Justifying the militarization of Belarus and integration with Russia. Part 1

Justifying the militarization of Belarus and integration with Russia. Part 1

Monitoring of pro-Russian media in Ukraine for September-October 2021

Unsplash / Tina Hartung
02.11.2021 Maria Avdeeva

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  1. The militarization of Belarus and its justification
  2. Radicals from Ukraine
  3. The case of the Wagnerites

The militarization of Belarus and its justification

In September, a series of events took place in Belarus which involved Russia directly. Naturally, Kremlin propaganda was actively involved in their coverage and presentation in Ukraine from the correct angle through a network of pro-Russian resources.

The Kremlin systematically accompanies its foreign policy steps with media support, viewing the media space as a sphere where it is attempting to dominate, threatening the national interests of other countries, including Ukraine.

Bilateral meetings between Putin and Lukashenko; the development of military-technical and defense cooperation between Belarus and Russia within the framework of the Union State, the Zapad-2021 military exercises, and an increase in the Russian military presence in Belarus; the migrant crisis spurred on by Lukashenko on the EU borders; and increased political repression within the country have become major themes for disinformation campaigns and manipulation.

An analysis of such resources as Ukraina.ru, Strana.uа, Vesti, the Russia Today media holding, and Sputnik showed that in September and October the main directions for the work of Russian propaganda in Ukraine on Belarusian themes were the support of Belarusian militarization and integration activities within the framework of the Union State. Lukashenko’s aggression towards Poland and the Baltic states through illegal migration was also media supported, however to a somewhat lesser extent.

It is worth mentioning that these resources – both online media and Telegram channels of the same name – often post the same read-out of events synchronously, and in some cases cross-post each other. This suggests that such resources are part of a coordinated plan for the media support of a particular event.

If we try to convey as concisely as possible the main narratives produced by the Kremlin, then they have not undergone significant changes and are as follows:

— the militarization of Belarus is necessary to counter the aggression from NATO and military and extremist threats from Ukraine

— unification with Russia within the framework of the Union State is economically beneficial for Belarus and is necessary for defense

— only Western countries are to blame for the migration crisis in the EU because of their flawed migration policy and aggressive actions in countries that supply migrants; Lukashenko has nothing to do with organizing channels of illegal migration

Put simply, narratives are built around the “bad aggressive” West and a “good reliable” Russia.

The main newsmakers for Kremlin propaganda continue to be Lukashenko and Russian officials, whose statements are then actively circulated in Ukraine. For example, Lukashenko’s interview with CNN was used in the Russian-speaking media space in Ukraine to accuse the West and Western media of bias and to relay his statements.

The Kremlin’s attempts to provide media support for the militarization of Belarus are based on the main narrative that this is a response to the threat of aggression from NATO countries. In addition to Western countries and NATO, Belarusian security is portrayed as threatened by Ukraine, where it seems to Moscow and Minsk that there are NATO military bases.

The prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership serves as a rationale for increasing Russian military presence in Belarus and strengthening Russian-Belarusian cooperation in the military sphere. For this, the narrative about western external control of Ukraine is consistently employed.

Pro-Russian media refer to the “red lines” invented by the Kremlin that Ukraine must not cross. In their interpretation, the actions of Belarus are a response to the actions of the West and Ukraine. Ukraine’s compelled reaction to Russia’s aggressive policy and the use of Belarus in this is depicted in a distorted form as a threat.

Kremlin propaganda underscores Minsk’s right to a military alliance with Moscow and at the same time denies Ukraine the right to defend its own national interests.

A striking example is the dissemination of Lukashenko’s statements that Ukraine is preparing hostile military actions against Belarus, about the existence of NATO bases on Ukrainian territory, that a “new front” of the struggle against Belarus is opening in Ukraine, and that Belarus is an “outpost” of Russia.

The Telegram channel VESTI wrote the following on September 1: “The White House announced that the $60 million U.S. military aid package to Ukraine would include lethal defensive weapons. A few minutes later, Alexander Lukashenko announced that Russia will supply Belarus with dozens of aircraft, helicopters, air defense systems, and, possibly, S-400s. Coincidence?”

On September 11, Strana.ua on their Telegram channel and National Politics in the article “’This is the scariest thing’: Why Zelensky began to frighten people with war after the start of the exercises between Russia and Belarus,” commented on the beginning of the Ukrainian United Efforts – 2021 and Russia and Belarus’s Zapad-2021 exercises. They both cited statements by Putin and Lukashenko about the defensive nature of the exercises, saying they are “naturally taking place because other organizations – for example, NATO – are actively increasing their presence near the borders of the Union State and the CSTO space.”

On September 12, National Politics sent out a story regarding the purchase of weapons by Belarus from Russia for protection from Ukraine: “The main reason voiced is the need to ‘strengthen the borders with Ukraine’… Things are starting to heat up from the south.” The same information was put out through the Strana.ua website: “Belarus will purchase weapons from Russia for more than a billion dollars to protect the border with Ukraine.”

On September 12, the Telegram channel Sputnik Near Abroad published a statement by Lukashenko on the significance of the Zapad-2021 exercises: “This is one of the most important training measures for the armed forces given the context of ongoing hybrid aggression from the West.”

