For my late friend, Jeff Knopf, may your soul sail over the Island forever……
by Gordon M. Hahn
As previously thought, Aleksandr Lukashenko’s harsh rule in Belarus is likely finished (www.facebook.com/gordon.hahn1/posts/10223340676086689). A few scattered thoughts on the dynamics taking shape around the Belarus crisis; one that threatens both the ‘stability’ and peace of Europe, Eurasia, and the world.
- The situation is likely to deteriorate slowly over time.
- Aleksandr Lukashenko is an unsteady element, who is likely to become more desperate and trigger-happy the longer the protests persist. His overreactions will provoke greater resistance. In this way, Belarus 2020 is not necessarily Russia 2021 or 2024. Putin is a careful, balancing, soft authoritarian. Where Putin nudges and prods with incentives and disincentives, Lukashenko shoves and batters to intimidate.
- The regime thus far has split only on the edges, with the state bureaucracy and security forces still remaining loyal. However, Lukashenko’s popular support base is slowly disintegrating, as the protests by factory workers and others indicate. Over time, regime unity is also likely to deteriorate.
- Lukashenko is using a ‘besIeged fortress’ strategy now to reinforce his support base in state and society, warning of possible intervention by NATO forces. His defense minister has raised the specter of a NATO ‘humanitarian intervention’ model in order to conduct an air campaign against Minsk as Washington and Brussels did in Serbia (www.rbc.ru/politics/23/08/2020/5f41b8479a79471b497ceef8?from=from_main_3&fbclid=IwAR2bppfrQ3XQEkXuakn6zh5xlszi6xTV4QH9EAFKy06XD0KYChEzo-mmkpE). The Serbian campaign, NATO expansion, and color revolution policies have had a profound effect on the politics of several pro-Russian Slavic and post-Soviet states in addition to those of Russia herself. The threat of NATO expansion and humanitarian interventions can be something in which some politicians and opinion makers sincerely believe and/or a bogey man deployed to create a rally around the flag effect and to discredit domestic opposition.
- The risk of violence on the part of the opposition, which would likely spark a ruthless and bloody crackdown far greater than that which we have seen hItherto, grows the longer the protests continue. Some leaders will become frustrated with peaceful demonstrations, and Belarusian nationalists – while fewer in proportion than in Ukraine or Russia — will be increasingly inclined to turn to violence. In this case, the Maidan example is unfortunately germanE.
- Putin is cautious in general. In this crisis he will be exceedingly so. At this point, he appears to be hedging his bets, making no threatening sounds towards the West and maintaining some separation from Lukashenko’s listing ship.
- The Kremlin will not intervene militarily in any way – hybrid or otherwise – unless absolutely necessary. Absolute necessity could consist of a Belarus civil war, significant numbers of Russians, especially radical nationalists, crossing the border to fight on behalf of Lukashenko’s forces, more robust political or financial support or any intelligence or military action on the part of the West (in particular, NATO, Poland, Ukraine, and/or Lithuania) in support of the opposition and/or any rebels, or major pressure from traditionalist and hardline elements inside and outside the state, depending on the structure of domestic political strategic action at the time such pressure or any of the other mentioned factors emerge. However, Putin intervened in Ukraine not only because of Western provocation but also because an overwhelming majority of Crimeans supported integration back to Russia and a majority of Donbassians opposed the new Maidan regime, with a plurality likely supporting reintegration with Russia.
- Otherwise, Putin will want to wait until the regime change plays out.
- In the event, there is no major Western meddling uncovered and Lukashenko falls, Moscow will pressure any provisional government to hold new elections in which the likely winner could be long-time GazProm associate at Belarus Gazprom Bank and presidential hopeful, Viktor Babariko, jailed by Lukashenko before the elections. Babariko has no axe to grind with Moscow and would likely agree to keep Belarus in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), led by Russia, and even the Eurasian Economic Union, also led by Russia. At a minimum, Babariko would support Belarus’s military neutrality and rejection of NATO membership. The risk in this strategy is that a majority of the current demonstration movement could fall in line behind Svyatlana Tikhanovskaya, who has claimed she won the August 9th presidential contest.
- It would behoove Moscow to engage the West – Germany’s Angel Merkel has reached out to Putin – and work with it to help Minsk manage the transition by agreeing not to take steps that would polarize domestic groups.
- Kremlin hints at possible Russian intervention and NATO commentary or military exertions in Poland and/or Lithuania must be avoided.
- A Western-leaning Belarus abandoning Moscow’s orbit would be a significant blow to Putin’s stature, coming in the wake of the ‘loss’ of Ukraine. In the mid- to long-term this could affect the loyalty of some sectors within the state apparatus, including the siloviki and ideological hardliners. Moscow understands that for the foreseeable future, NATO membership for Belarus is not an immediate danger for Moscow. Minsk is a CSTO member, and Belarusians support good relations with Russia. However, with Lukashenko gone, the Russia-Belarus Union is likely dead, and this poses potential problems for the EEU. Over time, Minsk could decide to leave the EEU and seek European Union membership. This could eventually lead to NATO membership. Depending on the nature of the regime in Russia and the state of Russo-Western relations when that happens, another crisis could loom over Belarus.
