By Paul Goble
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has so far refused Moscow’s demand for the establishment of a Russian military base in Belarus, two senior Belarusian analysts say, noting that in addition to promises of aid, Moscow is currently preparing to destabilize its Western neighbor and even create the conditions for a Russian military intervention.
Arseniy Sivitsky, the director of the Belarusian Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research, and his colleague Yury Tsarik shared their concerns about the situation with Kseniya Kirillova of Novy Region-2 (nr2.com.ua/blogs/Ksenija_Kirillova/Belarus-gotovitsya-k-voyne-105311.html).
Sivitsky says that Moscow has been talking about having a base in Belarus since the end of 2013 as a response to the Ukrainian crisis with the view to using it to pressure Kyiv, on the one hand, and put NATO in a difficult position with regard to the defense of the Baltic countries, on the other.
Tsarik notes that “the Russian leadership has more than once confirmed verbally that it doesn’t intend to fight with NATO,” and consequently, Russia has to take into consideration several “political” results of the opening of such a base there.
First of all, he says, a Russian base in Belarus would cost Mensk of its status as a neutral negotiating space as far as Ukraine is concerned. That might work against Russia’s interests. But second, it would mean the loss by Kyiv of an important ally who guarantees the security of its northern border.
And third, even if it had not direct military consequences, Tsarik says, a Russian military base in Belarus would exacerbate tensions in Poland and the Baltic countries and could lead them to take additional steps and perhaps gain additional support from the West to defend against what they would certainly view as a new Russian threat.
But however that may be, Sivitsky says, Moscow is “exerting colossal pressure on the Belarusian leadership to secure Mensk’s agreement.” Some of this consists of carrots like the promise of additional financial aid if Belarus agrees. But there are also sticks, including likely moves by Russia to destabilize Belarus if Mensk refuses.
While some may think that Moscow would never choose a Ukrainian scenario to deal with a country that is its only real ally in the region, Tsarik points out that “as the Ukrainian crisis has shown, conflict is a useful means of controlling the international situation and maintaining control over territory.”
“If one examines the chronology of the last two years,” he continues, “we see processes of the normalization of relations of Belarus and the West as well as a process of the deep integration of Belarus in the Chinese project of the New Silk Road, independent of Mensk’s position on the Ukrainian crisis.”
Tsarik suggests that “all this is the natural response of Belarus to the economic collapse in Russia and the need to find new markets and new partners to ensure further development of its own economy.” And it is important to note that Belarus is doing this even as it does not oppose being part of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.”
But that is not how the Russian media perceive what is going on, Tsarik says. They view Lukashenka’s moves as “’a turn to the West’” and “’the betrayal of an ally.’” From that perspective, they see “the destabilization of Belarus and regime change in Mensk as a response to ‘Belarus’s departure for the West’” and thus “completely legitimate.”
Moreover, many in Moscow believe, Tsarik says, that in the event of regime change in Mensk, Moscow could control Belarus “totally” and for much less money than it has been spending up to now.
Sivitsky says that “unfortunately,” Moscow has many ways to destabilize the situation in Belarus. It has “colossal influence on the special services of Belarus,” so much so that people in Moscow say that Moscow not Mensk is running them. And the Russian government has significant influence on other parts of the government and on the information sector.
In addition, Tsarik says, “it is important to point out that from the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, the West has sharply reduced the financing of opposition and non-governmental structures in Belarus.” That has given Moscow an opening, and “a significant part of the opposition in Belarus, from the completely respectable to the extreme radicals is also under the influence of the Russian Federation.”
He adds that he and his colleagues have developed several scenarios Moscow might use. If Lukashenka agreed to a Russian base, “the so-called [Belarusian] nationalists under slogans of the impermissibility of the occupation of the country by foreign forces” could start demonstrations against the government.
“The word ‘nationalists’ must be put in quotes because a significant part of radical nationalists structures” in Belarus as in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries “acts in alliance with their Russian nationalist colleagues and not without the involvement of the Russian special services.”
If Lukashenka continues to refuse to give permission for a Russian military base, the more likely course of developments, Sinitsky says, then Moscow will pursue the destabilization of Belarus via two means. It will seek to delegitimize the Belarusian presidential elections; and it will prepare “radical elements for protests and attacks on government facilities.”
That would create “the illusion of ‘a Maidan’” and under the pretext of defending the constitutional order in Belarus, Moscow could introduce forces “’to restore order.’” In fact, the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty recently practiced doing exactly than in exercizes in Tajikistan.
Moscow has been preparing its own population for such actions by putting out the line at home that “the West intends to organize ‘a Maidan’ in Belarus and thus organize a coup with the help of ‘Belarusian nationalists who are raising their heads,’” Tsarik says. But of course, the West doesn’t want that but instead prefers stability and Belarusian neutrality.
According to Tsarik, official Mensk well understands this threat and is “actively preparing to block any without exception scenario for the destabilization of the situation in Belarus.”