- A merger with Russia within the framework of the Union State
- Legalizing the occupation of Crimea
- Deepening integration
- Hybrid aggression through illegal migrants
- The church factor
A merger with Russia within the framework of the Union State
In September-October 2021, the Kremlin continued to use topics related to Belarus to conduct media campaigns against Ukraine, for example, discussing Minsk’s supposed recognition of the occupation of Crimea.
The detention in Belarus last summer of 33 militants of the Wagner private military company was revived to accuse the Ukrainian and American special services of actions aimed at discrediting Russian-Belarusian relations.
Events related to the internal political situation in Belarus, such as the death of a KGB officer during the storming of a private apartment, were used to accuse Western countries of carrying out destructive activities in the country.
A new factor introduced was Russia’s attempts to use the religious angle to influence the situation in Belarus.
Legalizing the occupation of Crimea
The Kremlin continues to use Belarus in media operations to legitimize the occupation of Crimea and to demonstrate its supposed recognition by Minsk. At the same time, a fictitious demand by Belarusians for direct relations with Crimea is often portrayed.
A striking example is a publication on October 8 on the Telegram channel Sputnik Near Abroad news from Sputnik Belarus: “Belarus has signed an international treaty with Crimea. A school in Simferopol and a school in Minsk signed a formal agreement on humanitarian cooperation. This regards reciprocal trips of students and teachers and the exchange of experience.” Sputnik Belarus: “A school in Simferopol signed a cooperation agreement with a Minsk school, said Deputy Permanent Representative of Crimea under the President of Russia Mikhail Solomentsev in an interview with Sputnik. This is the first such international treaty for Crimea.”
On the same day, Ukraina.ru, Sputnik Near Abroad, and Sputnik Belarus dedicated notes to the discussion of the Minsk-Simferopol business forum, which was held in Minsk: “’Crimea is ours, meaning also Belarusian…’ A direct flight from Minsk to Simferopol is under discussion. Companies operating in Crimea under sanctions are finding new ways of working and new connections, including with Belarus. ‘We are waiting for Belarusians to board airplanes for Crimea at any moment.’ There are many infrastructure projects in Crimea, but there is a shortage of some personnel. Belarusian specialists will almost certainly participate in large-scale construction projects. Commodity sanctions, the inability for international companies to fly – all this is surmountable.”
On September 9, Ukraina.ru quoted the leader of the Soyuz movement Sergei Lushch: “The same applies to other political topics, for example the recognition of Crimea. Judging by statements from Minsk and Moscow, the heads of state do not see this topic as urgent. Moreover, many Belarusian citizens would like to speed up the process.”
One of the Kremlin’s top priorities is to provide media support for integration processes and the associated strengthening of the Russian presence in Belarus. At the same time, special attention is paid to the economic benefits of the relationship, specifically relative to the supply of energy carriers and the need for cooperation in the military sphere. Even when energy prices in Europe normalize, this situation will be used by the Kremlin time and again to put pressure on Europe and Ukraine.
On September 9, National Politics, in commenting on the results of the meeting between Putin and Lukashenko, highlighted the following among the main points of the agreement: “[G]as: the price for Belarus in 2022 will remain at current levels ($128.50) and by December 1, 2023, they will sign an agreement on a single gas market. The same will be done for oil and electricity. Belarus and Russia are moving towards a common economic and defense space… By the end of 2022, Russia will provide loans to Belarus for $640 million.” Other pro-Kremlin media outlets, for example, NewsOne and RT in Russian, also posted the same news with an emphasis on gas.
On September 9, RT in Russian wrote that “Lukashenko said that there is nothing bad for the peoples of Russia and Belarus in integration and that it is mutually beneficial.”
On September 13, Sputnik Near Abroad published an interview with Russian political scientist Dmitry Abzalov: “… In the modern world, only those countries that can effectively integrate survive… Speaking about the 28 union programs that the heads of the two states discussed last week, Abzalov particularly emphasized their economic benefits.”
On October 4, Sputnik Near Abroad reposted an article from Sputnik Belarus: “In the context of a European deficit Gazprom is pumping gas into Belarusian storage facilities.” And on October 7, this same resource wrote: “Energy independence along the Baltic model, or how to overpay for Russophobia. Gas and electricity prices in the Baltic States are breaking records.”
In a post from September 11, Ukraine.ru wrote ironically the following: “It is true that Russia is using gas as a weapon. In Europe, the gas price is $700, and for Belarus it is $128. $572 (and in the case of Ukraine, even more) is the price of Russophobia. True, the Russophobic premium is offered completely voluntarily, and they are using gas as a weapon against themselves.”
Oftentimes, pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine talk about increased integration of Belarus and Russia as a response to Western sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.
National Politics writes: “It is worth remembering that Russia has been talking about deepening integration with Minsk for several years already. But Lukashenko has not gone for it, trying to pursue a multi-vector policy while developing relations with the West. However… the West essentially broke off relations with Lukashenko. And the process of negotiations on deepening integration with Russia has been very active.”
On September 9, VESTI supported this message: “Lukashenko believes that Belarus and Russia, if necessary, will instantly become even closer militarily and politically. This is a natural result of the pressure that the EU and the U.S. have applied to the current authorities of Belarus.” It also states that “On December 1, 2021, an agreement will be signed on the unification of the gas markets of Russia and Belarus. This is hardly good news for our gas transit system.”