- The West must make persistent efforts to reach out to Lukashenko and Putin to pursue ways of providing Lukashenko with an extrication path from the crisis or power itself. A first step would be to offer him a promise of safe passage from Belarus and safety in Russia or some other willing host state in return for steps taken by Lukashenko to ratchet down tensions.
- The interested great powers must take measures to convince Lukashenko to radically moderate his rhetoric and policy in relation to the nascent revolution from below. One way would be to take up his statement that he is preparing constitutional changes and after their implementation (and possibly some sort of referendum) he would leave power.
- Western powers must pressure Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy to keep his security services and ultranationslists in line. The apparently SBU ‘Wagner’ operation nearly succeeded in ‘turning’ Lukashenko from Moscow. Similar efforts by these Ukrainian actors could be designed to create an even greater crisis: one between the West and Belarus/Russia. Moreover, only Zelenskiy’s delay of the operation, leading to its collapse, and Ukrainian journalists’ uncovering of the plot’s true genesis and essence, shows Moscow and Minsk just how close they came to divorce, underscoring the consequences of a potential overthrow of the Lukashenko regime for both.
- Unfortunately, Western-Russian cooperation is severely hampered by several factors. First, Moscow distrusts the West in any mediating role most notably because of its negative, indeed, treacherous role in the February 2014 Maidan Ukrainian crisis and its aftermath, when the Obama administration and other Western states, most notably Poland, betrayed Moscow’s support for Viktor Yanukovych’s extrication from the nascent Maidan revolution by ignoring the opposition’s violation of the 20 February agreement and supporting the violent seizure of power orchestrated by the Maidan’s ultranationalist wing. Any Western attempt to reform its ways and seek a true settlement this time around will likely be impossible without the active participation of Washington and a recognition by it in the process that the West’s actions surrounding Maidan – including funding many of the groups that led the revolt, openly supporting further protests by sending officials on to the Maidan to declare their support and in other ways, the betrayal of the February agreement, and the ongoing perpetration to this day of the lie that it was Yanukovych’s security forces and not the Maidan’s neofascist elments that undertook the snipers’ massacre of 20 February 2014. US President Donald J. Trump likely lacks the knowledge and political capital and perhaps courage to risk his already challenged re-election by stepping into this morass, especially as any attempt to cooperate with the Kremlin will be used by the Russiagate hawkers to label Trump with ‘weakness’, ‘collusion’, ‘treason’, and impeachable behavior.
FUTURE TRENDS ?
‘Expert’ consensus is that Belarus ‘is not like Ukraine’—that there is little or no ethnic Belarusian nationalist sentiment driving the Belarus opposition. This is largely true now but is likely to change over time, possibly with the Belarusian/Russian identity and in particular the more potentially divisive Catholic/Orthodox cleavage contributing to an overall pro-Western/pro-Russian cleavage. Although ethnic Belorusians make up some 85 percent of the country’s population, with Russians comprising 8 percent and Poles 3 percent, the religious composition is evenly balanced and potentially more destabilizing. Some 48 percent of Belarusians are Orthodox. Some 41 percent are Catholics. Districts in western Belarus’s region of Grodno bordering Poland are majority Polish and Catholic. An inkling of things possibly to come could be seen when Belarus Catholic archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusevich’s call for the regime to conduct a dialogue with the opposition and cease the violence against demonstrators and his prayer at the place where several demonstrators were brutally beaten. Lukashenko responded with a cancellation of Catholic Sunday masses on Belarusian television (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2697233-echo.html). Kondrusevich has received two honorary doctorate degrees from American universities and several Polish awards. He has also held several Catholic Church positions in Russia.
The country is similarly split evenly on whether Belarus should continue as a member of the Russia-Belarus Union or move towards EU membership. Support for the former has been in steep decline since September 2018, and as of December 2019, 40 percent of Belarusians supported the former (down from 63 percent), with 32 percent supporting the latter (up from 20 percent). When additional options are included (such as friendly relations with Russia instead of the Union state), support for remaining in the Union state drops to 13 percent [https://belsat.eu/en/news/public-opinion-poll-support-for-integration-with-russia-plummeting-in-belarus/]. The history of Catholic-Orthodox, Polish-Russian tensions in eastern Europe/western Eurasia is long and in the more distant past was often bloody. Catholic crusades into the region and Orthodox resistance were pronounced and violent. The Polish organized invasions of the False Dmitrii into Russia in the early 17th century led to Russia’s ‘Smuta’ or Times of Troubles and several additional Polish invasions until the Russian partisan army was sparked by missives from Russia’s Orthodox Church patriarch Germogen (Hermogens). Any Polish separatist activity in Grodno could be the match that lights the fuse of a new smuta in the region.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.