A number of people have asked my opinion on the Belarus situation, therefore I decided to share my view. My findings are based on open sources, including discussions with people who have spent some time in Belarus, mostly in a professional capacity. Therefore, this paper should not be taken as an analysis, yet it is more than a speculation; I recommend to view it as a hypothesis.
First of all, I believe that the situation in Belarus is a brilliantly conducted influence operation by the Strategic Competitor. The famous Donald Rumsfeld dictum of “unknown unknowns” brings to mind the three other categories: the known unknowns, unknown knowns and known knowns. The Western societies knew it was coming [undemocratic elections] but did not see the effects of the elections coming (known unknown). The Kremlin, on other hand, was not only aware of the elections but was well prepared to achieving their own objectives (known knowns).
For the sake of minimalism, the following elaboration is conducted in the context of the strategic trinity – ends, ways and means. The immediate objective of the SC was likely to transform the current head of state from an annoying partner into an obedient servant. The long-term objective is to cement the status of Belarus (Byelorussia) as a permanent satellite of Russia without insulting the identity of the Belarus people. The latter is one of the lessons learnt from the Ukraine conflict where the national sentiment was underestimated.
The means include, but are not limited to: the sitting president, more precisely his hunger for power, a displeased population, strategic communication, economic aid, fake opposition spokespersons with affiliation to Russian power circles, and the agreements of the Commonwealth of Independent States and those of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
The influence operation is likely conducted in four phases: 1) create unrest after the elections in order to corner the sitting president and limit his options; 2) legitimise election results by supporting the regime and enforcing official results. The regime with its power tools and loyal forces will supress sporadic demonstrations. 3) Strengthen the Union of two “sovereign” states, reform the Belarus Constitution, draft a common foreign and defence policy. Prepare for agreed power change in return for a safe and prosperous retirement for the sitting president. It is likely that the potential new leader is already incubating somewhere. In that phase, he will appear in a prominent state function prior to stepping in as president. 4) Power change and implementation of the Union State agreement.
Modus Operandi. After elections, the dissatisfaction of people was unleashed, massive opposition-led meetings and demonstrations occurred. The spontaneous actions may have dynamics on their own, yet in this case, the Strategic Competitor strategists took calculated and minimal risks, since the opposition is fragmented and many of their spokespersons have some sort of affiliation to the Kremlin power circle. The message to the regime is simple – you are vulnerable unless we support your call. But in order to gain support you are to yield to our interests. One can literally see the change of rhetoric of the sitting president. During the pre-election period, his emphasis was on the sovereignty of the country, i.e. maintaining his personal absolute power. He also expressed readiness to co-operate with Russia and the EU on equal terms. Like many times before he tried to place his personal power in the best bargaining position to have room for manipulations. The first phase of the above-mentioned operation stripped him of this freedom of manoeuvring. His rhetoric today is about Russia and Byelorussia being kin, sharing the same history, values, culture and interests. Both countries are threatened by external influence mainly from NATO and the EU; both countries are under hybrid attack. So, one can see that phase one SC objectives are met, he [sitting president] has accepted the position of the obedient servant.
One can argue that sporadic demonstrations are hard to deal with. Generally, it may be so, yet each case is different. The magnitude of the demonstrations might have surprised the FSB. They, and no one else, were unable to foresee the COVID effects. The Belarus case in particular, the extremely poor handling of the situation by Lukashenka, possibly amplified the reaction of society. Yet, Kremlin adapted swiftly and they do control the circumstances. In Belarus, the problem is that people know what they do not want; on the other hand, they do not know what they want. The Belarus society is familiar with the Russian cultural space, the EU values and norms are vaguely known, often alien to them. The demonstrations are against something but not for something. Russia’s influence operation is focused on the narrative of sovereignty, regime legitimacy and non-interference in Byelorussian internal affairs. The opposition is deliberately and methodically fragmented, in fact under the Kremlin control, so it does not pose any real threat for evolving into an organised movement. A number of the opposition figures are subject to narratives and guidance provided by the SC. Semi-independent opposition leaders, such as Tikhanovskaya, are used to emphasise the narrative of violation of sovereignty. She is pictured in the Belarusian as well as in Russian media and official statements as the agent of foreign powers to usurp the president and overthrow the legitimate government.
In the second, ongoing phase, the sitting president utilises a combination of suppressive and violent tactics against the demonstrators. There is no evidence of loyalty of the personnel of the interior forces eroding. This situation may change in case the regime runs out of resources and are unable to pay. The intimidation of key leaders of trade unions by KGB agents using KGB methods has also created the desired effects – many have resigned, no calls for strikes are announced. However, the main leverage tool is not so much the violent nature of the oppression but going after the basic needs of the people, such as income, jobs, education. The Belarus economy is very different from that of free societies. The main employer in Belarus is the state; the private sector is literally non-existent. People are simply afraid to be made redundant, once you are out, it is very difficult to get another job. Conditionally, this can be labelled, as the “Refrigerator syndrome”: once it gets empty you will go hungry. So, it can be envisaged that eventually the demonstrations will cease. Yet the suppressed anger of the society remains and that, if not dealt with, may bring undesired effects, such as emergence of a real opposition leader.
Therefore, in the third phase, moderate reforms, introduced by a new public figure, will be implemented. Western markets remain protective; no business with dictatorship is feasible. Russia, despite its oligarchic nature has a large private sector that will offer business opportunities, co- operation, and loans and at the end of the day, hope for a better future. One should realise that for a hungry person to have two potatoes instead of one is a huge improvement. The positive narrative of two equal sovereign states is forged and fixed.
The signing of the amended Union State agreement, establishing a common foreign and defence policy marks the beginning of the fourth phase. The sitting president will be offered the option to resign with honour and guarantees for safety and a prosperous retirement. The narrative is likely to be: “I have completed my lifetime commitment to the Belarus people, securing its sovereignty and pride. It is time for me to retire and let others continue the work on the solid foundation I laid, etc.“ It is likely to be a semi-voluntary resignation similar to that of president Yeltsin. The operation ends, the satellite status of Belarus is cemented.
To sum up, one should admit that there was never a real opportunity for the Trans-Atlantic community to influence developments in Belarus. The timeframe between the collapse of Soviet Union and beginning of the Lukashenka reign could have provided favourable conditions if the preconditions such as solid national identity, west oriented leader and finally yet importantly, existence of the influential western advocate would have been in place. None of these circumstances materialised.
On the other hand, current developments provide strategic clarity. The Union State territory, Armed Forces and other power structures are to be regarded as peer state assets, subjected to the Strategic Competitor’s organisation.
It is also highly likely that the sitting president days are over, the transfer of power may occur in timeframe of one to two years. The fiscal situation of Belarus is severe; the state treasure is short of liquidity assets, so the regime will run out of means. SC will provide loans, yet their assets are also in decline therefore they may speed up the regime change. Political engagement with the Belarus authorities continues to be important, yet one should realise that real power and decision-making will be located in the Kremlin.