- RUSSIAN TROOPS FROM FAR EAST ARE SENT TO BELARUS
- REPRESENTATIVES OF MINSK REGIME ARE CHARGED WITH AIR PIRACY
- FAKE "REFERENDUM" IS TO BE HELD ON FEBRUARY 27
- LITHUANIA'S POTASH TRANSIT
- THE PURGE OF BELARUS CULTURE
RUSSIAN TROOPS FROM FAR EAST ARE SENT TO BELARUS
This is an update on the ongoing political crisis in the Republic of Belarus prepared for you by the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS).
The political instability and social tensions in Belarus are unprecedentedly high: nearly 20% of urban population characterize current situation as «catastrophic» and only 1/3 of the population treating Lukashenka state as «their» state, according to recent Chatham House survey (for details, see here). Not in last turn, because Belarus has turned into Europe’s largest «grey zone» with arbitrary application of laws, major erosion of public institutes, and systemic injustice.
Recently published GMF policy paper highlights that since 2020 the violations of human rights in Belarus «have reached the level of crimes against humanity due to their severity and systematic nature». In light of ongoing atrocities, the experts from GMF’s ReThink.CEE Fellowship name universal jurisdiction «the most accessible mechanism for the victims of torture and human rights violations in Belarus». The authors of the report recommend foreign governments to focus on wider use of criminal investigations applied under the universal jurisdiction and targeting the perpetrators of atrocities in Belarus.
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) will review the situation in Belarus on February 15-16 as a part of its 71st session (14 February – 4 March 2022). In particular, CESCR will review a report on (non-)compliance of Lukashenka regime with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The report was prepared by the coalition of Belarusian human rights organizations and is available here. Live broadcast of the meeting will be available here.
iSANS has been monitoring Russia’s and Lukashenka’s propaganda narratives against Ukraine long before current escalation and was able to track them as early as November-December 2021.
Now, Ukraine faces potential encirclement (see maps here and detailed report here) as more Russia’s troops are being transported to Belarus. Although it is widely believed that the Kremlin prepares the next stage of its military invasion into Ukraine to gain more territories than it occupies since 2014, it is important to remember that Putin may have his own interest in growing military presence within Belarus itself.
In the aftermath of 2020 crisis, Lukashenka has turned into Putin’s de facto puppet regent. This fact raises a question whether his regime is much different from Vichy puppet government in France – and to what degree Lukashenka still maintains independent decision-making and may rely on loyalty of people around him (especially, after recent events in Kazakhstan). Hence, there are alternative opinions that Lukashenka might not be willing to engage in Putin’s operation in Ukraine to avoid the risks to his own security.
The Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian Armed Forces Viktar Hulevich said that one of the risks to military security of Belarus is «the presence of NATO troops in the territory of the neighboring countries». But according to Lukashenka, the main threat comes from Ukraine. “Ukraine keeps concentrating its radical nationalists from the National Guard next to our border. They are even worse than NATO troops”, he said on 17 January.
Russian troops and hardware are already arriving in Belarus. A Telegram channel run by Belarusian rail workers said that between 16-21 January 33 military echelons have arrived in Belarus from Russia with an average of 50 cars per train. 200 echelons are scheduled to arrive compared to just 29 over an entire month for the Zapad 2021 exercise.
Hardware is being transported to Belarus by rail from Russia’s Eastern Military District from as far away as Vladivostok. Russia said on Tuesday that 12 SU-35 fighter jets, two divisions of S-400 air defence systems and a division of Pantsir-S air defence systems were being transported.
Polish military analyst Konrad Muzyka told Reuters that according to his information from seven to ten battalion tactical groups, which typically number between 700-900 troops, had recently left Russia’s Eastern Military District. He said it would be logical for them to be deployed in the same place — in this case Belarus — due to their single command structure.
The deployment of Russian forces in Belarus creates a new potential front line for Ukrainian army planners to worry about, continues Muzyka. Reinforcing that area will mean spreading troops thinner elsewhere and diverting forces from positions facing southwest Russia. Ukraine doesn’t have enough manpower so its command would have to make choices – while the role of Lukashenka’s army in possible invasion is yet to be clarified.
