Russia’s options in Belarus

I need to contact Putin,” said Alexander Lukashenko, “Belarus’s former president” – as Lithuania’s minister of foreign affairs called him recently – after almost a week of unrelenting and ever-growing protests and strikes against the falsification of a presidential election that he claimed he won, and against horrific violence against Belarusian citizens on the streets and in the torture chambers of Belarusian security forces, which resulted in several murders. Lukashenko did contact Putin, but from the short summary that appeared on the Kremlin’s website it is unclear what, if anything, was promised. “All problems should be quickly resolved,” the Kremlin’s report went, to prevent “destructive forces” from using these against the alliance of the two countries. I am not going to analyze the situation in Belarus – there are a multitude of excellent Belarusian and Belarus-focused analysts for that (click here for a continuously expanding list). I will discuss what Russia’s options are and how far I think Putin can and will go.

A Lukashenko shell

From the beginning, Moscow has been interested in a weakened, humiliated, embattled Lukashenko who nonetheless maintains power, relying heavily on his security establishment, which maintains strong connections to (and no doubt several agents from) Russian security services, and meekly acquiescing in Russia’s demands.

The magic aura that has allowed Lukashenko to steer clear of various Russian attempts e.g. to take over a larger chunk of Belarusian industry, to establish an air base on Belarus’s territory, or to force Lukashenko to align himself with Russia’s foreign policy goals, was that for a long while he was genuinely popular. Following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Lukashenko was able to fashion himself as the guarantee of Belarus’s stability and independence and signaled to Russia on various occasions that Belarus, significantly larger and more populous than Crimea, with a distinct national identity, would be too large even for Russia to swallow. To suck the lifeblood out of Lukashenko’s political machinery, Russia has gradually withdrawn various subsidies that had kept the economy afloat and sent a bogeyman, Mikhail Babich as an envoy to Minsk with the apparent aim to scare the Belarusian leader into concessions. By all appearances, however, things were not happening quickly enough for Moscow’s taste. A dispute over oil prices in 2019-20 was as much about Russian fatigue from subsidizing Lukashenko’s regime as about Belarus’s fuel deliveries to Ukraine. But even with his opportunities shrinking, Lukashenko seemed set to maintain his grip on Belarus. Then COVID-19 hit, reinvigorating Belarusian civil society in its wake, and what followed, culminating in the egregious violence of riot police and special forces, removed Lukashenko’s protective shield. Putin’s “congratulatory” message on 10 August read more like a list of demands.

Lukashenko was certainly trying to improve his bargaining power vis-à-vis Moscow, including by floating the idea of extraditing some of the 33 Russian mercenaries arrested near Minsk, to Ukraine. This threat got Putin on the phone, but even as 32 of the 33 Russians were returned to Moscow (around the same time as passenger jets operated by the Russian Air Force visited Minsk), Lukashenko’s situation does not look resolved. On 14 August he was almost openly clamoring for Russian support, accusing “Poland, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Open Russia, Navalny”, a list of countries and organizations that the Kremlin regards as meddlesome adversaries, of sending people to foment unrest in Belarus; essentially offering a shared narrative.

Meanwhile, Russia has given conflicting signals. Initial reporting in pro-Kremlin media supported the official results uncritically, but then gave increasing space to opinions questioning Lukashenko’s legitimacy. Certain people, like Konstantin Zatulin, the deputy head of the Duma’s committee on CIS affairs, openly talked about the result being rigged. A prudent step, one would add, if Russia is expecting the ouster of Lukashenko whom almost two-thirds of Russians regard as better aligned with Russia’s interests than the opposition. Meanwhile, however, Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, Russia’s state-owned international television channel, called for “little green men” – a colloquial name for Russian special forces participating in the annexation of Crimea – to “establish order”. It is unclear whether Simonyan was simply trolling her audience. What is clear, however, is that Russia wants everyone, from Lukashenko to the European Union, that it has multiple options in Belarus and it has not ruled out any of them.

The limits of action

This being said, I agree with Mark Galeotti that an overt or covert invasion of Belarus – a Crimea scenario – is very unlikely due to its costs, its dangers, its effect on Russia’s bigger strategic endeavors, and its general unpopularity, unless Putin comes to the conclusion that this is the only way that will allow Russia to maintain its influence over the country, which at this point is clearly not the case. Unlike Ukraine’s “Euromaidan Revolution”, the Belarusian protests do not have a geopolitical element. People are united by their indignation over falsifications and police brutality, not by their wish to move closer to the EU and a European ideal of politics at the expense of Russian interests.

