The Belarus-Russia conflict through the lens of the Gerasimov Doctrine
The recent visit of Alexander Lukashenka to Sochi on 15 – 26 February 2017, which did not include an audience with Vladimir Putin, casts the relationship between Minsk and the Kremlin in an ever more ambiguous light.
Tensions between Belarus and Russia have been mounting over the past months, as the Kremlin puts more and more pressure on Minsk. The nature of this pressure is perfectly encapsulated by the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine of hybrid warfare. According to the doctrine, Belarus and Russia have entered the 'pre-crisis' stage of conflict.
Russia’s asymmetric warfare concept
In February 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, published a report on hybrid or asymmetric warfare (the Gerasimov Doctrine), which Russia successfully tested during its conflict with Ukraine.
General Gerasimov believes that the rules of war have changed and the line between war and peace has blurred. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown. In many cases, these means have proved more effective than conventional warfare.
This new type of conflict relies broadly on political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures, applied in coordination with mounting discontent and an atmosphere of protest on behalf of the population.
All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed nature, including disseminating hostile information and deploying special operations forces.
According to Gerasimov, Russian military practises must evolve to accommodate these new methods of warfare. He has also proposed a schematic model for modern conflict, entitled 'The Role of Nonmilitary Methods in Interstate Conflict Resolution'.
His model outlines six stages of conflict development (see picture below). Each stage focuses on nonmilitary measures, but potentially entails increasing military involvement as the conflict approaches resolution.
Is Russia already waging a hybrid war against Belarus?
The Gerasimov Doctrine perfectly captures the ongoing conflict between Belarus and Russia. According to the schematic model, Belarus and Russia have already passed through the first ('covert origins') and second ('escalations') stages. They are now in stage three: 'start of conflict activities'. Meanwhile, Belarus and Russia formally remain strategic allies. For this reason, applying the Gerasimov Doctrine to the case of Belarus first requires some clarification.
As interstate contradictions intensify, the third stage of conflict begins, and opposing forces begin to take action against one another. This can take the form of demonstrations, protests, subversion, sabotage, assassinations, and paramilitary engagements. The Kremlin then frames this intensification of conflict as a direct threat to Russia's national interests and security and begins preparations to intervene politically and militarily.
According to General Gerasimov, conflict activities must involve nonmilitary and military measures in a 4:1 ratio. Russia has already begun to take such actions against Belarus.
The Kremlin has been grooming coalitions and unions in Belarus for decades, expanding its influence in different areas such as security services, the bureaucracy apparatus, and even certain NGOs and oppositional groups. Although it may be hard to believe, even prominent Belarusian oppositional leaders such as Stanislaŭ Šuškievič and Zmicier Daškievič discussed the option of bringing in Russian troops to Belarus in order to overthrow Lukashenka in 2010.
The Kremlin has been systematically putting political and diplomatic pressure on Belarus since the beginning of the conflict with Ukraine and the West. Moscow urges Minsk to take sides in a new Cold War, attempting to establish a Russian military presence on the territory of Belarus, thus transforming it into a military outpost for Russia.
Economic sanctions include permanent trade wars and restrictions of Belarusian goods on the Russian market, the gas price dispute, and insufficient delivery of Russian oil to Belarus. Because of this, in January 2017 alone Belarus lost 1.5% of its GDP. This Russian economic pressure contributes significantly to undermining social and economic stability.
Despite their ongoing conflict, Minsk and Moscow have not announced a break in diplomatic relations.
Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin recently ignored Alexander Lukashenka and refused to meet with him in Sochi, according to the press. This may be Moscow's way of signalling that the Kremlin no longer perceives Lukashenka to be a partner worthy of negotiation.
The year 2017 hasn’t seen any significant signs of improvement in Russian-Belarusian relations except statements of difficulties and problems; this includes the visit to Moscow of Uladzimir Makei, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, on 21– 22 February. It seems that the Kremlin does not take the arguments and concerns of the Belarusian leadership seriously during talks.
A few days later, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak stated that a full repayment of Belarus's $600 million natural gas debt is the key condition for the two sides to reach a compromise. On top of this, Gazprom increased the price of gas for Belarus by 6.81% (to $141.1 per 1,000 cubic metres) since January 2017 despite ongoing gas price talks.