Strana.ua on September 14 continued to develop the same narratives: “Alarming military preparations are underway in the region around Ukraine… At the same time, provisions are underway in Europe for possible clashes on the eastern border of the European Union, where an ‘uncontrollable escalation of hostilities’ may occur. Ukraine is the main contender for such an escalation, especially given Zelensky’s recent statements on the likelihood of a war with Russia.” In a similar article on Strana.ua titled “S-400s for ‘Batka’ [Lukashenko] and Bayraktars for Ze[linsky]: Why Kyiv and Minsk suddenly began to arm themselves” was written the following: “Batka is planning to position some of these weapons on the border with Ukraine… But Ukraine had already announced earlier that it was purchasing new Javelins and Bayraktars.”

Contrasting the Belarusian and Ukrainian exercises, Ukraine.ru reposted from Sputnik Near Abroad’s Telegram channel: “12,500 military personnel, including those from the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Sweden, and other countries, will take part in exercises called United Efforts – 2021. Earlier, Kyiv expressed various concerns about Russia and Belarus’s Zapad-2021 exercises taking place at the training grounds of these two countries. Kyiv maintained that the maneuvers were taking place right on the borders of Ukraine. Of course, the situation is different with NATO exercises.”

On September 27, the Telegram channel National Politics wrote that “Alexander Lukashenko again hinted that Ukraine is preparing hostile military actions against Belarus… Lukashenko said that a ‘new front’ is opening in Ukraine.”

At the same time, a similar message was published by Ukraina.ru: “Lukashenko is concerned about NATO bases in Ukraine… You see, they are dragging NATO troops there, to Ukraine. Under the guise of training centers, they are creating bases. The United States is establishing bases in Ukraine. We need to respond to this.” At the same time, Ukraina.ru admits that “de jure there are no NATO bases in Ukraine yet.” However, it concludes with this: “It is interesting to understand how Moscow and Minsk can stop these threats. At the very least, it is worth talking about the deepening integration of the countries’ military organizations. For Ukraine, this will mean stretching the potential ‘front line.’”

Ukraina.ru and other networks of pro-Russian media also circulated stories referring to Lukashenko’s statements on NATO military bases in Ukraine: “President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko believes that NATO is building military bases in Ukraine.”

Sputnik Near Abroad wrote that “Lukashenko talked about training camps in Ukraine where they instruct on ‘working in Belarus’… According to him, the U.S., under the guise of training centers, is actually creating NATO bases in Ukraine.”

At the same time, National Politics published a post quoting Putin’s press secretary Peskov: “The subject of the potential expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure into Ukraine has been repeatedly mentioned by President Putin. It is being discussed with Lukashenko as well.”

On September 29, Ukraine.ru reposted military observer Alexander Khrolenko’s article titled “What will be the response of Belarus and Russia to the deployment of NATO troops in Ukraine?” In the post, as well as an article on Sputnik Latvia, he claims that “NATO troops and the military infrastructure on Ukrainian territory are beyond the ‘red lines,’ which will trigger a joint response from Belarus and Russia to ensure the security of the two countries. The most likely scenario is a ‘mirror’ response of the armed forces of Belarus and Russia. Taking place on Belarusian soil, this will involve a transition from episodic Zapad exercises to continual interaction within the existing joint regional grouping of forces (a continuous series of maneuvers, a network of training centers, bases, and arsenals). A constant presence of the military grouping of the two countries with the latest weapons, including Iskander and Triumphs, within the boundaries of the Brest and Gomel regions (from where the Ukrainian territory and airspace are completely ‘shot through’) is technologically possible and strategically necessary.”

On October 3, Sputnik Near Abroad, synchronously with Sputnik Belarus, wrote: “There are more and more American bases near the Belarusian borders… In total, the Americans are planning to open 13 air bases in Europe with 450 fighter jets.”

On October 6, Strana.ua, commenting on a statement by the People’s Deputy of Ukraine Yegor Chernev on the possibility of a full-scale war with Belarus, wrote the following: “Relations between Ukraine and Belarus have deteriorated since last summer… Since then, accusations have been levied on both sides more than once, but in a clear sequence: Minsk only ‘mirrors’ what Kyiv says or does… Speaking seriously, Minsk still has not given a single reason to accuse it of preparing an aggressive war against our country.”

On October 2, Sputnik Near Abroad reposted from Sputnik Belarus: “Lukashenko in an interview with CNN: In the event of external aggression, Belarus will become a ‘single military base’ with Russia. ‘If necessary, this outpost will be created within a month.’”

Pro-Russian media often accuse Ukraine of using aggressive rhetoric against Belarus and Russia to tackle internal Ukrainian problems.

For example, on October 5, National Politics wrote: “It is possible that Zelensky will again have the trump card of an external threat. ‘It may not be Russia now, because Zelensky is hoping to meet with Putin. But it may be Lukashenko. They could advance the theme of threats from the north and ‘walls’ on the border.”

At the same time, Ukraine’s defensive measures on the border with Belarus in response to Lukashenko’s actions are depicted as a waste of funds.