From Belarus, Russian troops would be much closer to Kyiv — the distance from there to the border with Belarus is just over 90 km (nearly 55 miles) at its closest point. US military analyst Rob Lee believes that if Russia deploys long-range multiple-launch rocket systems to Belarus, they would be able to strike targets near Kyiv without even entering Ukraine. He adds that Moscow could also deploy electronic warfare systems to Belarus to try to disrupt communications out of Kyiv, including radar or satellite. Ukraine is facing additional risks because it remains connected to Russia and Belarus power grids.
There is a high risk of cyberattacks against Ukraine from Belarus – not in last turn, because Lukashenka regime has already conducted cyber operations that align with Russian interests. Following recent attack on Ukraine’s governmental websites that its government attributed to UNC115 (a hacker group related to Belarus state security that was earlier found responsible for multiple attacks on government agencies in Germany, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in 2020), foreign leaders should develop clear policy on whether Lukashenka regime and its cyber infrastructure must be hit alike in response.
The United States raised multiple concerns in relation to massive movement of Russia’s troops since the arrival of troops may lead to Russia’s permanent military presence and transfer of nuclear weapons into Belarus. The United States sent clear warnings to Lukashenka that participation in Putin’s campaign against Ukraine will lead to heavy consequences – including the end of Minsk regime.
In relation to Russia’s latest military buildup in Belarus, the U.S. State Department has authorized the voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. Government employees from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. On top of that, the department has ordered the departure of family members of U.S. Government employees in Ukraine. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk issued a security alert to U.S. citizens located in Belarus and urged them to regularly reevaluate possible departure plans in the event of an emergency.
Despite growing risks, there are numerous opinions that current situation will not lead to immediate invasion, but is rather a «game of nerves» that however may lead to major damage of regional infrastructure – foremost, through cyberspace.
REPRESENTATIVES OF MINSK REGIME ARE CHARGED WITH AIR PIRACY
The US Justice department charged four Belarus officials with air piracy. On Thursday last week, two identified civil members of Lukashenka regime and two unnamed KGB officials were charged for last year’s forced diversion of a Ryanair flight in order to arrest journalist Raman Pratasevich.
Two top officials of the state aviation authority Belaeronavigatsia and two KGB operatives were accused of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy. The charges, filed in federal court in New York, said Ryanair Flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius had been carrying more than 100 passengers, including four US citizens, when Belarus authorities forced it to land.
Two of the four charged, Leanid Chura and Aleh Kazyuchyts, are director general and deputy director general of Belaeronavigatsia. Two others from the KGB agents, whose full names are not yet known to the FBI, were also charged. The four, who remain at large in Belarus, all face possible life in prison if they are brought to justice in the US.
According to the indictment, Chura and the security officials waited until the plane entered Belarus air space to alert the aircraft to the purported bomb threat, in order to force it to land in Minsk. Kazyuchyts then sought to have the incident record falsified to hide the fabricated bomb threat and the involvement of security officials.
“The FBI identified a detailed operation that subjected passengers from many countries, including the US, to the realities of terroristic threats. Not only is what took place a reckless violation of US law, it’s extremely dangerous to the safety of everyone who flies in an airplane. The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency – which puts lives at risk”, said FBI Assistant Director Michael Driscoll.
As we reported last week, Lukashenka regime withheld information from the UN probe.
FAKE "REFERENDUM" IS TO BE HELD ON FEBRUARY 27
On 20 January, it was announced that the so-called «referendum» on amendments and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus will be held on 27 February 2022 by illegal and illegitimate ruler of Belarus. Lukashenka said that the «referendum» can only be cancelled in one case – «if a war breaks out».
The amendments of sham procedure would further weaken the current rubber-stamp parliament and strengthen the role of the All-Belarus People’s Assembly, a periodic gathering of loyalists that currently has no legal status. The assembly would act as a parallel structure next to parliament, holding wide-ranging powers to approve foreign, security, and economic policy. It would also be able to propose changes to the constitution, draft laws, and select members of the country’s Central Election Commission and judges of the top courts. The amendments would also prohibit anyone who temporarily left the country in the last 20 years from becoming president.
