Raising the Stakes: The Kremlin’s Changing Scenarios for Belarus 

Raising the Stakes: The Kremlin’s Changing Scenarios for Belarus
Photo: rferl.org

With the approach of the presidential elections, not only is the situation inside Belarus becoming more complicated, but so is Minsk’s foreign policy. Moreover, in connection with the history of the detained Russian mercenaries, Belarus’s relationship has become increasingly strained with Russia, and not only with the West.

Before considering the evolution of the Kremlin’s strategy towards Belarus, let us briefly outline how pre-election Belarus looks from Moscow, and what this means.

What decisions did the Kremlin make regarding its scenarios for Belarus when it realized that the topic of “Maidan” and its harsh suppression in Belarus was sufficiently circulated, that the level of public discontent did not decrease, that the authorities had already de facto taken responsibility for everything that would happen around August 9, and that the topic of “deep integration” was becoming more and more elusive?

  • Moscow sees crowded pre-election rallies in favor of alternative candidates and understands that the tension in Belarusian society is not abating.
  • Lukashenka and his circle will pursue a violent scenario as they continually promote the theme of «Maidan.»
  • Applying its own experience in protests 10 years ago, Moscow understands that, most likely, without a further increase, the protesters will not take part in a harsh confrontation with security forces. That is, the image of crowded rallies is unlikely to turn into a picture of harsh crackdowns.
  • Moscow sees the restrained reaction of the West and the anti-Russian rhetoric of Minsk. Therefore, the prospect of Belarus’s isolation and the inevitable and quick “deep integration” in the “soft scenario” is at minimum deferred.

Because of this, Moscow is considering replacing its “soft” scenario with a tougher one – an “intensification” of the situation to obtain additional benefits.

Either anticipating such a turn, or guided by its own desire to join the foreign policy game with the West, Minsk sharply raised the stakes through the “Wagner case,” by summoning candidates to the Central Election Committee (CEC), and in bringing new criminal cases against Tikhanovsky and Statkevich under the article on planning mass riots.

Three Kremlin scenarios for Belarus for the 2020 elections

In our recent article “Post-truth and post-elections during post-Covid times in Belarus. Theory and practice of intervention”  we described 3 possible scenarios for the Kremlin’s actions during the 2020 Belarusian elections. Let us recap.

  1. Accentuated media activity or a simple slight “shift” in the situation. This would lead to a decrease in the legitimacy of the current president and provoke possible repressive actions. At a minimum, these kinds of repressive actions would lead to another “cooling” towards the West and, with some luck, to the cleansing of the civic and media arenas, leaving room for pro-Russian figures and narratives. For this, oddly enough, an openly pro-Russian candidate would not be needed. It would be enough to leave everything as it is given the situation with the Covid crisis, or to settle for modest investments through third parties in any actions leading to moderate destabilization. The main background would be to create actions in the information field.
  2. Controlled serious “shifting” of the situation and the creation of “controlled chaos.” Here, the costs of “shifting” the situation would be much higher. Among other things, such a scenario would necessitate the presence of provocateurs who at the right moment would intensify the situation to such a degree that either Minsk itself would have to ask Moscow for help, or Moscow, on its own initiative, would provide brotherly assistance in “bringing order.”
    Even without the inclusion of Moscow, the scale of the crackdown on protests would be much greater than in the first scenario, with the likelihood of bloodshed. As a result of this scenario, the civic and media fields would be completely cleared, and the western direction would be blocked. Isolating Belarus would thereby increase the likelihood of surrendering to the Kremlin’s mercy. In such a situation, the incumbent president would remain at his post, but would lose independence in decision making.
  3. The “Russian candidate” is a scenario in which the popularity of an alternative candidate “shoots” against the background of socio-economic and domestic political crises.

This scenario can be schematically divided into two variants:

  • The candidate is not registered, there is unrest, and as a result either scenario 1 or 2 is used.
  • The candidate is registered and in the elections they receive a majority in the first round or win in the second. All this requires street pressure and support from the Kremlin and part of the security forces.

In principle, such a scenario does not require an agreement between the Kremlin and the candidates in its initial stage and for the time being it can proceed as “scenario number 1,” creating maneuvering room. Then, in a critical situation, explanatory-compulsory negotiations are held with the candidate.
Such a scenario carries a lot of risks and costs, but it is not entirely impossible.

What has happened up until recently

Until last week, the situation was developing according to scenario number 1. The Kremlin did not have to do anything, except for some media adjustment in the information landscape. It is important to emphasize here that the Kremlin was quite satisfied for now with the moderate scenario number 1, since the situation here was completely under the control of the authorities. There were no potential risks of a possible “transitional government” or other unmanageable things.

However, the situation began to change when it became clear that the tension in society did not subside, and the authorities again made the mistake of talking with the public. Instead of dialogue and attempts to resolve the situation in a civilized manner, Lukashenko himself and the state media began to promote the topic of “Maidan,” including demonstrating the capabilities of law enforcement agencies to disperse and clean up areas. The evolution of the Belarus political regime towards a personalistic military regime also testifies to the intensified planning for this scenario. On the other hand, the well-attended and completely legal meetings with candidates continue, which to Russian experts and people in power look like mass protests.

It has become clear to Kremlin experts that tensions in society will not subside before the elections. There is an impression that the use of force in some form is completely inevitable, but it is not a fact that it will create the necessary picture for the isolation of Belarus towards the West. The new Belarusian society is dissatisfied but not ready to lay itself en masse under the bludgeon. At the same time, the state media in Belarus increasingly cite Russia as the main threat.