On September 10, VESTI reported the following: “The State Border Service of Ukraine has strengthened control of the border with Belarus. Aircraft, boats, and foot patrols with service dogs are involved in defense… If it seemed to you at one time that your taxes were being wasted, now they’re being spent on planes and boats guarding the border with Belarus.”

On September 14, National Politics posted the following: “Project ‘Wall-2.0.’ Zelensky continues to adopt the ‘advanced’ experience of the Poroshenko era. Now they are again talking about the construction of a ‘Wall.’ Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is afraid that Lukashenko may send refugees to Ukraine. Therefore, he has proposed building a wall on the border.”

On October 1, from National Politics: “The Ministry of Internal Affairs said that by 2023 they want to build a wall along the entire length of the Russian-Ukrainian and Belarusian-Ukrainian borders… Only Zelensky knows how much will be spent on this ‘construction site of the century.’” VESTI similarly wrote “Next year will be a ‘great construction of borders’… How great it is to live in a country where there are no other problems and there is nowhere to spend 17 billion hryvnia, right, friends?”

Using the same rhetoric, Ukraina.ru and Sputnik Near Abroad commented on Ukraine’s plans to equip the border.

 

Radicals from Ukraine

Messages about Ukrainian nationalists who are preparing extremists for Belarus are systematically run in almost all pro-Kremlin media. They twist facts, distort, and directly disinform to reinforce this narrative.

For example, on September 15, Ukraina.ru, reporting about the shooting up of a Belarusian border marker, wrote: “Decommunization goes beyond the borders of Ukraine?… Perhaps, of course, some hunters were out cavorting. But it is possible these hunters were nationalists and that the coat of arms of Belarus seemed to them too similar to the coat of arms of the USSR. Will militant groups of Ukrainian nationalists next begin to knock down Lenin monuments in the neighboring regions?”

On September 14, Ukraina.ru reposted a story from Sputnik Belarus where it was stated that the discovery of a cache of weapons in the Rivne region by the Ukrainian special services is connected to the fact that “the Belarusian authorities have repeatedly confirmed a large quantity of illegal weapons is coming from Ukraine to Belarus.” No evidence of to whom the weapons cache belongs, however, is provided.

On September 27, National Politics, developing this theme further, posted the following: “Border guards find caches of weapons near the border with Belarus. ‘Batka’ [‘father’ in Belarusian – a reference to Lukashenko] believes they are not there for ‘internal use’… Clearly, we are seeing signs of offensive actions towards Belarus.”

Following established Soviet tradition, propaganda connects any dissent in Belarus with the activities of Western special services, which are supposedly working to destroy Belarus.

On September 23, Sputnik Near Abroad wrote: “Lukashenko talked about Western spies at Belarusian factories. ‘I have information that a few scoundrels are still there in some places, and they set themselves the goal of informing the collective West about how Parkhomchik and Nazarov are trying to bypass the sanctions. They spy and pass along information there.’”

On September 29, Sputnik Near Abroad reported that “the Belarusian KGB stopped the activities of the extremist network Rabochy Rukh. According to the agency, the movement, under the control of foreign special services, recruited workers from the country’s largest businesses.”

On October 1, Ukraine.ru reposted a Sputnik Near Abroad piece regarding Lukashenko’s comment on the deceased KGB officer: “Direct contact have been discovered between the ‘cells’ preparing the terrorist attacks in Belarus with the U.S. special services, specifically the FBI. RT in Russian posted the same. 

The case of the Wagnerites

It is important to note that pro-Kremlin media used the operation with the detention of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus in 2020 to confirm their narrative about the conducting of activities by Western and Ukrainian special services against Belarus, including discrediting Belarusian-Russian cooperation. The image of the enemy is being formed from the U.S. and Ukraine, and the thesis that Ukraine is under external control is further confirmed.

On September 8, Ukraina.ru reposted a message from Sputnik Near Abroad and wrote that “the operation to capture 33 Russians in Minsk was planned by the U.S. and Ukraine to break off Russian-Belarusian relations. This was reported by the Russian FSB. The department confirmed information that the CIA was involved in the implementation of this operation.”

At the same time, VESTI reposted news from the pro-Russian channel Klymenko Time, in which it was reported that “In its mini-film about the Wagnerites, CNN… is claiming with reference to some high-ranking Ukrainian intelligence officials that the U.S. provided Ukraine with funding and technical assistance in that operation.”

At the same time, RT in Russian wrote: “The CIA assisted Ukrainian intelligence with the operation, as a result of which 33 Russians were detained in Minsk a year ago.”

On September 14, Strana.ua published an interview with Andrei Derkach, who is under U.S. and Ukrainian sanctions, in which he claims: “The ‘Wagnerites’ is a long song for Zelensky and Co. In part, this is a scenario in which a part of the U.S. elite play off Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. On the other hand, the ‘Wagnerites’ are an element of external control, horror stories, and a vehicle for Yermak and Zelensky.”

 

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Материал доступен на русском языке: Оправдать милитаризацию Беларуси и интеграцию с Россией. Часть 1