On 17–19 and 26 February 2017, Minsk and several other cities saw the largest demonstrations of opposition forces since December 2010, when Belarusians protested against the results of the presidential election. Hundreds of people protested against the controversial 'social parasite' law.
Some oppositional figures, such as Uladzimir Niakliajeŭ and Mikalaj Statkievič, also took part in the demonstrations. They wished to transform the socially-oriented protests into political ones, demanding the resignation of the government and Lukashenka on 25 March 2017. On 5 March 2017 dozens of anarchists in black masks appeared unexpectedly at the demonstration in Brest. They may easily become a source of provocations.
The protests have provoked debate regarding whether Russia could take advantage of the situation to destabilise the country and send in troops to 'restore the constitutional order'. Lukashenka has already alluded to this scenario in a recent statement about the protests.
It seems that the Kremlin is preparing Russian public discourse for a serious crisis in Belarusian-Russian relations with the help of an informational warfare campaign. Some journalists' reporting on Belarus in the Russian media evinces parallels with the situation in Ukraine. Allegedly, the West is attempting to drive Belarus away from Russia.
According to them, Belarus can expect Ukraine-style instability, as Western intelligence agencies are preparing a colour revolution to overthrow Alexander Lukashenka. Other stories focus on the growth of nationalist sentiment and 'Russophobia' in Belarusian society.
Recent polls conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre have demonstrated that 60% of Russians oppose oil and gas discounts for Belarus even if Minsk should support the Kremlin on the international arena. About 80% are for re-instating border controls with Belarus.
As for military measures, Belarus Digest has already covered the ongoing deployment of two mechanised brigades of the Russian Armed Forces in Yelnya and Klintsy close to the Belarusian border. Incidentally, these brigades would be very well suited for a hypothetical crisis intervention under the guise of, for example, a joint anti-terrorist operation.
It seems that the Kremlin is considering the possibility of deploying troops to 'stabilise the situation and restore the constitutional order' in response to unrest in Belarus, judging by the 2015 military drills 'Interaction' and 'Slavonic brotherhood'.
In addition, Russia continues to reinforce border controls and infrastructure on the Belarusian frontier, deploying operational formations of the FSB border service. In February 2017, units of the Federal Customs Service appeared there as well. Officially, these are meant to protect the Russian market from the embargo on Western food products which pass through Belarus and other member-states of the Eurasian Economic Union. However, it may easily turn into an economic blockade.
It seems that the Belarus-Russia conflict could easily advance to the next crisis stage, if it is to escalate further. The main question is whether the Kremlin is really preparing for a crisis with Belarus or merely using threats to achieve political aims and concessions by means of brute blackmail.
Kurapaty memorial in danger: business versus historical memory
On 24 February 2017, Siarhej Palčeuski chained himself to a truck to protest the construction of a business centre in the vicinity of Kurapaty – a commemoration site for the victims of the 1930s Soviet repressions. Palčeuski's great-grandfather was among the thousands of Belarusians who disappeared in 1937.
In 2014, the Belarusian authorities re-drew the boundaries of the protected area surrounding Kurapaty to accommodate several construction projects. Belarusian civil society and oppositional activists argue that the state is thinking only of profit, disregarding transparency, public discussion, and proper historical research.
When the construction of a business centre in the contested area began in February 2017, protests flared up immediately. Local residents and civil society activists confronted workers on the site, setting up a 24/7 watch to protect the memorial.
The modern history of Kurapaty
Kurapaty is the site of NKVD-led mass shootings in a forest on the outskirts of Minsk, where thousands of Belarusians perished as a result of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. Belarusian society learned the truth only in 1988, after Zianon Pazniak and Yauhen Šmyhaliou published the article 'Kurapaty – the Road of Death.' It sparked the first anti-Soviet mass demonstration in Belarusian modern history.
Kurapaty continue to feature prominently in Belarusian national discourse – every year the traditional Dziady demonstrations head there to commemorate the victims. However, Belarus has yet to recognise the true scope of the Soviet-era crimes.