For some time, the Kremlin, through controlled media and Telegram channels, demonstratively distanced itself from what is happening in Belarus. The topic of a possible “Maidan” is sustained only by provisional marginal patriots, while the mainstream talks about the impossibility of a real Maidan and more about an escalation of the situation by the authorities themselves. Essentially, responsibility for the “violent option” is completely shifted to Lukashenko and his circle.

In continuing the “soft” scenario the Kremlin would not be satisfied with the likely weak reaction of the West in the absence of excessive repression. If there is no serious cooling of relations between Minsk and the West, then the likelihood of “deep integration” will soon decrease.

What is happening right now?

It is highly likely that Moscow will decide to change the conditionally “soft” scenario to scenario number 2 – controlled chaos, and then a controlled government of an isolated Belarus.

When the situation is tense and it becomes clear that some kind of forceful development of circumstances is inevitable, it makes sense to ensure a presence in this process – to create controlled chaos and to create desired conditions, and in order to stop this controlled chaos at the right time.

As a benefit in this case, the Kremlin can get a cleaned-up Belarusian civic sphere, a hopelessly closed western direction, and Belarus’s compliance with a new version of deep integration.

Essentially, scenario number 2, from the Kremlin’s point of view, accelerates deep integration and eliminates the long wait until Belarus “matures.”

As far as we know, Mishustin has already prepared a new version of the road map for integration and will be put on Lukashenko’s table immediately after the “elections” story is over.

The topic of deepening integration immediately after the elections has already gone out for promotion on Kremlin-affiliated Telegram channels.

According to a number of sources close to the Russian presidential administration, recently, following a study of the situation in Belarus, the Kremlin decided in favor of changing scenario number 1 to scenario number 2 – an exacerbation of the situation with the prospect of subsequent harsh repression and isolation of Belarus.

It is difficult to say whether the option of rendering “fraternal assistance” will be retained in scenario number 2. So far, in the information sphere, the Kremlin has been distancing itself as much as possible from possible tragic events. It is significant that Lukashenko, using the “Wagner case,” has apparently begun to act proactively and has already strengthened control of the border with Russia.

How Minsk is responding

Minsk probably tried to “play forward” in its traditional style. Even during the “soft scenario” the government repeatedly talked about interference (which seems to be Russian, but of an oligarchic sort), about uncertain kinds of “Maidans” and “winds” from different directions, promising harsh suppression.

Surely even earlier, Lukashenko’s circle gained knowledge of inside information about the likely change in the Kremlin scenario. (Moreover, this inside information could be a deliberate leak precisely to further increase nervousness and provoke the Belarusian authorities to take tough actions inside the country, primarily against their own citizens.)

To neutralize possible Russian actions and to enlist the support of Ukraine and the European Union, the Belarusian authorities made a distinctive strong move.

Thus, the detention of the “Wagnerites,” regardless of the real reason for their presence in Belarus looks like a preemptive move by Minsk in response to a likely change in Moscow’s plans. This indicates a sharp increase in stakes in a confrontation between Minsk and Moscow, as well as additional opportunities in relations with the West and Ukraine. It is reported that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) is already preparing a request for the extradition of some of the detainees. Judging by the fact that today the State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Andrei Ravkov announced the opening of criminal prosecution under the article of “terrorism,” Belarusian authorities are disposed to seriously push the “Wagner case.”

Today’s call of candidates to the Central Election Commission falls into the same backdrop of events where they were told about another 170 militants roaming the country and about two training camps in Russia, near Pskov and Nevel. A press release of the Investigative Committee creates a reader impression that the cases of Sergei Tikhanovsky, Nikolai Statkevich and the “Wagnerites” in terms of planning riots have been combined or will be rolled into one.

In response to a likely threat from Russia, the Belarusian authorities seem to be creating another Frankenstein made of Russian “militants” who, for some unknown reason, were on the territory of Belarus, and opposition members who have been under arrest for more than two months. Apparently, to offer up the jailed Tikhanovsky and, especially, Statkevich, as leaders of pro-Russian unrest is a very strong move towards the West, which should swallow it all up, be horrified, and largely close its eyes to what is happening.

The “Wagner case” looks like a reincarnation of the “White Legion” case, only now in the Russian tricolors. Naturally, the independent media field of Belarus reacted to these events with great skepticism.

The problem for the current information management of the situation is that now – given statements about a kind of Maidan, a different Maidan and various hostile groups which have already turned into information garbage – is that real, truthful information, even if it does exist, risks being ignored by the public even for all the efforts of state propaganda.

And, paradoxically, this is the victory and principle of the Russian hybrid war – to muddy the information field to the point of making it impossible to determine what is really going on. As a result, the public ceases to trust any incoming information. The irresponsible information policy of the Belarusian authorities and its low level of trust among Belarusians are very favorable to this.

How can the course of the Kremlin’s scenarios be changed?

Protest moods in Belarus now are based on general dissatisfaction with the situation created by the permanent rule of Lukashenko, and it is not that important for society who turns out to be the situational leader. Only a conversion of the entire situation into a negotiation process on reforms and changes in the country among Belarusian authorities, the political opposition, and civil society is able to remove the element of (externally controlled) chaos and transfer it to the intra-Belarusian plane.

In this way the spontaneous component of protests will be removed and public dissatisfaction with what is happening in the country can be translated into a constructive channel. Recently, at a regular meeting with security officials, Lukashenko set them a task: first, to safeguard the country and, second, the presidential elections. If so, then it is high time for the Belarusian authorities to initiate a full-fledged dialogue of national accord. This then would be a healthy and peaceful Belarusian scenario.

Материал доступен на русском языке: Ставки на повышение: Смена сценариев Кремля для Беларуси