BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Belarus is a country that few Americans have likely paid much attention to. Yet, if you’ve read this site for any considerable amount of time, you’ll know that we occasionally check in on the country that is home to “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko.
A country sharing a border with Russia, one might say that (and this is a rough comparison, so forgive me) Belarus is to Russia what Canada is to the United States. Many have accused Belarus of being a puppet. In fact, tiny Belarus’ proximity to Russia–as well as the fact it also shares a border with European countries that Moscow has long desired to dominate–means that, even if the Belarusian leadership wanted to be free of Moscow’s pull, they could not be.
On August 9, the controversial autocratic leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, declared victory in the contentious “election” and immediately called Vladimir Putin in Moscow for help as Belarusians took to the streets to protest. After one protester was killed, even the police started letting the protests foment over the weekend. Fearing an Arab Spring-like event that would usher him out of office, Lukashenko would clearly rather turn his country over to Putin than allow for a free and fair election to take place. Lukashenko has announced that Vladimir Putin offered “comprehensive help” to Belarus (how kind).
Here is US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on the matter:
Of course, there just might be more to the story than we realize. After all, the idea that Lukashenko was a mind-numbed Putin-bot was not anymore accurate than the caricature presented to Western audiences of former Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovych (who was the leader of Ukraine from 2010 until the Maidan revolution in 2014).
Certainly, like Lukashenko, Ukraine’s Yanukovych was beholden to Putin. His supporters were all from the Russian-speaking Eastern portion of Ukraine. But, to be fair to him, the main point of contention that led to the revolution in 2014–accession to the European Union–was not something that Yanukovych rejected outright. Despite his pro-Putinist bearing, Yanukovych did entertain notions of moving Ukraine totally into the European Union (and, therefore, NATO) camp as opposed to the Russian camp (the budding Eurasian Economic Union).
Similarly, there is some evidence that Alexander Lukashenko had been more than willing to distance himself from Putin over the last few years. Since 2019, in fact, Lukashenko had begun giving Russia grief on a litany of issues–notably over trade.
But more recently (as in, the week of July 20, 2020), Belarusian security services arrested 33 individuals suspected of belonging to the Russian military-affiliated “private” military contracting firm, the Wagner Group. The 33 Russians were accused by Minsk of trying to “destabilize” the country heading into the August presidential elections. Many more, supposedly, “escaped into the woods.”
Well, my friends, it seems that the Russian objective was met, despite several of their mercenaries having been arrested at the end of July. In fact, it is possible that an Old School “Trust” operation was under way in Belarus, since at least 2017. According to the great Russia scholar, Paul Goble:
“Operation Trust” or just “the Trust” was a Soviet false flag operation designed to penetrate, disorder and ultimately hamstring the military wing of the first Russian emigration by suggesting that there was an underground monarchist organization within Soviet Russia that the emigration should take its orders from.
Toward that end, Goble posited the following at his magnificent blog, Window on Eurasia2, that year:
There are Operation Trust-like actions going on in Belarus, but they have nothing to do with the collection of insinuations he offers. They are organized by Russian intelligence officers presenting themselves as Belarusian radical nationalists in order to be able to promote disorders.
That is what Moscow’s special services did in Ukraine and they are doing it again in Belarus so that they can promote violence when it suits them, either to force Lukashenka to crack down harder than he otherwise might or to provide a justification that some might accept for a Russian intervention in the name of stability.
It remains to be seen whether or not Putin will intervene–though I suspect that he will intervene in some meaningful way, here’s why:
Not only would the unrest force Lukashenko to take a more draconian stance against his people (which would, in turn, stop the slowly growing affection from the West toward him) but the presence of Russian security forces would ensure Lukashenko’s undying loyalty to Moscow.
Personally, I believe that the unrest is being fueled by Russian intelligence services in Belarus. Fearing that his closest neighbor, Belarus, was looking to diversify its geopolitical relationships, Putin believed he had to act swiftly to ensure the country of 9.5 million people remained firmly in the Russian orbit. All of this unrest conveniently happens thereby guaranteeing that Belarus would remain under a compromised and desperate Lukashenko.
Julia Ioffe, someone with whom I share absolutely no agreement with, reported in The Washington Post recently that the Russian state media was “chirping” about Russia possibly sitting out the chaos that had befallen neighboring Belarus. As Ioffe assesses, “If [Putin] opts for the more restrained course, it would indicate that he thinks that he’s in a position of strength, and that he no longer sees the West as the threat it once was.”
Don’t be fooled. There are no coincidences, in instances such as this. I believe that Putin most definitely will act–even if the media does not see it–to secure Belarus remains in Russia’s tight orbit. The geopolitics of the situation demand it.
Russia is increasingly feeling as though it were being encircled and Vladimir Putin’s long-ranging ambition to reassert the Russian Empire in a new way (though the now mostly defunct Eurasian Economic Union) is being ineffably stymied by the West.
Moscow acted forcefully to prevent Georgia’s Westernization in 2008. It again reacted harshly against what it viewed as an unfair and unjustified attempt by the West to pull Ukraine from Russia’s orbit in 2014 (not only did Putin want Ukraine to be the proverbial breadbasket of the Eurasian Economic Union, but he was not about to abandon the vital Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula).
More importantly, Putin was not about to let the West nullify his access to Belarus, a country that, as noted above, is the equivalent of Russia’s Canada. It just won’t happen. It was fanciful for Western policymakers to actually think they could make any play for Lukashenko and Belarus at all. From Belarus, Russian forces will use that land as a geopolitical highway to ensure they can harass and annoy Europe.
There are major geopolitical movements afoot in the world right now. Putin just made one. By securing Belarus, Putin secures his borders with Europe and has ensured Russian power projection capabilities into Eastern Europe, a key tenet of the siloviki foreign policy.