On January 21, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and a group of the Belarusian pro-democracy leaders in exile held a press conference and outlined their strategy for the so-called «referendum» (full video is available here).
In a joint statement, Belarusian opposition forces urged Belarusians to come to the polling stations and make their ballots invalid in any convenient and accessible way, as “Belarusians will be asked to make a non-alternative choice between the old Lukashenka’s Constitution that endows him with super-presidential powers, and the new Constitution designed to even more consolidate his power by the creation of an additional body with almost unlimited powers — the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. Moreover, the new draft of the Constitution imposed by the regime provides for lifelong immunity for Lukashenka protecting him from prosecution for all the crimes committed during the years of his presidency”.
Although mass mobilization at current moment can be difficult, there are certain lessons that can be learnt from 2020 campaign, including wider engagement of counterculture and cultural underground leadership.
Last week, 37 OSCE countries made a public statement requesting whether Lukashenka regime is intending to request ODIHR’s legal assessment of the proposed changes to the Belarusian constitution, and whether intending to invite ODIHR to monitor the so-called «referendum». Although there has been no formal response yet, one of Lukashenka’s representatives, Piotr Miklashevich (the chairman of the so-called «Constitutional Court»), has already announced in the local TV propaganda show that the position of foreign observers «will play no role» in the «referendum».
Local observers already chose to refrain from observing mission due to security concerns and will instead run an expert mission to monitor the sham show.
LITHUANIA'S POTASH TRANSIT
On 19 January, Lithuanian Railway officially informed Belaruskali about the decision to terminate the contract. “Starting from February 1, we will stop providing services to Belaruskali under the contract signed in 2018,” said the Lithuanian company. At the same time, the railroad management said it expects there will be applications from other freight carriers and intermediary firms for the transit of Belarusian potash.
The head of the Committee of National Security and Defense of the Lithuanian Parliament, Laurynas Kasčiūnas, told Belsat that there is almost zero chance of circumventing the ban on the transit of Belarusian fertilizers in Lithuania because any company (including private ones) would have to first apply to the parliamentary commission for permission. The Commission considers such form of transit a threat to national security.
As of 22 January, Lithuanian Railway has already received requests from three Belarusian companies to transport Belaruskali’s fertilizers. They come from Belarusian Potash Company (special exporter of Belaruskali products), Belintertrans, and Belkali-Migao. Belarusian Potash Company is asking to agree on the transportation of fertilizers from January 24, arguing that it is necessary to meet its obligations to sell fertilizers through the port of Klaipeda.
In the latest populist effort to imitate «dialogue with Lithuania» for the purposes of internal propaganda, Lukashenka regime welcomed a group of seven private individuals from Lithuania. The group is related to a marginal «Dawn of Justice» movement founded by Lithuania’s citizen Algirdas Paleckis who previously convicted of spying for Russia.
The political economic crisis and sanctions will amplify two structural weaknesses of the Belarusian economy that will affect the recovery in post-COVID Belarus as the country is forecasted to show the worst economic performance in FSU area in 2022.
THE PURGE OF BELARUS CULTURE
Anatol Markevich, who is assigned as Lukashenka’s «Minister of Culture» said in an interview with the main propaganda newspaper, SB.by, that 300 employees with a “destructive position” had been dismissed from cultural institutions: “I do not hide the fact that we have been carrying out and are carrying out serious activities involving our employees, workers who have taken a destructive stance. My deep conviction is that it is not possible to sit on two chairs. It is inadmissible. At the end of the day, one has to make up one’s mind. For this reason, more than 300 people from our teams have been dismissed. And I think it’s right”. The interview was later removed from the website.
On 21 January, it became known that among others Uladzimir Savitsky, director of the Theatre of Young Viewers in Minsk, was dismissed. There have been reports that his position will be taken by the wife of Belarus’ Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei. According to @by_culture initiative, managers of other theatres in Minsk have also been dismissed, but the details have not yet been made public.