Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Russia Experts Mr. Keir Giles and Dr. Mark Galeotti discuss Potential ways Russia may respond to the unrest on its border with Belarus
Mr. Keir Giles - Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House
Dr. Mark Galeotti - Senior Associate Fellow, RUSI, Author of "Russian Political War" (2019)
Insights from the Podcast
Lukashenko has lost any last shreds of political legitimacy he had and is completely dependent on the Belarussian security apparatus for his position of power.
The demonstrations do not have an anti-Russia dimension and are mainly focused on holding free and fair elections. As long as this is true, the Kremlin can distance itself from Lukashenko and let him fall, knowing that his successor would not have an aggressively anti-Russian stance.
The Kremlin strongly believes that Belarus must remain in Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. As such, it may be tempted to send commandos to remove Lukashenko from power and bring in follow-up forces to “stabilize” the country during its period of transition.
Belarus could become another Afghanistan
Russia has a history of miscalculating international reaction
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Hi, everyone. Welcome to our Wikistrat podcast about the situation in Belarus and Russia's strategy and response to it. With me today are two of the top leading experts in the world when it comes to Russia. The first is Mark Galeotti from RUSI and with him is Keir Giles from Chatham House.
Mark, Keir, thank you so much for joining us, and I want to start with you, Mark, and the first question I would like to ask you is what do you think about the situation currently in Belarus, and how do you analyze the situation in terms of what's going on, and how do you see the situation evolving in the upcoming days?
That, of course, is the question. It's a very rapidly moving situation and none of us really know, to be honest. That said, for me one of the fundamental issues is that Lukashenko has lost any last shreds of legitimacy he had. He is ruling essentially through the security apparatus and through the bone and sinews of the state. Now he may get through this particular crisis, and if he can survive the next couple of weeks he probably will. But all he's done is he's postponed it, he's promised constitutional changes, a referendum and a vote.
This is going to be coming back. Even if he survives this particular bout, in a month or maybe a year, he's going to be back here and probably even weaker. So I think really the question we're talking about is this slow or quick? We'll have to wait and see, but nonetheless, the death of the Lukashenko regime and how everyone adapts to that.
I think Mark is absolutely right. The situation is unstable and unpredictable at the moment, but one of the things I want to emphasize from what Mark said is that when we are in these situations when you see authoritarian regimes start to lose their grip and start to lose their legitimacy, people often expect that the change is going to be very sudden, that a new government is going to arrive immediately. It always takes longer than people expect, but then when things finally reach their tipping point, everything happens faster than people expect. So the timeframe really is the question here. I agree with Mark completely that now Lukashenko's power rests entirely on fraud and force. There is nothing to keep him there in the long term. The question is, how long he can hold out and how orderly the transition will be when that moment finally comes.
And Keir how do you see the Russian response to the situation and to the events unfolding?
Oh, Russia will respond depending on how exactly those events unfold, because there are several different directions things could go. Some of them pose a direct and immediate problem for Russia, others Russia will be entirely content with. Now the scenario, of course, that has got people very excited at the moment is the Ukraine-style situation, where Russia convinces itself that a county which is entertaining some thoughts of joining Western institutions is in fact turning its back on Russia, and this entails all kinds of immediate dangers.
We don't see that at the moment. There are some of the ingredients that led Russia to intervene in Ukraine in 2014 but by no means all. And in particular, the opposition position, or rather the position of the protestors, this leaderless movement now in Belarus, is not in itself anti-Russian. Although I have seen just in the last few minutes before we started recording, that President Lukashenko is now trying very hard to pretend that it is.
He says the opposition manifesto includes leaving the union state, enforcing Belarusian language, putting in extra border controls with Russia, all of the things that you would expect to get the section of the population that thinks good relations with Russia is a good thing terribly excited and potentially also appealing to Moscow as well. The question, or course, is how many people in Belarus are actually now still listening to him?
