By Paul Goble
As relations between Moscow and Minsk deteriorate, the Russian government has moved units of Vladimir Putin’s pseudo-Cossacks into the restricted zone on the Russian side of the Russian-Belarusian border, according to reports from the region that have been summarized by Mikhail Ilin.
The Belsat journalist offers not only the comments of Belarusians living in the neighborhood who are unhappy about the appearance of these “Cossacks” but also a video that appears to show “Cossack” units on the other side of the border as well (belsat.eu/ru/programs/rossijskie-kazaki-sobirayutsya-ohranyat-granitsu-rossii-s-belarusyu/).
According to Ilin, a Russian official says that such “voluntary patrols” were begun during the last several weeks, when tensions between the two countries rose and are at least nominally about blocking any contraband or those who have been given Belarusian but not Russian visas from entering the Russian Federation.
Sergey Russkikh of the Khislovich district in Russia says that these popular militia “will work with the border service but that this is a structure of the FSB. They will check” to ensure that Russian laws are enforced. But some Belarusians see a more sinister role for such groups and do not welcome their appearance in the border region.
In the best case, this is a Russian effort to put more pressure on Alyaksandr Lukashenka to accept Russian conditions including agrement for Moscow’s proposed plenipotentiary-ambassador and possibly a new military base. In the worst, of course, this could be the advance guard of something like “the little green men” behind the invasion of Crimea.
The border between Russia and Belarus, two member countries of the union state, has a complicated history. Between 1995 when Minsk and Moscow signed a friendship accord and February 2017, there was no border zone at all. Then, the FSB restored it after Belarus allowed many foreigners to come for five days without getting a visa.