Now in its fifth week, the standoff between the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the opposition has taken on a new dimension.
On September 9, opposition Coordination Council leader Maxim Znak was arrested by Belarussian authorities, preceded by fellow member Maria Kolesnikova. A day earlier, she was detained at a Ukrainian border crossing after ripping up her passport and thereby preventing her expulsion into Ukraine.
These detentions leave one remaining opposition figure, Svetlana Alexievich, still active inside Belarus. In what appears to be a politically motivated strategy of leadership decapitation, all other council members have fled the country, been exiled, or detained.
These developments follow the hotly contested results of the August 9 presidential election, where incumbent Lukashenko is widely seen as having rigged the election in his favor.
Putin’s Geopolitical Chessboard
Lukashenko, a puppet of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader for 26 years, has blamed post-election discord on Western intervention but has failed to back this up with concrete evidence.
He recently welcomed a proposed deployment of Russian military police to maintain order, as mass demonstrations in the capital and other urban centers persist.
Keeping in line with his manipulative rhetoric and disdain for civil disobedience, Putin claimed the military police force “would not be used unless the situation becomes uncontrollable, when extremist elements – I would like to say this once again – when the extremist elements, using political slogans as a cover, overstep the mark and start plundering the country, burning vehicles, houses, banks, trying to seize administration buildings, and so on.”
Ironically enough, widespread reports of state-perpetrated violence, incarceration, and torture against protestors have surfaced in recent weeks, arguably as Lukashenko grows impatient with the opposition’s resolve.
Clearly, the Kremlin and Lukashenko agree that the demonstrations’ magnitude and scope are undermining the latter’s legitimacy. As a result, Russian intervention to maintain the status quo is becoming more likely.
Putin views Belarus not only as a bulwark between Russia and NATO members, but also a former Soviet territory whose historical ties with Russia warrant reunification. As such, Belarus is a non-negotiable piece on Putin’s geopolitical chessboard.
Anti-Russian Sentiments in Belarus
Unlike previous Russian foreign interventions where portions of Ukraine and Georgia were annexed to “liberate” oppressed ethnic Russians, the current Belarusian protests are the culmination of a homegrown, grassroots movement promoting national unity and autonomy from Russia.
This distinction puts Putin’s revanchist tendencies in a bind since Belarusians view themselves as ethnically distinct from Russia. Foreign interference in the Belarusian political establishment would likely be met with extreme skepticism and inflame anti-Russian sentiment.
Indeed, Moscow should think twice before undertaking another reunification crusade, as its previous “hybrid warfare” modus operandi in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have been exposed and will not pass the legitimacy litmus test in Belarus.
To compound matters, Moscow is already under the microscope after anti-Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny fell ill from an apparent poisoning on August 20. After being flown to Germany for treatment, doctors concluded a Soviet-manufactured nerve agent, Novichok, was the source of his ailment.
Unsurprisingly, Novichok was used in a March 2018 attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom. Against this backdrop, European leaders have not ruled out sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would be a major blow to Russia’s energy-export driven economy.
Putin’s Next Steps
Regardless of whether Putin was aware of or even orchestrated Kolesnikova’s detention, he has Lukashenko on a short leash and holds considerable influence over events in Belarus. Failure to secure her release only adds to the growing international perception that the Belarusian election was a Moscow-backed sham.
Recent military interventions in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine have underscored Russia’s recent foreign policy indecisiveness. These campaigns have become stalemated quagmires of mission creep, and coupled with the recent Sputnik V vaccine charade and Putin’s viral marketing of faux-game changing hypersonic missiles, many doubt the authenticity of Russia’s foreign agendas.
A flagging economy, diplomatic isolation with the West, and NATO encroachment on its Western flank have left Moscow vulnerable. It can ill-afford isolation and sanctions that previous political and diplomatic recalcitrance has yielded.
More than ever, Putin needs to be on his best behavior to secure a political victory on the international stage. The Kremlin would be wise to secure the releases of Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak, arrange for a recount of Belarus’ presidential election ballots, and push for the prosecution of human rights abuses against Belarusian demonstrators.
The West would likely view this as a peace offering and respond in kind.
As for the Navalny poisoning, Putin could easily pin the blame on rogue intelligence elements a la the Saudi handling of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. After all, the world is not a perfect place, and the Russian Federation is certainly no exception to this rule.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.