If I could just sort of piggyback on that, I actually once again I'm going to be agreeing with Keir. I think this is a case in which both sides are very much thinking about how Moscow will perceive the situation. Lukashenko, having ironically enough played the “Russia is interfering in Belarus politics” card before the elections, when he arrested 33 Wagner mercenaries, who seemed to have been passing through and claimed they were part of some sinister plot. Now he is suddenly pushing the line that the protestors are just simply pawns of the West and NATO.
I suspect that Moscow will not instantly believe him. But at the same time, the opposition, whether it's out of conviction or whether it's out of common sense, is very carefully avoiding any appearance that it is anti-Moscow. It's very much to be saying, “this is against Lukashenko, this is for free and fair elections.” End of story. Now whether or not the Kremlin feels it can live with that is a whole other issue. But nonetheless, at the moment the opposition is being very, very clear about the focus of its attention.
In this current circumstance, Moscow... would regard any kind of intervention as the second-worst option at its disposal, the worst option is precisely seeing Belarus become pro-European, wants to join the European Union or anything like that.
Mark, do you think the Kremlin's views this situation as an opportunity or as a threat to their interests?
I don't think the Kremlin can be looking at this with any great enthusiasm. Their ideal scenario was that Lukashenko hung on, but weaker. Not because they have any time or sympathy for Lukashenko, let alone trust for him, but rather because at least they knew where they were, and they knew that when it came down to it, however much Lukashenko could flirt with the West from time to time, he was still a brutal, bloody-handed dictator and there's a limit to how close he could get to them.
In this current circumstance, Moscow in my opinion would regard any kind of intervention as the second-worst option at its disposal, the worst option is precisely seeing Belarus become pro-European, wants to join the European Union or anything like that. Again, Ukraine-style emerging. From their point of view, I think that they are really hoping that something could emerge with that they can live with, that they are not forced into a corner of either having to see that what they see as their strategic interests being weakened because they regard Belarus as part of their rightful sphere of influence. Or actually having to intervene in some kind of way, which would be expensive, potentially bloody, and certainly would turn Belarus against Russia.
All of this is direct of course, and yes, Russia would rather not be presented with this problem, because after all the previous situation was fairly manageable. So I agree absolutely, the second-worst problem would be intervening in Belarus because they had to, but of course, there are plenty of other steps that Russia could take short of an actual full-blown military intervention. So it may be that it is seen as a threat, but Russia will be looking for opportunities within that threat.
If for example, it were possible to interpose Russian diplomats as mediators for some kind of power transition, and of course Russia is in a position to influence who actually comes out on top in the end. So I am sure that we will see plenty of maneuvering by Moscow as the situation evolves, trying to get the least worse outcome from all of this for Russia.
Let me just piggyback one brief point on that, actually. Today Putin and Angela Merkel had a phone conversation about Belarus, and all we've got to go off are the very bland readouts--the bland but strangely different readouts that we're getting from Berlin and Moscow. But nonetheless, I think one of the key points from Russia's point of view is to avoid being seen as Lukashenko's last friend, not least for the Belarusian people.
And therefore, the question is really, do they intercede to try and exactly manage some kind of straightforward handover, or do they actually go further? Do they begin to look as though they actually want to put pressure on Lukashenko? Because that is also one of the opportunities to implicitly align themselves with the Belarusian people. Now, I don't think that they're going to be daring enough to do that. I think in this day they tend to be quite conservative, but Keir is right in that respect. There are, within the context of the threat, opportunities for Moscow.
How close are we to a Russian military intervention? It's a scenario that seems to be much more plausible than it used to be, no?
Well yes and no. It's fair to say that we are closer now to that possibility than we have been before, because let's not forget, there have been plenty of situations over the last couple of decades where things looked as though they were getting tense in in Belarus and the prospect of a Russian military intervention was raised. Now certainly the possibilities for what might happen now are far wider and the situation is far more unstable and unpredictable than it has been in any of those previous crises that have come and gone.
