Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Gentle Conquest

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 8, 2020 --  

Putin's quiet backing of the Belarusian dictator gives Moscow a chance to take control without risking a Ukrainian-like disaster.

As hundreds of thousands of protesters face off against riot police in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, the future of the country is being decided hundreds of miles away. President for life Alexander Lukashenko shows no willingness to back down. Protesters, angered by his obviously fraudulent 80 percent landslide victory in recent elections, show no willingness to back down either.

The obvious power broker is 400 mlles away in Moscow -- Russian President Vladimir Putin. Six years ago he backed a similar authoritarian leader facing off against protesters in Ukraine. In that case, Putin lost. The protesters toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, bringing in a pro-European government and triggering Russia to punish Ukraine by seizing territory in Crimea and the east. The resulting territorial war proved painful and deadly for Ukraine, but did little to lessen the sting for Russia, which saw its largest Soviet-era neighbor and cultural brother abandon it for the West.

The lessons of Ukraine in 2014 loom large in Belarus. Putin is keen not to repeat the mistakes he made in Ukraine. There, Russia's heavy-handed backing of Yanukovych along with pressuring the country to join an economic union with Russia pushed a divided public decisively away from Moscow. Fear of making the same mistake has most certainly led Putin to distance himself from the unpopular Belarusian leader as a way of hedging his bets.

Yet Moscow's tepid support is not all theater. To Moscow, Lukashenko is an unreliable partner. Early in his career, Lukashenko was a vocal advocate of union with Russia, with ambition to rule the Kremlin himself. But as Valadimir Putin has solidified his position as president-for-life in Russia, that opportunity dsappeared. Lukashenko now drags his feet to stop the integration of the two states. He also plays Russia against the West to extract Russian energy price concessions, and at times offers words of support for Ukraine's resistance of Russian meddling. These actions most certainly irritate the Kremlin.

But Putin knows that letting Lukashenko fall is dangerous, and may lead to somebody even worse from Moscow's perspective. Public opinion remains generally pro-Russia, unlike in Ukraine during the 2014 revolution, so a post-revolution government might not be so bad for Putin. But revolutions are messy things, and you never know who will come out on top.

Lukashenko, on the other hand, is a known entity, and one that needs Moscow's help badly. With his back against the wall, he is no longer in any position to say no to Putin. By quietly supporting his rule in return for absolute fealty, Russia can try to avoid a risky revolution. As his patron, Russia can also engineer a transition to a leader of its choosing in exchange for granting Lukashenko a comfortable and face-saving retirement in Minsk instead of a disgraced one in exile.

Since Belarusian state television joined a general strike three weeks ago, journalists and technicians from Moscow-based Russia Today have provided replacements,1 meaning Moscow now controls the airwaves -- something particularly important to reach older citizens. Less visible Russian reinforcements may exist in other sectors. As foreigners, Russian agents are less sympathetic toward local ideas like Belarusian patriotism and concern for Belarusian citizens. By providing such reinforcements, Putin is engaging in a gentler version of the Crimean conquest by "little green men". There, Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms appeared all over Crimea before the Russian takeover.

But Moscow hasn't won yet. First the protesters have to back down -- or the protests must simply peter out. After over a month, this shows no sign of happening. But the quiet abduction of protest leaders over the weekend2 show that the Lukashenko regime is prepared to play a long game. By draining the opposition of its leaders while waiting for the rank and file to tire, Lukashenko hopes to simply outlast them. Should he manage to do so, his days will still be numbered. Should Lukashenko survive, the real power will be in the Kremlin.


1. Boston Herald, Russia Waging Stealth Intervention in Belarus, September 5, 2020

2. Opposition Leader in Belarus Aerts Expulsion by Tearing Up Passport, September 8, 2020