By Mark Galeotti*
From Moscow’s point of view, the only option worse than intervening in Belarus would be ‘losing’ it to the West. From beleaguered dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s perspective, that may be the only thing that saves him from his own people – but he may find a grudging Kremlin intervening to protect his regime, but not its leader.
After all, Vladimir Putin is no fan. For years, Lukashenko played Russia off against the West, getting Moscow to subsidise the imported energy on which Belarus depends, floating the prospect of a turn towards Europe to get the EU partially to lift sanctions imposed after a previous post-election crackdown.
Before the latest presidential election on August 9, Lukashenko accused Moscow of trying to meddle in Belarusian politics, even arresting 33 Russian mercenaries on their way to some African warzone and claiming they were the start of a campaign of destabilisation.
Now, Lukashenko is alleging NATO forces are massing on his borders and the opposition is being directed from Poland, the UK and the Czech Republic. His propagandists are claiming – against all the evidence – that the crowds are chanting anti-Russian slogans and waving EU flags. He clearly is making his bid for Moscow’s backing.
No enthusiasm for intervention
Although Putin issued a pro-forma reassurance that Russia would observe its obligations to support Belarus against external aggression, the official line is still that what is happening in Belarus is a domestic affair. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said there was “no present need” for any intervention.
After all, so far the opposition in Belarus has been scrupulous not to make this about anything more than toppling Lukashenko and holding new, fair elections. It is not just that Belarus is linked with Russia in a ‘Union State’ that is admittedly little more a customs union with delusions of grandeur. It is also that Russians and Belarusians genuinely share a great deal of common heritage and mutual appreciation. Furthermore, the economy of Belarus is overwhelmingly oriented towards Russia, which takes more than a third of its exports and provides more than half its important.
In these circumstances, a calm and confident Russian leadership could view the departure of the self-important and self-interested Lukashenko with a degree of equanimity. Many of the opposition leaders already had Russian connections, such as Viktor Babariko, affiliated with the Russian gas corporation Gazprom, and the rest seem eager not to challenge Moscow.
The best model seems to be not Ukraine – where hostility to Russia and a desire to pivot towards the EU had been at the heart of the 2013-14 revolution – but Armenia. In 2018, a popular rising elevated reformist leader Nikol Pashinyan, at first to the Kremlin’s dismay. But as it became clear that he was willing to focus on democratisation at home, not changing his country’s traditional dependence on Moscow, the relationship soon warmed.
Of course, Belarus is not Armenia, but nonetheless the evidence is that Moscow is less interested in the form of government adopted in the countries it considers within its sphere of influence than their policies.
Besides which, Belarus is not Crimea, either. When the ‘little green men’ seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, they were taking land which near enough every Russian thought was rightfully theirs, with a local population largely happy to be annexed and in the face of demoralised and heavily suborned defenders. The Russian people have no particular interest in a conquest of Belarus. Indeed, at a time when the regions are increasingly restive, feeling that Moscow only pays attention to them when it is time for them to be taxed, becoming responsible for 9.5 million people with a GDP per capital half Russia’s is not at all appealing.
Furthermore, Belarus’s security forces are neither in disarray nor riddled with Russian agents and sympathisers. Lukashenko’s KGB – it was telling that it retained the name of the old Soviet secret police – is brutally competent, and while his military is used to training alongside their Russian counterparts, there is no reason to believe they would not defend their homeland.
A regrettable necessity?
The options for intervention thus seem unpalatable. Just sending riot police to bolster Lukashenko’s defenders would be unlikely to make a difference on the ground, and it would poison public attitudes towards Russia for generations to come. A full-scale invasion is possible – Belarus has just 45,000 soldiers, smaller than Russian’s neighbouring Western Military District alone – but would be bloody, expensive, condemned abroad and unpopular at home.
For all that, there are worrying signs that some in Putin’s circle might now feel it may be a regrettable necessity. At first, there was a striking lack of consensus in the media outlets and commentators who tend to signal the Kremlin’s line: they, like everyone else, had been caught off-guard by the speed and scale of the protest response. Increasingly, distaste for Lukashenko and his tactics began to appear in the coverage.
That remains, but there is now also a significant undercurrent of concern about the West – primarily the EU – taking advantage of the situation to gain influence over Belarus. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, while noting that the rigged Belarusian elections “were not ideal”, criticised what he called foreign attempts to interfere in the country, which he said were all “about geopolitics, a fight for the post-Soviet space”.
So far, it seems that Moscow is still willing to wait and see. If Lukashenko can hang on, he will be weakened, a pariah for the West, and thus all the more dependent on Russia. If he falls, the hope is that political pragmatism and economic realities will ensure than even a reformist new government will accept its place in Russia’s orbit.
However, if the decision is made to intervene, then the outcome may still not be to Lukashenko’s liking. The model might be the ill-starred Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979: forcibly removing an erratic and unpopular leader and installing a new one more to Moscow’s liking, followed by a show of force intended to deter any further resistance. One way or another, Lukashenko’s days may be numbered.
Of course, the Afghan operation didn’t exactly go as anticipated. The Soviets expected to be there no more than six months, leaving behind a cowed and stable country, but ended up spending 10 years fighting a brutal guerrilla war they were never able to win. Belarus is not Afghanistan, either, but the danger is again that Russian plans do not last contact with reality.
*Dr Mark Galeotti is an honorary professor at UCL SSEES and director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.