But I would disagree that we're actually getting closer day by day. It's a slower process and the way in which this crisis is evolving doesn't seem to be moving immediately towards a situation where Russia would be forced urgently to step in. We don't seem to have the situation yet where, despite the fact that the rug has been pulled out from under President Lukashenko, and he has certainly realized giving speeches to factory workers and being shouted down just over the last couple of days, he suddenly realized how little support he actually has. There are no signs yet of him taking any drastic action which you might expect if he were losing his nerve or wanting to crack down suddenly.
So put it all together and you have a situation where for sure, Russia will be watching and will be ready, and a complicating factor in terms of telling what Russia will actually be doing is that they are now well into military exercise season, so a lot of Russian military units are already on the move. Belarus is watching very carefully the exercises that have just started with the Sixth Army and the Western military district aviation. But the plain fact is that it might be hard to see when Russia does actually start a military movement. Always in this kind of situation, you get alarming reports of Russia doing something.
In this case, the most plausible thing that looks like it might have been a preparation to move something into Belarus was movements of the militarized internal security service towards Belarus, and that's been put forward as a possibility. They don't belong to the Ministry of Defense, so it wouldn't be technically a military invasion no matter how much force they bring with them. It might be something that Russia could propose as an alternative to actually moving forces in.
But there are so many different possibilities at play, and this is something that Mark in particular would be able to say a lot about. The different elements of the Russian security and defense and force structures that might be used to either lend support to Lukashenko or indeed to remove him if necessary.
If we're going to draw a parallel, and it's not a particularly comfortable parallel for the Russians, I think the best parallel would be Afghanistan 1979 when they intervened to stop what they saw as the potential collapse of one of their proxy states
Yes, interesting that you said “or if necessary” to remove him, because we tend to draw a parallel obviously with Ukraine because it's looming in our minds and it's still going on. But of course, as you know, the differences are huge. There is no equivalent of the Crimea or the Donbas, where people might be at all sympathetic to Russian forces. There hasn't been a collapse of the Belarus chain of command, or at least not yet. And generally, there's much less penetration of the Belarus military and above all security structures than had happened in Ukraine by 2014.
So in some ways, if we're going to draw a parallel, and it's not a particularly comfortable parallel for the Russians, I think the best parallel would be Afghanistan 1979 when they intervened to stop what they saw as the potential collapse of one of their proxy states. And at the same time, the same operation, to remove a head of state that they thought was counterproductive and unfriendly, and impose a new one whom they thought was going to be rather more congenial and rather more effective.
Because after all, Afghanistan's just going to be a six-month operation. Remove the old head of state, install a new one, overawe the country with a quick show of force, and then in six months, you're out. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. But nevertheless, I think that that is probably more likely the kind of scenario we would see. Because absolutely, as Keir said, there's a whole variety of different assets at the Russian's disposal.
But the bottom line is, they could send in security forces to try and bolster Lukashenko. If they do that, then in effect they might have could have held onto the country, but they would absolutely have lost the Belarusian population because that would associate them with Lukashenko, and his own hated security forces above all the OMON riot police.
So alternatively, what they might well be tempted to do is instead send in their “little green men,” their commandos, precisely to actually remove Lukashenko and then perhaps some kind of followup of forces really just as if to be saying, “we are here for the sake of stability.” But don't worry, we have got rid of Lukashenko. It would be a high-risk strategy, you know they say it's an uncomfortable parallel, but nonetheless, I think that's probably the kind of scenario, if any, that is currently under contingency plans and in war games. If anything, it's currently being sort of dreamed up in the bowels of the general staff building. I suspect it's something like that.
There are two important issues that come off what Mark has just said. First of all, the parallel with Afghanistan. One of the questions we have to ask is, how would Russia assess what the reaction would be if they were to move into Belarus? It wouldn't be inconceivable for them to get that answer spectacularly wrong, as they did in Afghanistan, as they did in Ukraine, through underestimating the resilience of statehood and ideas of sovereignty and the resistance to them from the Belarusian population.
Because if you do genuinely subscribe to the idea that all of these are basically Russia, and that convening in Belarus would be an internal affair because it's not a proper country, which is a sentiment that President Putin has expressed about Ukraine several times. Then you are bound to get wrong your assessment of the human terrain into which you are moving. So let's not underestimate the capacity of Russia to miscalculate what the reaction to a military move would be.