I find much more likely a scenario, in which Moscow offers to support a gradual, orderly transition of power, which allows both Russia and to a certain extent Lukashenko to secure their most important interests, e.g. a repeat election in a couple of months or a transitional government. Based the EU’s initial reaction, it is not unlikely that EU governments could support such a deal as well. The caveat, of course, is that a similar agreement did not work in Kyiv six years ago and depending on the level of impunity offered to Lukashenko and his allies in such a hypothetical agreement, it might not work in Belarus, either. In that case the door opens to escalation, with or without the direct approval of the Kremlin. For all the options Russia has in Minsk, the prospect of the people on the streets driving the developments remains a significant incalculable risk and concern for the Kremlin. And not only in Belarus.

Some suggested that Russia could simply let go of Lukashenko similarly to when it abandoned the Armenian government in 2018 and embraced the country’s “velvet revolution”. This possibility has haunted Lukashenko since then and no doubt for the Kremlin sending a message to the Belarusian leader was at least a welcome windfall, if not one the goals.  If defections from Lukashenko’s political elite and security services continue, the Kremlin might still decide that supporting its ally, even for the duration of an “orderly” transition, would be too risky and costly. In the case of Armenia it was on 23 April 2018 the very day when units of the Armenian army joined protesters in Yerevan, that Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs started tweeting in support of the Armenian protesters. Even before that, Russian and Armenian operatives were rushing between Moscow and Yerevan as is no doubt happening today between Moscow and Minsk.

The domestic angle

But when weighing the option of simply letting protesters have their way as long as a new government does not question Belarus’s alignment with Russia, Putin has to consider the domestic situation too, which has changed significantly between April 2018 and now. His popularity and his trust rating have collapsed, perhaps not as badly as Lukashenko’s, but they did over similar issues and significantly enough to raise concerns. Furthermore, Russians follow the developments in Belarus more attentively than they did the events in Armenia. A survey by the (state-owned) VTsIOM in May 2018 found that 59 percent of Russians followed the Armenian developments, but only 9 percent did so closely. Last week VTsIOM found that 72 percent of Russians followed the developments in Belarus and 18 percent did so closely. In 2018 78 percent of those responding to VTsIOM’s survey found it impossible for anything similar to happen in Russia. This question was conspicuously missing from this year’s survey.

But it does not need to happen on a national scale to be a cause for concern. Protesters in Khabarovsk have expressed sympathy with Belarusian protesters for weeks, realizing that they are upset about the exact same issue: as Alexander Bystryk, a historian who was later detained by Belarusian authorities, put it, “people have the feeling that they won the elections and that their election victory was stolen from them”. The head of Alexei Navalny’s local office even suggested following the example of Belarusian workers who went on strike (the weight of the state in the economies of Russia and Belarus is comparably high). He was promptly detained.

Putin has not had his Lukashenko moment yet: the recent referendum on his constitutional reform, which enabled him to run for two more presidential terms, but also contained a range of genuinely popular suggestions, was the closest he got to it. Despite all the differences between the two men and the two countries Putin and Lukashenka are in a similarly uncomfortable position when it comes to the electoral façade of their late-stage authoritarian governments. More and more tinkering and rigging is necessary to maintain the same election results, which thus less and less reflect the popular will, even vaguely. In legislative elections, there is more leeway to deal with this problem than in a presidential election: one can change the electoral system, create and co-opt parties, change faces to create the illusion of renewal. In presidential elections, however, both Putin and Lukashenko have to win with a significant majority for two reasons. First, they cannot afford to have a visible alternative, even if this is a sizable minority, lest they risk accelerating regime decay. Second, they have to be able to show that even their tallest orders are carried out. Just as Putin couldn’t afford to have his constitutional reform adopted in a low-turnout referendum with about 60 percent of the vote – which some suggested the actual result might have been – Lukashenko likely felt that he could not afford not to “win” the presidential election with around 80 percent of the vote.

Putin is not facing another presidential election until 2024, and perhaps even then he is not going to run. Russia, however will be holding direct gubernatorial elections in 18 regions on 13 September and a parliamentary election next year. In recent weeks officials were busy to ensure that strong opposition candidates are not on the ballot and that there is ample room for rigging, if needed – e.g. by stretching out the vote over three days and restricting the rights of observers – to prevent surprise electoral upsets driven by a protest vote, similar to ones that happened in 2018. One of those elections, in Khabarovsk, ultimately led to the protests now drawing inspiration from Belarus.

In VTsIOM’s survey – on Belarus – only 6 percent of respondents thought that the protests could result in an ouster of the incumbent. If you were Vladimir Putin you would be interested to keep it that way. And this may very well affect the perception of Putin and his security services of just how far it is worth going in Belarus.

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