- EYES ON UKRAINE – WHILE PUTIN ADVANCES IN BELARUS
- RUSSIA'S MILITARY BUILDUP
- DRONE PROVOCATION
- ESTONIA EXTENDS SANCTIONS
EYES ON UKRAINE – WHILE PUTIN ADVANCES IN 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).
In just two days, Belarus will pass one-and-a-half years term of the greatest political crisis in its independent history. The country is entering this period without legitimate president and a variety of top-level officials, including a number of ministers and the head of Central election commission. Without legitimate and legal representation of its population, the Republic of Belarus as the system of public institutions faces major erosion of its state-forming structures that by itself is a great risk-factor for the country’s sovereignty.
For instance, Olga Lautman (Non-resident Senior Fellow, CEPA) highlights in her recent article that the independence of action that Lukashenka «carved out for himself over three decades in power has gone» as Belarus «now does what the Kremlin tells it». Brian Whitmore (nonresident senior fellow, The Atlantic Council) expresses similar opinion in his piece. In his words, Lukashenka concluded «his only chance of political survival was to embrace Putin as tightly as possible». So now «Putin is quietly occupying Belarus» while the world is distracted by Russia-Ukraine debate.
After Lukashenka lost his ability to maintain independent decisions, he catalyzed the process of transforming Belarus into Russia-controlled protectorate where he is left to maintain a Kremlin-controlled puppet government with his own political status comparable to the chiefs of the so-called «LNR», «DNR», or Russia-backed administrators in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
After becoming unpopular politician at home, Lukashenka became more beholden to Putin than ever in the past. And now he is being used by the Kremlin for two purposes. Firstly, to push the Kremlin’s radical «Soviet conservative» agenda inside Belarus and across the region (targeted against Poland and the Baltic states) to satisfy growing desire for revenge by «siloviki«. Secondly, to provide space for false flag operations of Russia’s military against Ukraine and ensure infrastructure disruptions when necessary.
Lukashenka has turned into Putin’s proxy. In the last 18 months, Lukashenka cleaned up the road to the Russians. As of today, the number of civilians acknowledged political prisoners grew to 1035. At least 79 civilians faced criminal prosecution on political grounds in January 2022 only while new illegal break-ins and searches by Lukashenka-controlled armed groups continued throughout February. This tendency follows the repressive trend from 2021 when nearly 5,500 repressive processes were initiated against civilians for exercise of political rights or conducting their legal work.
The risk of turning Belarus into Russia’s protectorate and the loss of independence and sovereignty is unprecedented. In just three weeks, the Kremlin and Minsk plan to orchestrate an imitation of «referendum on new constitution” at a gunpoint amid the presence of Russia’s military unseen since the Soviet times. In that sense, the show is no different from Russia’s 2014 imitation of democratic procedures at a gunpoint in Crimea or promotion of «Constitutions» in the so-called «DNR» and «LNR» conquered with the use of Russia’s regular troops and local proxies.
Not surprisingly, there will be no «referendum voting» for Bealrusians living abroad. A spokesman of the so-called «Makei’s MFA» Anatoli Hlaz said there will be no polling stations abroad. Up to half a million Belarusians thus would be denied to cast their vote. Hlaz said that there are not enough personnel to organize the vote. He also said that «embassies» and «consulates» decided “not to risk the health of employees and voters due to a drastic change in the epidemic situation in the host countries” and are afraid to allow the voters inside the embassies due to “concerns about the employees’ security”. Instead, all Belarusians who live abroad where urged to move to Belarus instead – where many of them face the risk of torture and arbitrary detention.
On Monday, the Russian government published an agreement between Russia and Belarus that the Belarusian troops will join Russia’s army in Syria. Although this plan is presented as a response to current confrontation between Russia, Belarus, and the West, BYPOL (a pro-democratic union of Belarus security forces) published leak-based information about this plan almost a year ago – in January 2021. Since then, there has been numerous source-based reports that the officials from Belarus military already served at Russia’s military objects in Syria since mid-2021. The winner of 2020 presidential elections Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says that “Lukashenka is paying with Belarus’ sovereignty for the support he received in 2020 that helped him stay in power”.
The latests events in and around Belarus (foremost – the transformation of Belarus from independent state into a protectorate with Russia-controlled puppet government led by Lukashenka) rises a question whether the West has political will to review its position on who (individually or collectively) has legal title to represent the Republic of Belarus as the system of representative institutes in rapidly approaching accomplishment of de-facto occupation of Belarus by Russia.
RUSSIA'S MILITARY BUILDUP
Western officials express alarm at Russia’s military build-up in Belarus. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on 31 January that Russia has already moved nearly 5,000 troops into Belarus. According to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “This is the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War, with an expected 30,000 combat troops” as well as Spetsnaz special operations forces, SU-35 fighter jets, S-400 air defence systems and Iskander missiles.
On 3 February, the same day Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Belarus to oversee the joint maneuvers, a top US State Department official spoke with Lukashenka’s «foreign minister» Uladzimir Makei “about the concerning buildup of Russian troops in Belarus,” and warned that Minsk would face harsh consequences if it allowed its territory to be used to launch an invasion of Ukraine. Lukashenka-controlled media didn’t report the call.
In an interview with CNN, Estonian Ambassador to the US Kristjan Prikk said that he thinks it is “highly likely” that Russia could use the exercises as a pretext to leave “a sizable military contingent” in Belarus. “They may rotate this contingent, may not declare it to be permanent, but it is possible that they are going to stay there. And this is something that changes the sort of defence calculus in our region considerably,” he said. Prikk added that the southern part of Belarus gives Russia a suitable staging ground for threatening and potentially attacking Ukraine.