But another element of that, and one that has confused people about Belarus a lot, I think, in the past, is the reaction of the Belarusian security forces and armed forces. And Mark mentioned the extent of penetration into them. There has been a consistent story, which we heard particularly from Belarus's neighbors, Poland and Lithuania, that the Belarus armed forces are basically indistinguishable from their Russian counterparts. It's like a subdivision of the Russian army, just in a different country, no capacity for independent decision making, operationally subordinated, etc., and therefore you would assume that there would be no resistance whatsoever and Russian military forces moving into Belarus would in effect be welcomed by their Belarusian counterparts.
Now that is quite a persuasive narrative because after all, the Poles and the Lithuanians who look at this very closely ought to know what they're talking about, but it doesn't quite seem to match up with the reality within Belarus itself. As Mark has just intimated this position is more complex, and we should not necessarily assume that it would be a walkover for Russia.
On that point, just to draw a parallel with the Warsaw Pact, exactly the same could be said about the degree to which the Warsaw Pact forces were essentially integrated into a Soviet command structure. Both the Hungarian and the Czechoslovak militaries, and of course the experience of what happened in Hungary in 1956, versus in Czechoslovakia in 1968. In one case you got fierce resistance, in the other case not.
This point that Keir makes is about the difficulty of understanding the human terrain, and knowing quite how far, when push comes to shove, forces will fight. I suspect that the Belarusian forces actually do feel Belarusian first and foremost, and at least a certain proportion of them would resist. But who can tell?
One of the things that we have to bear in mind while recognizing that this would probably be more alarming to the Kremlin than actually genuinely motivating for the Russian population is the surprise that everybody has felt at the extent of the discontent in Belarus itself.
What’s the probability of a “Russian Spring” scenario in which the situation in Belarus spilling over into Russia and threatening Putin's regime?
There's something that we've heard a lot of people in the West talk about. I suspect, though, that's really wishful thinking more than anything else. We have seen protestors in Khabarovsk in the Russian far east, who have their own reasons to be protesting, nonetheless also saying they stand in solidarity with Belarus and so forth. But one of the quite unfortunately depressing successes of Putin's propaganda machine has been to present that these kinds of mass expressions of people-power actually can be very disruptive and problematic for the people themselves.
And people often make the point that a successful democratic prosperous Ukraine would be a very dangerous model as an alternative route for a post-Soviet Slavic country to go, but the point is at the moment Ukraine is democratic, but not necessarily especially stable or economically prosperous. So I think the real risk of Belarus for Moscow is not immediate. It's not actually that people-power brings down Lukashenko and suddenly people think, "Ha, that sounds like a good idea."
Because Lukashenko is not Putin, Russia is not Belarus. Very different situations and actually very different levels of legitimacy. I mean, however much it's faked and massaged and manufactured, nonetheless there is a higher degree of legitimacy for the Putin regime than there is for the Lukashenko one, not that that's really saying that much these days. It's more that if sometime down the line, Belarus can demonstrate how successful such people's revolutions can be, in creating the kind of country that Russians might want to live in. Then that might be a threat.
But as so, I don't really see it as something at the moment, although we're getting some of the usual blowhard commentators on Russian state television, where we have these geopolitical talk shows that really are more about spectacle and toxic propaganda than real analysis, saying various things about the horrors of color revolution and so forth. At the moment, at least the Kremlin itself seems relatively relaxed about this.
Yes, it's true. If there were a change of government in Belarus that came about as a result of a mass uprising, as a result of people-power, this would be a terrible precedent and a terrible example, which would have Russia, would have the Kremlin quite worried. But of course, it depends on a number of factors which as Mark has pointed out, simply are not present in Russia at the moment. There isn't that level of discontent, there isn't that total lack of legitimacy that Mark described.