For example, on October 7, RT in Russian wrote that “MEPs are concerned about the integration of Russia and Belarus. This is stated in the draft resolution on the situation in the country after a ‘year of protests.’ Similar news ran on the RT website in an article titled The European Parliament expressed concern about cooperation between Russia and Belarus.”
The Kremlin also uses any Western discussion of the militarization of Belarus to demonstrate a threat to the Union State.
For example, on October 7, RT in Russian wrote the following: “MEPs are concerned about the integration of Russia and Belarus. This is stated in the draft resolution on the situation in the republic after the “year of protests”. Similar news was duplicated on the RT website in the article «The European Parliament expressed concern about cooperation between Russia and Belarus.»
The next day, RT in Russian expanded on this: “The resolution of the European Parliament condemning the union integration of Russia and Belarus is interference in the affairs of two sovereign countries.” Further in the article is says, “The Secretary of the Union State spoke of the influence of the European Parliament on the dialogue between Moscow and Minsk” and that “according to Mezentsev, the European parliamentarians are thereby trying to negatively influence the interstate dialogue between Moscow and Minsk. According to him, ‘the resolution of the European Parliament only emphasizes the significance and scale of joint decisions of Belarus and Russia on economic integration.’”
Hybrid aggression through illegal migrants
In the media campaign that accompanies the assaults on Poland and Lithuania through illegal migration is a clear demonstration of Moscow’s support for Lukashenko. Pro-Kremlin propaganda accuses the EU of the situation on the borders and the cruel treatment of refugees, disseminates stories about the West refusing Lukashenko’s offer to hold consultations on countering illegal migration and resolving the problem, and maintains that the EU is attempting to fill the country with terrorists and extremists.
At the same time, the work of Lithuania and Poland on the actual arrangement of the border with Belarus is ridiculed, and their policy towards migrants is portrayed as a failure of the European Union as an institution.
Ukraina.ru with reference to Sputnik Near Abroad writes that “Moscow is surprised by the accusations towards Minsk that it supposedly encourages and creates illegal migration to the European Union.”
Sputnik Near Abroad published an interview with Russian Senator Pushkov: “’Refugees will blow up the European Union.’ … By refusing to let refugees in, the Baltic states and Poland are, in fact, considered lawbreakers and dissidents in the European Union. However, all this will be hushed up, Belarus will be made the guilty party, and, as always, innocent people will suffer.”
On September 2, RT in Russian wrote: “Minsk is offering to Brussels to hold consultations on the migration problem, but the European Union is refusing, says the head of the Belarusian MFA.”
On September 9, RT in Russian quoted Putin: “’Go tell the Belarusian authorities that you are talking to us.’ Putin here is saying that the West is asking Russia to influence the conflict on the Belarusian-Polish and Belarusian-Lithuanian borders… But President Alexander Lukashenko came to power not through an armed struggle, but through a vote. Whether someone likes it or not.’ And one more post from RT on this day: “Lukashenko said that he is grateful to Putin for the policy of non-interference in the affairs of Belarus on the issue of migrants.”
On October 2, RT in Russian quoted Putin regarding Lukashenko’s CNN interview: “These poor fellows have been sitting there for two and a half months, more than 30 people whom we dress, feed, and warm up. And on the other side there is barbed wire and Polish soldiers are standing there with machine guns… They didn’t even go to Poland or Lithuania. They went to Germany, where they were invited.” RT sends out Lukashenko’s position on the non-involvement of the Belarusian regime in the migration crisis.
On October 2, Sputnik Near Abroad reposted Sputnik Belarus, quoting Lukashenko as saying that “migrants are an EU problem, not Lukashenko’s revenge.”
Generally, almost all of Lukashenko’s statements from his interview with CNN were run again by pro-Kremlin media while CNN itself was accused of refusing to publish the full version of the video.
On October 2, Sputnik Near Abroad published the following: “Lukashenko vs. CNN. The interview of the President of Belarus became something of a scandal. The conversation lasted 51 minutes. On air CNN showed only 8 minutes of the interview, although one of the conditions from the Belarusian side was that there was to be no censorship or editing… Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova is convinced that CNN ‘believed in exclusivity so much that they completely lost their ability to understand.’”
The church factor
Within the framework of the monitoring, the Kremlin’s attempts to informally influence the religious situation in Belarus are also notable. It is possible that this direction will be developed further.
For example, on September 10, Sputnik Near Abroad, citing Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Lukashenko, wrote that “the U.S. is trying to create an autocephalous non-canonical church in Belarus. Sergey Lavrov talked about this. Earlier, the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) called the idea of autocephaly destructive. President Lukashenko also spoke about the desire of enemies of the Belarusian state to declare the autocephaly of the BOC. According to him, concrete steps towards this have already been observed. For example, the ‘letters to Constantinople.’”
Pro-Kremlin media also touch on the topic of religion in the context of integration. On September 12, Ukraine.ru published an opinion piece stating that “the process of integration and intermingling of the two peoples is happening quickly due to the absence of linguistic, cultural, and religious barriers. There is no actual or legal difference in Belarus. Any difference is quickly erased since the entire population of the country lives in the Russian cultural and media space. At the everyday level then there is no difference between ‘Belarusian Russians’ and Belarusians.”
The monitoring of pro-Russian media over the period of early autumn yields much on the Kremlin’s attempts in Ukraine and Belarus to create confidence regarding the permanence of Russia’s integration successes in Belarus. Lukashenko, who retained power thanks to the support of Moscow, is turning into a Kremlin media puppet, paying his debt with Belarus’s sovereignty and with attacks on Ukraine.