Popular protests against the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus have left Western leaders anxious about how Russia will respond. Forceful intervention would not seem out of character for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has noted on state television that Lukashenko asked him to keep riot police at the ready in case “the situation gets out of control.” But such a course of action is almost certainly not Putin’s preference in Belarus. The Kremlin invaded and occupied territory in Georgia and Ukraine to prevent those countries from moving geopolitically westward. But in doing so, the Kremlin’s neoimperialists planted deep roots of resistance to Russian occupation and intensified popular support for Euro-Atlantic integration—especially among younger Georgians and Ukrainians. Belatedly, Moscow is learning that no amount of disinformation can reverse these trends.
For this reason, Putin has a different plan in mind for Belarus. Instead of deploying “little green men” to occupy Belarusian territory, Moscow is aiming for something we have called “soft annexation.” The strategy is to “boil the frog” gradually, starting with economic integration and a common currency, followed by political integration through a common foreign and defense policy, and culminating in a full-fledged Union State that would mean the de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia.
For the last few years, Putin has been pressing Lukashenko to submit to this plan by emphasizing its economic dimension. Russia long provided Belarus with large subsidies on oil exports; Putin has withheld them in the hope of pummeling the Belarusian economy into submission. Among other petty tactics, he has placed restrictions on Belarusian agricultural exports to Russia. Now, under cover of the current political crisis, Moscow is sending planeloads of “political technologists” to Belarus in addition to covert intelligence officers, cyber-operatives, media consultants, propagandists, and security advisers. These are little gray men rather than little green ones, and their specialty is political warfare. Their immediate task is to lay the groundwork for a soft annexation.
Moscow is aiming for something we have called “soft annexation.”
The Kremlin needs Lukashenko in power to achieve this goal—at least for the time being. Advisers deployed by the FSB, the Russian federal security service, are counseling the Belarusian leader to demobilize the protest movement through a combination of mass repression and specific threats against opposition leaders—threats, for example, that their children will be taken away and sent to orphanages. Drawing on Moscow’s well-tested playbook for stoking civil conflict in other countries, Russia’s political technologists have set about trying to open cleavages within the protest movement: between eastern and western Belarusians, blue-collar workers and intelligentsia, and Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Russian TV anchors have parachuted in from Moscow to convince the Belarusians that their national awakening is nothing but a foreign plot and its leaders, foreign agents.
So far, the Belarusians aren’t buying it. Lukashenko has alienated ordinary citizens by calling the protesters “rats” and appearing alongside his teenage son clad in body armor, clumsily holding a rifle: not exactly the image of a “man of the people.” His legitimacy is shot—covert polling carried out by a nongovernmental organization within Belarus shows that his support is under ten percent—and the Kremlin seems aware of that fact. Therefore, while Lukashenko busies himself intimidating opposition leaders, the Kremlin’s little gray men are quietly taking control of Belarusian security institutions, such as the KGB, the Ministry of Interior, and the armed forces.
In late August, reports surfaced that Lukashenko met with a senior Kremlin official at his residence. Shortly afterward, Putin told the media that Lukashenko was “ready to consider the possibility of constitutional reform, the adoption of a new constitution, and organizing new elections—both parliamentary and presidential elections—based on this new constitution.” As if on cue, Lukashenko told a Belarusian state-owned news agency that he was ready for dialogue with student and labor unions about new constitutional amendments. He stressed, however, that he would never engage in dialogue with the leaders of the protest movement, saying, “I’m not talking about the rioting thugs that walk the streets shouting that they want dialogue. They don’t want any dialogue.”
Lukashenko has alienated ordinary citizens by calling the protesters “rats.”
The parallel message from Moscow and Minsk is clear: constitutional changes and new elections are coming but on Moscow’s terms. The proposed constitutional changes will pave the way for greater economic integration with Russia, but they are likely to come packaged as the loosening of Lukashenko’s dictatorship. An expanded role for parliament, for instance, would ostensibly give power to the people but in practice enable Kremlin-backed puppet parties to exert greater influence. Such parties will be vital to Moscow if a future Belarusian leader proves to be more independent-minded than Lukashenko. Similarly, the promise of new elections might seem to be a concession to the protest movement, but for Moscow, it buys time to vet Kremlin-friendly candidates to stand for office.
Before they can realize their plans, however, Lukashenko and Putin must defuse the current crisis. Lukashenko will likely ramp up repression against the leaders of the protest movement in the weeks ahead, with FSB specialists helping behind the scenes. At the same time, his regime can be expected to open a “dialogue” with prominent Belarusian personalities: not the leaders of the protest movement but high-profile politicians who can be counted on to promote strong relations with the Kremlin.
Lukashenko will likely ramp up repression against the leaders of the protest movement.
The leaders of the European Union, the United States, and other Western democracies should not fall into the trap of legitimizing a staged dialogue in such a scenario. Nor should they make the mistake of talking to the Kremlin about Belarus over the heads of the country’s protest leaders. Rather, they should follow the maxim “Nothing about Belarus without [authentic representatives of] Belarus at the table.”
Indeed, Western democracies should offer vigorous support for Belarus’s national civic awakening. Today’s protest movement has given birth to a new consciousness that both mobilizes and unites Belarusians. Much like the Polish Solidarity movement that was born 40 years ago in the shipyards of Gdańsk, this consciousness stitches together blue-collar workers and intelligentsia, urban and rural communities—even, in today’s Belarus, IT-savvy youngsters and babushkas. Remarkably, the movement has also drawn in some members of the ruling nomenklatura.
Today’s protest movement has given birth to a new consciousness that both mobilizes and unites Belarusians.
Western leaders must empower this movement by fully embracing its leaders and their demands: new elections following a peaceful democratic transition, an immediate end to terror and repression, the lifting of restrictions on the media, and the release of political prisoners. Belarusian citizens need to understand that they are the ones shaping their future and that the West will support their sovereign right to have a voice in their country’s affairs. Western countries cannot and should not intervene in Belarus. But they have other tools at their disposal to help shape the outcome of the current crisis. They can sanction Lukashenko’s agents of repression, barring them from traveling to Western countries and freezing their assets in Western jurisdictions. They can devise an economic reconstruction plan to place on the table in the event that a democratic transition is successful.
Too many Western politicians are immobilized by the expectation that Russia will invade Belarus or use repressive means to keep Lukashenko in power. To be sure, the Kremlin will not shy away from using its covert leverage to achieve its goal of soft annexation. But it will face fierce resistance from Belarusian society. In this situation, Western democracies cannot be passive or, worse, supportive of a Russian-controlled transition. For Belarusians, such acquiescence would amount to a brutal betrayal of their hopes, substituting the current dictatorial regime with an equally brutal dictatorship by the Kremlin. Western leaders must offer full-throated support for the Belarusian democratic movement and its leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya, and shape the incentives for actors on the ground waiting to see how events play out. Such a decision should not be a hard one to make.
This article is also available on Foreign Affairs.