Having said that, one of the things that we have to bear in mind while recognizing that this would probably be more alarming to the Kremlin than actually genuinely motivating for the Russian population is the surprise that everybody has felt at the extent of the discontent in Belarus itself. I think even the protestors were taken aback at just how much popular support there was for what they were doing, and how many people we've seen changing sides from the security forces, the armed forces staying out of it altogether. And as we referred to earlier, Lukashenko is getting heckled when he goes to visit what he thinks is his base of support.
So one of the things that the Kremlin would no doubt be worried about when looking at this is “we think we have a handle on just how much legitimacy we have, how much support we have, how hard it would get for people to get people motivated to actually come out on the streets?” But are we really sure, might there be a surprise waiting somewhere in the same way that there was in Belarus? But overall I agree with Mark. I think this is a longer-term problem. It's not something that is immediately going to spark changes in Russia or to spill over into Russia itself.
And if you were currently leading the strategy of NATO, or the US, in regard to this situation, what would be the advice that you would give decision-makers? What would be the advice you would give them, in terms of what to do and what not to do in regard to the current situation in Belarus?
I've written something recently for Raam op Rusland, that this is in some way Hippocratic diplomacy. In other words, a first principle ought to be first, do no harm. My big concern is precisely that the West, in the long term, has the power of the examples of the economic prosperity of soft power going for it, and I think there is in due course going to be sort of natural gravitation in countries such as Belarus towards the West.
But in the short term, if we make it look as if we are treating this as some kind of tug of war between Russia and the West for who gets Belarus, as if we're playing Risk, then the danger is that that absolutely backs Putin into a corner. As we've said at the beginning of this podcast, that his absolute nightmare is losing Belarus to the West. Not least because he's thinking of his place in history, and he doesn't want to be the tsar who manages to lose both Ukraine and Belarus.
So I think the thing to do is, first of all, make sure that in our rhetoric, we make it clear that we are absolutely opposed to what Lukashenko is doing, and indeed we should not be talking about Lukashenko as President anymore. But on the other hand, we are accepting that this is a Belarusian issue for the Belarusians to sort out.
So in that context, there are a lot of small scale things we could be doing. We could be providing asylum for opposition figures, anyone who falls foul of the regime and perhaps most importantly their families. As we've seen, families are being used to bring leverage to bear. We cannot just sanction individuals. Unfortunately, the European Union is very good about individual sanctions but very slow. This kind of fast-moving situation does not show the European Union at its best. They're talking about maybe having a sanctions list ready by the end of this month or the beginning of next, by which time this crisis may be over.
But also extending that and making it clear that figures within, for example, the police and security apparatus, if they continue to follow Lukashenko's orders, they will be on no visa lists and suchlike. We can absolutely continue to be pushing genuine, unfiltered information, truth to counter what remaining propaganda the regime can put forward. Though interestingly enough, we're actually seeing that the Belarus media itself is doing quite a heroic job in now presenting the truth to the Belarusian people. So there is a whole array of relatively small scale, relatively unambitious moves that we can make. But I think for the moment, my concern would be precisely that we can actually damage the situation more than we can improve it.
There are three different actors, if you like, three different identities of the West that could or could not take action here and either make things better or worse, as Mark said. There's the EU, there's Europe, and I think a lot of the things Mark was just saying would probably be enacted through the EU and its individual member countries that are bordering Belarus.
But then there's also NATO and there's also the United States. Nobody at the moment is expecting any coherent, sensible, helpful input from the United States in this situation, given what's happening at home. That leaves NATO. What should and should not NATO be doing in this particular situation? I am sure that the planners and the intelligence services within NATO will have been looking very carefully at what it would mean if Russian forces were to be present in Belarus by whatever means they got there, whether it's an invasion, whether it's being invited in, whether it's some other change to the situation.
That would be a huge change to the defense and security situation across much of central Europe. Again, one of the fictions that we've heard many times in the past about how Belarus works and how its interaction with Russian military works, is that they are already there. All of these populist scenarios about Russia making a grab for the Souvlaki Gap, that strip of the borderland between Poland and Lithuania, that separates Kaliningrad the exclave from the Russian mainland.
