Belarus (4/5): The Next War?

Russian and Belarusian crises merge

Vladimir Putin's foreign policy is masterful until it is not.  Russia is good at engineering situations that showcase the strengths of its leader, but poor at following a line of policy that would advance its national interests.

Belarus today is a case in point.  Putin has skillfully cleaned up the mess that Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko has made since last summer.  For more than two decades Lukashenko had posed as Russia's reliable ally, holding off Putin's attempts to merge the two states, and making forays west to show that he had other possible friends.  Last August, though, Lukashenko lost a presidential election, and chose to maintain power with naked force

This poor choice deprived him of his assets in his contest with Putin.  The European Union and the United States had no choice but to impose sanctions, which meant that Lukashenko could no longer play any Western card.  More importantly, Lukashenko lost his authority at home, and indeed needed Russian help just to stay in power.  The moment your power depends upon a foreign state, it is not really your power.

Russia has penetrated the Belarusian media, economy, and state.  After Lukashenko lost the election last August, people began to resign from state media.  They were quickly replaced by Russian journalists flown in from Russia.  Just two weeks after the election, Lukashenko admitted that he had "asked the Russians" to send "two or three teams" of Russian journalists.  It is hard to overstate the importance of this.  Can you imagine Canada, in a moment of stress, deciding that what it really needed was Fox News?  Russian television media is a slick propaganda machine that puts its competitors (Fox, for example) to shame.  The Belarusian public found itself inundated by slick videos suggesting that their own protests were violent actions staged by the West.  Even when the personnel remained Belarusian, the state media began to follow a Russian line.  Last July, Belarusian state media claimed (falsely) that Russia was trying to stage a coup in Belarus.  This April, Belarusian state media, following the lead of Russian media, claimed (falsely) that America was trying to do the same.

Russia is an oligarchy, so one way to follow its foreign policy is to follow the oligarchs.  A sign of Russia's growing control over Belarus is that its oligarchs are moving to take control of the few real prizes in the Belarusian economy.  Resources and enterprises that have been jealously protected could now be lost.  Another sign of growing Russian economic control is that the Belarusian regime seems to have lost control of its exports.  Lukashenko has had Belarus's refined petroleum products exported through Latvian and Lithuanian ports, precisely to avoid too much dependence upon Russia.  Since March, Belarus has been using Russian ports.

The soft coup unfolds across Belarusian state institutions.  Belarus has announced that its foreign ministry will no longer run embassies in important neighboring countries.  Who, then, will represent Belarusian interests?  Russia seems to be stage-managing a constitutional transition as well.  Suddenly Belarusian media is awash in statements about the importance of the parliament, an institution that has been tame this entire century.  The idea seems to be to weaken the presidency in favor of parliament, and then to manage the country through tame parties.  In such a scenario Lukashenko remains in power for a while, creating the impression of some kind of continuity.  One advantage of this scenario is that Russia will present it as a reform of the office of president. 

Another mechanism has been put in place that could be used in a rougher, more sudden transition.  In April, an older body, the Security Council, was granted an important new power.  Given the supposed threat of an American coup against Lukashenko, the Security Council has been authorized to take over presidential powers "in case of any unforeseen situation."  In other words, Russia can proclaim at any point that another American coup is underway in Belarus, and expect the Security Council to depose Lukashenko.  Or, in a darker scenario, the Russians can kill Lukashenko themselves, blame America, and get their people in power.  Putin's recent speech to the Federal Assembly hinted rather loudly at such a possibility.

If Russia were truly playing a long game, such violent variants could be ruled out.  But Russia is never really playing a long game.  The game Russia is playing is about keeping Vladimir Putin in power, and that schedule has its own demands.  Russia holds parliamentary elections this September, and Putin's party is very unpopular.  In recent elections, its candidates have suffered some truly embarrassing defeats, as when a mayor chose the city hall janitor as his rival candidate and then was soundly beaten.  Putin has upped the ante by saying openly that he expects his party, United Russia, to win a supermajority in parliament, something that no sane person can really expect to happen.

Putin's daily pose is that of the cool operator who can do what he wants abroad since he has no worries at home.  The truth is closer to the opposite: he needs adventures abroad because he is under constant pressure in Russia.  After a regular sastrous year of covid, and facing large protests in favor of his imprisoned opponent Alexei Navalny, he might decide that he needs a loud rather than a quiet victory in Belarus.  The time of his greatest popularity was the few months after his invasion of Ukraine in 2014; repeating something like that, if only as a stunt, might be tempting.  What was the purpose, after all, of all those Russian troop movements around Ukraine in March?  Perhaps they they had to do with Belarus rather than Ukraine. 

However that might be, Putin has the opening of major Russian military training exercises that will take place partly on Belarusian territory.  The Zapad-21 are scheduled to take place between 10 and 16 September -- which would mean that they would end just three days before the Russian parliamentary elections.  Thanks to Lukashenko’s new weakness, these joint maneuvers involve a greater Russian presence than ever.  What is more, the exercises are to focus on hybrid actions and information warfare.  If this is true, Russia would have deployed to Belarusian territory just the kind of people whom it would ordinarily send to manage a regime change. 

Russia needs to do nothing of the sort to have Belarus as an ally.  Violence is not even the best way to try to take control of the Belarusian state.  But Putin might feel that he needs the quick hit to stay in power.  That, after all, is the logic of these electoral dictatorships.  But those quick hits rarely serve the national interest, and they often lead to unexpected consequences for those who initiate them.  We will consider those risks to the Putin regime next time.