palace of the Republic, the Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian Armed Forces and the First Deputy Minister of Defence, Major-General Alieh Bielakonieŭ, held a briefing on the Belarusian-Russian military exercises West-2017. The briefing and the official press-release caused an unexpected reaction in society.
More than 50 media representatives and 14 members of the military-diplomatic corps accredited by the Belarusian Defence Ministry attended the event. The media drew special attention to the plan and scenario of the exercises, which led to many questions.
According to the scenario, extremists, supported by two neighbouring states, invade a part of Belarus, which they then occupy, setting up a different state. It is the role of Belarus and Russia to fight them. Interestingly, according to the scenario, extremists take over in the western part of Belarus. The map of the exercise shows the precise territory of the alleged enemy. The new state is called Viejšnoryja and is propped up by its two western neighbours: Viesbaryja and Lubienija.
First of all, it should be noted that all these names sound Baltic. It is thus likely that the Russian and Belarusian authorities are trolling the Baltic states, which frequently voice alarmist sentiments about West-2017 being the beginning of a Russian invasion of Europe.
Historically, Viejšnoryja itself is the Belarusian part of Lithuania Propria – a historical region and the cradle of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This cannot be a simple coincidence. What’s more, Viejšnoryja coincides suspiciously with the majority-Catholic part of Belarus.
Meanwhile, the tone of the briefing and the following press-release were unusual and somewhat unclear. At first, Mr. Bielakonieŭ mentioned the NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe which recently took place, claiming they were designed to prepare for an assault on neighbouring states.
He then spoke about the Rapid Trident exercises in 2017 in Ukraine and the intention of the Ukrainian Right Sector group to deploy temporary militias near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border in case of an invasion from the north. Such rhetoric is especially odd as Belarus had promised not to strongly criticise NATO and Ukraine for their military exercises in the region.
This presentation of West-2017 was thus an epic fail for the Belarusian Defence Ministry, as its effect was the complete opposite of the intended one. Originally, the ministry intended to show society that West-2017 was not a threat to the independence of Belarus or its international image. Instead, the Ministry of Defence aggressively accused NATO of belligerence and openly trolled the Baltic states. The media focused not on the number of Russian troops and comparisons between West-2017 and similar NATO exercises in Eastern Europe, as planned, but on the division of Belarus into parts, declaring one of them an ‘enemy’.
The rise of Viejšnoryja
The reaction in society was immediate. Right after the press release, all independent media sources posted a map of the exercises showing the imaginary states. Some experts considered this an attempt to split the Belarusian population along religious lines: the Catholic West against the Orthodox ‘Russian world.’ The fact that two neighbouring states were supporting ‘Viejšnorian extremists’ was also taken to symbolise NATO destabilising the situation in Belarus in order to ‘break it apart from its union with Russia’.
At the same time, the exercises’ scenario became the butt of jokes on the internet: the country has taken on a life of its own as a meme. Viejšnoryja already has an official website, which also issues Viejšnorian ID cards and passports. At the time of writing, almost 7,000 people had applied for Viejšnorian passports.
Some enthusiasts decided to take the ‘statehood’ of Viejšnoryja even further, creating a coat of arms, flag, currency, and even a Twitter account for the Viejšnoryja MFA. It is now possible to buy a number of products with Viejšnoryja’s name and logo, including passport covers, t-shirts, magnets, and more.
At Lidbeer festival in the western city of Lida, people were seen waiving the Viejšnorian flag. Jokes about the imaginary state are quickly becoming popular on the Belarusian internet, with some claiming that ‘The Belarusian authorities have already asked Viejšnoryja to provide them with a loan.’
More soberingly, however, the exercises’ scenario was one presented by the Belarusian Defence Ministry itself. Had Russia unveiled the scenario, the Belarusian military could have managed to save face, as the low level of trust between the two states is a well-known fact.
Presumably, the scenario was originally a Russian idea, aiming to discredit Belarus once again and cause a harsh reaction from neighbouring states. Either the Belarusian authorities failed to see through this trick or simply had no choice but to agree to it and present it publicly. Seeing as Russia had already started with such provocations before West-2017 even started, they are bound to continue. The way Belarusian authorities react to them could determine the continued independence and further development of the country.
On one hand, the Belarusian authorities are lucky that the release of the exercise scenario resulted only in jokes, rather than official statements from neighbouring states and international organisations. On the other hand, this situation is revealing of the negative image of the Belarusian Defence Ministry and the military as a whole: society does not take them very seriously.
At the same time, Viejšnoryja quickly became an internet symbol of opposition to the Belarusian regime: some people who disapprove of the authorities have started calling themselves Viejšnorians. A tongue-in-cheek awareness campaign calling for ‘the protection of Viejšnoryja from Russian aggression’ and creation of ‘Vejsnorian volunteer forces’ now also exist. People are using the word ‘Viejšnorian’ to mean ‘traditionally Belarusian’ as opposed to Soviet or Russian.
However, although opponents of the Belarusian regime are using the Viejšnoryja meme in jest, supporters of the “Russian world” could use it more seriously, such as for information campaigns against Belarus.
For example, pro-Russian propagandists have started using the names ‘Viejšnoryja’ and ‘Viejšnorians’ to describe Belarusian patriots or opponents of the Belarusian authorities and Russian aggression.
Their long-term goal could be to deprive people with dissenting political views of the very status of Belarusian nationals. Now, the enemies are not Belarusians, but Viejšnorians: traitors of the state and the Russian-Belarusian union.
In the long run, it may turn out that in presenting this West-2017 scenario, the Belarusian Defence Ministry has opened Pandora’s box: a rift in the population on the basis of support for either Russia or the West could really materialise, especially if a corresponding information campaign was held. This is exactly what the Belarusian authorities have been trying to prevent for decades: they rely on preserving stability and maintaining full control of the country to remain in power.