All of those have been dependent on Russia actually already being present in Belarus, and what if that were suddenly to come true? Suddenly you have a situation where not only is Russia's reach into Europe with aircraft, with missiles, vastly extended suddenly, but also all of those scenarios about notionally cutting off the Baltic States by removing their land access are several geopolitical steps closer.
So put that together with concerns over anti-access and area denial potential for Russia, not something that's actually a Russian operational concept but still, it does describe the way in which Russia could, if it wished to, extend interdiction across wide areas of Central Europe. And you have a lot of very serious defense implications for if the situation does change, even if it's not an overt invasion. Suddenly you have Ukraine, which is having to completely reorient its defense posture and present itself with a threat from the north, from Belarus as well as currently its ongoing conflict in the East.
And you have countries which now suddenly effectively have a direct border with Russia where they didn't have one previously. It's a huge change. It's huge upheaval, and I hope that planners, NATO, UK, the United States within Europe, European command, are all looking very closely at how this might work out even if it is not the worst-case scenario of an actual military conflict between Russia and Belarus.
On that point, Keir's absolutely right, that it absolutely would dramatically shift the algorithm of force within Europe. I think we also have to be aware of the optics and how you play the Kremlin. We need on the one hand to be obviously looking at this risk, and also to be communicating to Moscow just how serious we would regard this, that we wouldn't regard it as simply a piece of fraternal transmission of forces around the union state, but as an invasion and an invasion with all kinds of threats.
But my big concern would be that this done relatively quietly. It's a shame to be having to think in these terms, but nonetheless, the Kremlin is dominated by a coterie of people who could, I think, fairly be described as paranoid conspiracy theorists who regard the West as implacably committed to constraining, marginalizing and in the most extreme cases, dismembering the Russian Federation. And therefore I think anything that was really looking overtly like a challenge, there are some people in Putin's circle who'll be scurrying to him and saying that “this is an attempt to make us look weak. This is an attempt to browbeat us and make us look like we cannot stand up against Western pressure.”
And again, it's sad that it's almost playground psychology at work. But nonetheless, I think that is the situation we're in, so by all means, we ought to be communicating not just our concerns, but the fact that there will be very serious consequences, consequences much more serious than we've seen with Ukraine because if they escalate we have to escalate. But nonetheless, I think I would like to see this being done with a certain degree of discretion.
If the situation leads to a new regime, is the new regime more likely to be pro-West or pro-Russia?
I think that we will see a new government that its heart is pro-Western, but its head realizes that there's a limit to how far it can actually push that, not just because of Moscow's security leverage, but also the fact that over a third of Belarus's exports go to Russia, more than half of its imports, particular energy, come from Russia. Even without the union treaty status, there is so much that connects Belarus with Russia for the moment. So again, I think that we will see a smart and more liberal government take power. I'm perhaps unfashionably optimistic, but I think we will see it.
I think that it will realize that its scope to reorient itself internationally is limited, although there's no perfect parallel if one looks at what's happened in Armenia, where you had a revolution and the rise of a reformist leader with whom at first the Russians were unsure if they could deal, he made it clear that although he stood for democratization at home, he wasn't going to change Armenia's international status. And now we have a situation where Armenia's rival, Azerbaijan, is actually complaining about the extent to which the Russians are supportive.
Again, that's very different, Armenia is surrounded, feels surrounded by enemies and suchlike. But nonetheless, I think that's what we'll see. We will see a regime that is implicitly pro-Western. And again, I think that if we look at it in the grand scheme of things, not the six to twelve months, but six to twelve-year span, we will almost certainly see a slow drift of Belarus toward the West. One that is constantly having to try and make sure that Moscow does not even notice it, or object to it.
Well on the six to twelve years I agree absolutely with Mark. It's continuing a progression that we thought we were seeing even from Lukashenko before the latest crackdown. But you also heard Mark there just catch himself being optimistic. If there were a smart and liberal-ish government coming into power in Belarus, then you would expect to see all of those things, the pragmatism, the realization that you cannot disentangle yourself from Russia in quite that way so swiftly.
But again, we're up against wild cards. Not only do we not know exactly h