The Geopolitical Risk of Russian Assistance in Lukashenko’s Cling to Power: Belarus in Putin’s hands?

Tom Baker is a Masters student reading Russian and Eurasian Politics and Economics. His academic interests range from energy security in Post-Soviet Eurasia to transnational crime in Central Asia and ethnic/cultural dimensions in Russia.

Introduction:

During the last six months, mass protests have taken place all over Minsk in opposition to the rule of long-term leader and friend of the Kremlin, Alexander Lukashenko. The 66-year old authoritarian’s poor economic record, mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread political repression campaigns have mobilised thousands of citizens onto the streets, with scores of arrests following. Exact figures are hazy, with some outlets reporting the number to as high as between 200,000 and 400,000. In July, Lukashenko embarked on his sixth Presidential election, facing unexpected opposition from political novice, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Married to jailed oppositional figure, Sergei Tikhanovsky, the former housewife announced her candidacy only after the imprisonment of her husband. The protests did not fully erupt until Lukashenko claimed an overwhelming victory with 80% of the vote, while Tikhanovskaya claimed victory with 60% of the vote in an election which has been almost universally condemned as fraudulent. Recognised as President-elect of Belarus by the majority of European states, she now fulfils parts of her role despite Lukashenko refusing to step down. She attends diplomatic summits and meetings, lobbying for European support against her rival, mostly in the form of increased sanctions, from forced exile in Vilnius. At the same time, her team are meticulously evading the security services still loyal to Lukashenko.

Commentators wasted no time in framing Russia as the key external player with the power to tip the balance in Belarus. Pundits argue that Russia’s potential involvement is destined to have a turbulent impact on already strained EU-Russian relations. Putin has made it clear that Russia is prepared to mobilise a law enforcement contingent to assist with restoring order, if a redline is crossed, and an enhanced level of danger presents itself. This level of involvement does not constitute an overt intervention, as such a move would not ignite geopolitical upheaval- nor would NATO         view such an act as a major shift in the security environment. Concerns of a more substantial and overt intervention are centred around issues similar to those in Ukraine, such as annexation or military boots on the ground in some form. With strong economic ties in the Eurasian Economic Union, in addition to the intermittently strained, but deep-rooted friendship between the two regimes, it is clear that Russia has high levels of influence on the small nation. This is personified by Putin’s commitment to set aside $1.5 billion dollars to assist in the Belarussian economic recovery in the face of COVID-19.

Assessing the risks of Russian intervention

The EU is widely perceived as a weak and indecisive international actor. Belarus is sure to ask fundamental questions of the EU’s foreign policy position and future role in the region. After a rejection of Lukashenko’s victory announcement and subsequent increase in sanctions against the regime, the EU is perhaps showing more teeth than in previous conflicts in the region, but is aware of the ever-present risk of even further geopolitical conflict with Russia- the regional hegemon and ‘guarantor of security’. On the face of it, a regional dictator losing power due to popular protest is an existential concern for Putin. Georgia’s 2003 Rose revolution, Ukraine’s 2014 revolution and, looking further back, Moldovan and Georgian uprisings in the 1980s and 1990s were met with Russian intervention. History has taught us that Russia is not afraid to prevent colour revolutions near its borders. But what are the similarities between Russian interests in these historic conflicts and the Minsk uprisings, and what are the geopolitical costs that could arise from Russian intervention in the near future?

With international trust at a post-Cold War low, NATO war gaming in the Baltic region, the poisoning of Alexei Navalney, Russian disinformation campaigns and the recent memory of the Ukraine annexation, geopolitical tensions are at melting point across Eurasia. The geopolitical fallout would be intense, but thankfully, it is highly unlikely that Russia will erode relations further with an overt intervention in Belarus. There are three explanations reasons for this:

  1. Russia does not perceive Lukashenko to be a pivotal ally.

Despite pleas of ‘a friend in danger’ from the Belarusian regime to Putin, relations between the two leaders have not always been cordial. A series of oil wars between the two nations in 2016 and 2017 resulted in a reduction in Russian oil supply to Belarus, and increased Belarusian frustration in regard to their weak position in the energy market and lack of alternative suppliers. Rapport was seriously damaged, resulting in Russian media attacking the nation for its ‘turn to the west’ and ‘soft Belarusianisation.’ Furthermore, the recent arrest of 30 alleged Russian mercenaries accused of executing hybrid operations against Belarus further inflamed historic tensions. To an ally of such little significance, Russia can perceive regime instability as a domestic matter, as it bears little existential risk to the Kremlin, nor the federation. However, with a small Russian police reserve on standby to be mobilised, it is clear that this crisis is not over yet. A review of events in the next months will be crucial to re-assess the situation on the ground.