Another European diplomat also noted that the Russian military build-up in Belarus would be the missing piece that Moscow would need to launch a quick attack on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, which is less than two hours from the border of Belarus.
The other concern European diplomats express is the fact that both the US and Europe “have underestimated, not to say largely ignored, the strategic and military consequences of the Russian de facto political and military takeover of Belarus, which has been ongoing since 2020 and is now being finalized, with their joint exercise as a highly symbolic crowning event”.
Amid the rising tensions, on 31 January, the US State Department ordered the families of US diplomats to leave Belarus and advised the US citizens not to travel to Belarus. “Due to an increase in unusual and concerning Russian military activity near the border with Ukraine, U.S. citizens located in or considering travel to Belarus should be aware that the situation is unpredictable and there is heightened tension in the region”, the travel advisory states.
Since 1 February, Lithuanian Railways stopped transporting potash produced by Belaruskali, a crucial cash cow of the Lukashenka regime. Until February, Lithuania was the main export route for the Belarusian potash, handling 12.5 million tonnes of the commodity a year through its port in Klaipeda. Lukashenka’s «prime minister» Raman Halouchanka said on Tuesday that the country has diverted potash shipments from Klaipeda to Russian ports, adding that “due to the longer delivery distance through Russia, our producers have lost a little in margins, but this will be compensated by higher global prices”.
Russian news outlet Kommersant has been unable to find any confirmation that such deliveries are being prepared. “Neither Russian companies that own port terminals nor the Russian government know about it. At the same time, Russia simply doesn’t have the port capacity to handle 10 million tons of Belarusian potash”, it concludes.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the issue of redirecting supplies of Belarusian potash fertilizers to Russian ports is on the agenda. But added that according to his information, the redirection of these flows has not yet begun.
On 2 February, it was reported that India plans to buy 1 million tonnes of Belarusian potash and pay with Indian rupees to bypass the sanctions. “India has suggested that the state-run Belarus Potash Company (BPC) could open a rupee account with a state-run Indian bank for potash sales as sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union cut off the Minsk from dollar and euro trade, the officials said”, Reuters reports. According to a unanimous Indian official, the country could buy 1 million tonnes of Belarusian potash in 2022. The deal could be sealed as early as this month. It is unclear, however, how the Lithuanian decision to halt the contract with Belaruskali could affect the potential deal.
As a reciprocal measure, Lukashenka authorized to ban the transit of oil and fertilizers from Lithuania through its territory. The measure should come into effect on 7 February. According to Lithuanian Railways, an average of about 18 trains a day come from Lithuania to Belarus, of which 5-6 trains are loaded at Lithuanian stations. The trains formed in Lithuania mainly carry oil products, fertilizers and ferrous metals. Reacting to the actions of Belarus, some Lithuanian producers are already trying to use new routes via Poland, says Vaidotas Sileika, President of the Lithuanian Association of Sea Carrier Companies. Poland’s largest oil refining company, Orlen, which owns an oil refinery in Lithuanian Mazeikiai has already announced that it will carry oil products from Lithuania to Ukraine via Poland.
On February 3, when Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was visiting Belarus, Lukashenka’s «foreign ministry» summoned the Ambassador of Ukraine to Belarus Igor Kizim over an alleged launch of an unmanned aerial vehicle from Ukraine into Belarus’ territory.
According to the Ministry, on January 24, a Ukrainian drone “illegally crossed the state border of Belarus, was captured in our country’s airspace and forced to land by the Armed Forces”. The ministry also claimed that the drone was launched to conduct “illegal reconnaissance activities over the Brest military training ground”.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry denied it as another provocation of the Belarusian authorities. “This is another provocation by the Belarusian authorities. The mythical “tons of weapons” have been replaced by “drones.” Ukraine did not use UAVs. We urge Minsk not to play along with Russia’s destabilizing actions. Calm on the border between Belarus and Ukraine is in the entire region’s interests,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Mykolenko said in a tweet.
Later that day, Belarusian state TV showed a story about the drone incident which also included the entire route of the UAV. Incidentally, it proved that the drone was launched from the Belarusian territory, flew into the territory of Ukraine for about 2 km, and then turned around.
Although the drone is widely believed to be of Russian origin, another popular hypothesis is that it the object shown by Lukashenka’s propaganda was assembled from a few drones hit in Donbas and delivered to Belarus for purposes of military provocation against Ukraine. The next day after the incident was made public, a similar object was hit by the Ukrainian military in Donbas.
ESTONIA EXTENDS SANCTIONS
On February 3, Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas announced plans to expand restrictions against Belarusian oil products after a consortium of investigative journalists described in detail the scheme used by Lukashenka-linked businessmen to transit sanctioned Belarusian oil products through Estonia.
The scheme mostly exploited exemptions on products that are not classified as sanctioned. This involves two codes, unsanctioned 2707 and sanctioned 2710. Code 2707 exports from Belarus to Estonia increased 30-fold from close to zero in November 2020, to around 150,000 tons a month in 2021, totaling half-a-billion euros in trade value.
“We have decided to impose additional sanctions on Belarus from the Estonian state, namely to suspend the transit of coal-based oil numbered under customs code 2707, via Estonia,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. Estonia is also coordinating its activities with Latvia and Lithuania and intends to propose the introduction of the same sanction at the European Union level.