Belarus – Russia’s A-level strategic puzzle

Russia is already engaged in several military theaters, and would rather avoid the direct military involvement in Belarus. Except in the state when Russian troops won’t be perceived as the “occupying forces” by Belarusian people.

Protestors in central Minsk on Sunday, August 16, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Over a week, Belarusians protest against the rigged elections, resulting in the victory of incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The parallel independent exit-polls announced results pointing at Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s decisive victory. The protests that erupted have been brutally repressed and pacified by the Belarusian police force that, in part, led to the changing nature of demonstrations. Lukashenka‘s absence of will to ensure honest elections and transfer of power has already limited his political room for maneuver. The growing concern over the situation in Belarus and hints on possible implications of the Russian Federation under the Union State or the CSTO framework may only deteriorate an already fragile geopolitical situation in the region and impact the sovereignty of Belarus.

During the presidential campaign, an increased civil society activity and general electoral mobilization was observed. Voters gathered signatures for their candidates and held protests when the Central Electoral Commission didn’t register their candidates. The practice of not registering stronger political rivals has been observed during previous electoral campaigns in Belarus.

Belarus practices an early vote that allows people to cast their ballots a few days earlier than the election day. A highly criticized practice that is allowing for electoral interference and manipulation, potentially leading to electoral fraud. This year the early vote took place on August 4-8 with the final election day taking place on August 9 with the final turnout at 84,27% of registered voters.

The electoral swings

Only five candidates, including the current president, were allowed by the Central Electoral Commission to participate. At the same time, two other Lukashenka’s rivals, Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsepkalo, were not registered and thus denied the opportunity to candidate. According to several opinion polls carried out, he was considered a plausible opposition candidate with significant chances to win the election.

The hallmark of this election is the anti-Lukashenka vote rather than the vote for the particular candidate. In the absence of a strong opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became the symbol of an anti-Lukashenka vote with almost no promises except for organizing open and free elections if elected.

The official and final results announced on August 14 by the Central Electoral Commission showed Lukashenka’s victory with 80,1% while giving Tsikhanouskaya only 10.1% of votes. The official exit-poll published on August 9 provided a similar result, with 79,7% of votes for Lukashenka and only 6,8% for Tsikhanouskaya.

On the contrary, the unofficial and independent exit-polls have shown a drastically different results hinting on Tsikhanouskaya’s victory, having 72,1% of votes leaving Lukashenka way behind with only 13,7%. Such drastic disparity and several electoral fraud reports on August 9 have sparked the mass protests on the same evening.

Russia’s bidding horse

Russia-hostile rhetoric was the distinctive feature of the electoral campaign, always hinting on dangers and threats coming from Moscow. However, after the election day, Lukashenka drastically re-addressed what he says to be the looming dangers from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and the West in general.

Thus, Lukashenka immediately jump back to his old patron Vladimir Putin calling two times over the weekend (August 15-16), seeking the political reaffirmation for Moscow’s backing. For instance, the Sunday’s telephone call readout contains remarks about “external pressure » and the reassurance for Russia’s readiness to “provide the necessary assistance for resolving challenges Belarus is facing based on the principles of the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State, as well as through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation”. Lukashenka is trying to cluster his domestic issue with the “external threat” derived from the West.

Consequently, Belarus military drills announced nearby to borders of Poland and Lithuania, involving artillery, rocket units, and paratroopers. The former one in coincidence with the planned Russian military exercises in the Kaliningrad region – an exclave bordering Poland and Lithuania, adding-up an additional tension in the area.

Belarus is a long-standing Russia’s ally and, arguably, the closest country to Russia bounded by tight political, economic, cultural, and military ties. Belarus is not only a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but also forms the Union State with Russia and being an integral part of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). However, the former doesnt guarantee Moscows unconditional support of Lukashenka’s regime nor a military option.

After the violent crack-down on the peaceful protests and ruling the country for more than two decades, Lukashenka has found himself in a position where Belarusians are no longer ready to forgive nor accept him to stay in power. Moreover, Maria Kolesnikova, on rally held on August 16, voiced the primary demand for the resignation of Lukashenka. This makes  a scenario of Lukashenka retaining his seat nearly impossible, even if expressing readiness to share state power with the opposition. In a nutshell, Russian excessive backing of Lukashenka may turn Belarusian people against Russia, while (almost 90% of Belarusians support allied partnership with Moscow).

Furthermore, despite bilateral issues and the lack of progress caused by Minsk in the framework of the Union State integration process, Lukashenka remained (till recently) the most reliable partner. However, Kremlin high perception of him starts to fade away, especially after the plummeting domestic popularity. Belarus’ heavy economic dependence on Russia

and the deep integration level in the Russia-led geopolitical projects entrench Minsk on the Russian orbit, thus making the drastic pro-Western move of the opposition quite unlikely. This may stimulate Moscow to support Tsikhanouskaya over unpopular Lukashenka or to attempt to play a constructive, mediator-like role.

Russia is already engaged in several military theaters, and would rather avoid the direct military involvement in Belarus. Except in the state when Russian troops won’t be perceived as the “occupying forces” by the Belarusian people. The possible Russian military involvement could be wrapped under the framework of the Union State and the CSTO agreements with the solid case of a direct threat coming from the West, which is not the case. Thus, it is challenging to expect Russia to make noticeable and direct military moves in Belarus.

Most likely, Kremlin will likely remain actively engaged with Belarus’ issues on the international arena. It is already noticeable, since Vladimir Putin has phone conversations with the EU leaders discussing the situation in Belarus, while the international community stay far from recognition of the legitimacy of elections.

Finally, it is evident that Lukashenka has already lost power, and all parties should be focusing on arranging a peaceful power transition.

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Author

  • Denys is a political analyst specializing in defense & security issues and covers the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) as well as Russia. He also follows closely the developments in France. His articles have been published in different languages by the German magazine European Security & Defense, the Middle East Eye or the Ukrainian website Evropeyska Pravda. He holds M.A. in International Relations from the Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas.

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