2. Lack of anti-Russian sentiments in the protests.

The pivotal difference between the Belarussian uprising and similar colour revolutions of the former Warsaw Pact is the lack of pro-EU and anti-Russian sentiments visible in Minsk. In a nutshell, Russia’s interests are not directly threatened. The Belarusian revolution is not a geopolitical contest between popular support of the EU/NATO and further Russian alignment. The protestors on the ground are simply anti-Lukashenko, not anti-Russian. Belarussians protestors and opposition leaders are clearly signalling that all foreign actors should not interfere in their path to democracy. The absence of EU flags in Minsk, juxtaposed with the situation in the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests demonstrates this fact. Belarusian popular will emphasises self-rule and an ambition to find their own path to fairer governance. Russia is not embattled in a geopolitical rivalry, so the situation cannot therefore be compared to the regional risks posed by potential Ukrainian accession into NATO or increased Ukrainian alignment with the west in any form.

3. Costs are too high

Even if Putin perceived developments in Lukashenko’s cling to power to require an overt military response, the costs that Russia would incur would simply be too high – irrespective of the outcome. The annexation of Crimea has proven to be Putin’s biggest geopolitical mistake with devastating implications. Another case of poor geopolitical judgement would prove a step too far. Oil booms managed to insulate Russia from a large number of EU sanctions after Crimea. Yet, EU limiting the ability of Russian state banks and corporations to access capital, scaring off foreign investors and forcing a fiscal tightness from the central bank are having a significant effect. In the event of substantial Russian intervention in Belarus. the EU would likely double down on such measures with even higher costs to an economy in retreat in the face of COVID-19. Moreover, after the Crimea annexation, the Baltic states were placed on high alert, and increased their military capabilities dramatically. Between 2018 and 2014, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia tripled their annual spending on arms to $670 million over fears of Russian incursions These developments have weakened Russia’s position, and are a sign of potential things to come if the same mistakes are made in Belarus.

Most importantly, the highest cost of a boots-on-the-ground intervention Belarus would be political. The international community would witness the dawn of a new era of previously unimaginable lows in relations between Russia and the rest of the World. Putin’s universal lack of credibility with world leaders in Europe but also in China cannot take another large hit. Already, the shadow of Crimea has weakened his position in building alliances with Chinese and other Asian partners. European diplomats have stopped believing in the pillow talk offered by their Russian counterparts, and dialogue with the US is more limited than at any other time in recent memory.

Conclusion

A large-scale Russia intervention in Belarus to prop up Lukashenko is an unlikely scenario. The political, military and economic costs are simply too high for a Russia struggling to find some kind of credibility in the international system. For now at least, the lack of an anti-Russia and pro-West dimension in the protest movement is driving Russian reluctance to intervene. The situation on the ground is developing quickly, and it remains to be seen how the famously lumbering EU will react to further developments. Russia must attempt to claw back some kind of international respect, and should seek time out of the international spotlight. Any geopolitical turbulence in their traditional sphere of influence directly threatens that goal and would usher in a new extreme of geopolitical tensions in Europe.

Risk-O-Meter:

What is the probability that the risk will materialise? 1/3

Despite an ever-changing landscape, it is unlikely that Russia will step in and implement a military resolution due to heightened political costs.

What is the predicted size of impact? 2/3

An overt Russian military presence in Belarus would be a game changer in the region. However, the location of Belarus is firmly within the Russian ‘sphere of influence’, and shockwaves could be contained more effectively than in the event of Russian military intervention in western-leaning nations such as Lithuania.

What is the expected speed of onset? 2/3

The situation is rapidly evolving, and Russian forces could be mobilised quickly. However, a more measured approach to planning seems rational and likely light of failings of the Crimean campaign.

Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? 2/3

An EU-Russia standoff is unlikely to draw the US or China into the conflict. In order to counter Russian incursions too close to home, the EU will almost certainly be forced to take action-most likely in the form of economic sanctions.

What is the probability of spill-over?  2/3

Regional actors such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic states will be forced to reconsider their position and national security in light of potential spread of the conflict, especially in the event of heightened violence and the attitudes of Russian diasporas in their populations.

Risk-O-Meter Score: 9/15 (Notable to medium risk)

Featured Image: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-14/belarus-president-lukashenko-seeks-backing-from-russia-putin/12663120

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