Great analysis by Paul Goble of the situation between Russia and Belarus.
Monday, February 20, 2017
Staunton, February 20 – Moscow isn’t happy with Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s acts of independence, but as long as he does not cross its “red line” by breaking with the union state and other Russian-dominated institutions, it will not seek to oust him and even then will avoid an invasion but instead use its other levers in Belarus, according to Andrey Kazakevich.
Many are over-reading new polls showing mounting Russian hostility to Belarus as the groundwork for military intervention, the director of Minsk’s Political Sphere Institute says; but unless the Kremlin chooses to use them in that way, they don’t necessarily point in that direction (thinktanks.by/publication/2017/02/20/andrey-kazakevich-nuzhno-obraschat-vnimanie-ne-na-tsifry-vtsioma-a-na-ih-ispolzovanie-i-interpretatsiyu.html).
Kazakevich says that in his view, Russian pressure on Minsk “will continue and there will be efforts to get greater control over Belarus.” But “real interference” to achieve a change in leadership in Minsk is “still improbable,” because that “would be a risk action,” and Moscow has generally avoided such things since Crimea.
“Now, everything for the Russians is going more or less well and again to risk that in a situation in which it is difficult to predict the results is something Russia is hardly likely to do.” But Moscow has an obvious “red line” and if Lukashenka were to cross it, then Moscow would act to replace him, albeit almost certainly with non-military or hybrid means.
The Kremlin’s “red line” as far as Belarus is concerned would be violated, Kazakevich says, “if Belarus cast doubt on its union relations with Russia” by exiting from the Union state, from the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty and from Eurasian integration” or “if it systematically began to oppose Russia’s position in international structures or openly speak out against Russian foreign policy in international organizations like the UN.”
Belarus has not done any of these things, the Minsk analyst say. But if it did, “Russia would decide to change the situation.” It wouldn’t need to carry out a military operation or invasion. Moscow has many possible “means for de-stabilization,” including activation of ‘Russian World’ supporters and via its people in Minsk’s force structures and bureaucracy.
Kazakevich’s argument is convincing. Moscow wants to bring Lukashenka to heel as it has done in the past rather than risk triggering an even larger confrontation with the West that any military action would almost certainly lead to. And to that end, Russian media outlets will continue to stir the pot, engaging in falsifications whenever they feel the need.
One such example of that occurred yesterday when Russia Today rewrote a headline from the Washington Times to suggest that Moscow was getting ready to invade Belarus and impose its will in that way. The US paper ran a story under the headline “Menacing Russia, Cowering Belarus – Trouble in the Union State.”
But the Kremlin’s mouthpiece rewrote that to read “Minsk’s Disobedience is Forcing Putin to Defend Russian Belarusians” (russian.rt.com/inotv/2017-02-19/Washington-Times-nepovinovenie-Minska-vinuzhdaet). As the BelarusPartisan portal noted, the difference between the two is both enormous and obvious (belaruspartisan.org/politic/371494/).
More such “stories” are likely to appear, especially if Belarus remains riled with demonstrations against Lukashenka’s ill-advised anti-vagrancy law that will require those without jobs to pay taxes at the risk of punishment. If that policy isn’t changed, the protests of the last weekend will only grow.
One Belarusian analyst, Konstantin Skuratovich, argues that the best thing Lukashenka could do would be to simply allow his order to remain unenforced. If that happened quickly, he suggests, many now in the streets might return to their homes and Lukashenka might once again escape a political disaster (nmnby.eu/news/analytics/6271.html).
The open question, of course, is whether the ego of the Belarusian dictator will allow him to do that; but fears that the likelihood of a Russian hybrid intervention against him will only increase if the protests continue may be enough to force his hand.