Even though the authorities of independent Belarus granted the status of memorial site to Kurapaty as early as 1993, its history remains under-researched. The current political regime is reluctant to discuss Stalinist repressions. The school curriculum does not focus on the Great Terror at all, while historians are still denied full access to relevant archives to reveal the whole truth of the Kurapaty tragedy.
Thus, the exact number of victims remains unknown. Historians estimate that anywhere between 40,000 and 250,000 were killed there. Due to the lack of proper archaeological excavations, it is equally hard to determine the boundaries of the mass shooting and burial site.
Construction vs. memory
The current construction controversy surrounding Kurapaty is not the first of this kind: 15 years ago, opposition activists held a 24/7 watch of Kurapaty in a tent camp for 8 months. From September 2001 to June 2002, they protested against the ring road project, which was to cut right through the memorial site. They erected wooden crosses to mark the site and eventually managed to divert the highway away from Kurapaty.
The site continues to suffer from vandalism, while the authorities remain indifferent, consistently trying to extract profit by selling adjacent land plots. For instance, in 2012, Minsk city authorities approved the construction of an entertainment centre bearing an insulting name, “Bulbash-Hall” ("Bulbash" is an epithet for Belarusians), in the protected area of the memorial site.
As the controversy over the inappropriate project was intensifying, the Ministry of Culture started re-drawing the boundaries of the protected area around Kurapaty, cutting it down from 100 to 50 metres. It ignored criticism from historians and civil society and proceeded with the construction of the entertainment centre. However, even though the project was completed in 2015, it remains closed.
Kurapaty 2017: the fight continues
The current conflict in Kurapaty originates in 2013, when Minsk authorities auctioned the land plot in question. At that time, it was still located within the boundaries of the protected area of the memorial site. Any construction required consultations with the Ministry of Culture, as well as the public, but this did not take place.
The person in charge of the construction company, Ihar Aniščanka, is one of the most successful Belarusian real estate moguls. In a comment to Radio Svaboda, he claimed that his company was acting according to the laws and permits granted by city authorities.
Construction commenced on 17 February. When local residents raised the alarm after seeing the workers, leader of the Young Front Zmicier Daškevič launched a campaign to protect Kurapaty from a new incursion. However, on the night of 23 February, a group of 15 masked individuals attacked the tent camp, harming one of the activists, Ales Kirkevič. Tensions resumed again on 24 February, when another group dressed in black provoked a fight with the activists.
So far, the Young Front activists enjoy support from local residents, civil society groups, the Belarusian Christian Democrats, the United Civil Party, and the movement For Freedom. A leader of Tell the Truth, Andrej Dzmitryeu, supported the campaign for Kurapaty, yet hesitated to confirm his party's active participation. Belarusian social-democrats remained aloof, claiming they were not invited.
Confrontation or dialogue?
The head of the Belarusian Voluntary Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments, Anton Astapovič, noted that business centre construction violates the law 'On the Protection of Historical and Cultural Heritage.' Astapovič has already sent complaints to the KGB and the Main Construction Expertise Agency. He questioned the legitimacy of the current project, suspecting corruption.
The Roman-Catholic archbishop Tadevuš Kandrusevič also made a statement on the current conflict over Kurapaty, commenting that the roots of the controversy lie in the lack of sufficient research and a clear delineation of the burial boundaries. He called for an open dialogue between officials, local residents, and civil society to avoid further escalation.
Independent researchers and civil society activists have been leading the way for greater public awareness of Kurapaty. On 22 February 2017, in the midst of the newest construction conflict near the memorial, the civil society initiative Experts for the Protection of Kurapaty opened an exhibition entitled 'The Truth About Kurapaty' in Minsk. A follow-up to the first such exhibition in 2015, it showcases rare oral history testimonies and focuses on identifying victims and perpetrators.
It is up to the authorities to de-escalate the unfolding tensions surrounding Kurapaty. Incidentally, on 24 February, the major official newspaper Belarus Segodnia held a round-table discussion on the need to turn it into a national memorial, dedicated to the victims of Soviet repressions. The outcome of the current construction controversy will prove whether these debates represent serious intentions or yet more empty promises.