We republish the analytical review first published on the Ukrainian Tyzhden (Week) magazine website on August 25, 2020. The analytical review was prepared by Dzianis Ivashyn, editor of the Belarusian version of InformNapalm international initiative’s website
InformNapalm’s editors added links to supporting OSINT studies and images to complement the article.
The events of the past months in Belarus are starting to resemble Russia’s direct meddling with Ukraine in 2004-2005 and 2013-2014. There is a persistent apprehension of Russia’s making use of its Ukrainian scenario of hybrid aggression in Belarus adjusted for the Belarusian specifics.
The latest electoral campaign in Belarus, was supposed to “elegantly” re-elect dictator Lukashenka, triggered processes that may remove the Belarusian state from the world map. The underpinnings for that were laid two years ago by the Russian intelligence services operating from the Russian diplomatic missions in Belarus.
Base of Operations
Mikhail Babich, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, who has been close to KGB and FSB throughout his work life, has been enjoying broad opportunities for supporting the political warfare actions in Belarus initiated by the Russian foreign intelligence service since 2018. They included HUMINT activities, recruiting some high-ranking military and public officials, regional and business leaders, as well as opinion leaders representing Belarus’ civil society.
As a member of Russia’s Security Council, Mikhail Babich took part in launching the special operation to occupy the Crimea. This fact urged Kyiv to reject him as Russia’s potential ambassador to Ukraine. However, Minsk has been more conciliatory in dealing with this “ambassador of war.”
Mikhail Babich and Vladislav Surkov / Photo by: premier.gov.ru
Over the past two years, the Russian Embassy in Belarus has been teeming with officers from the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (ex GRU), Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and Federal Security Service (FSB). While staying in Belarus, they were able to develop all potential scenarios of forcing Lukashenka’s regime to fully integrate Belarus into the so-called Union State.
To do so, Russia needs to weaken Lukashenka’s regime as much as possible, push him deeper into international isolation, make the dictator himself exceedingly toxic, and, if necessary, orchestrate the power transfer from him to another pro-Russian figure in a controlled manner. Russia’s influence agents at all tiers of Belarus’ government system play an essential role in making this scenario come true.
Evidently, Lukashenka’s August 2020 re-election campaign was chosen to deliver the critical blow. In May, three months earlier, three new opponents to the regime appeared from nowhere; they have never taken part in the political process before, nor have they ever claimed the highest office in the state. All personalities in this “new opposition” have links to the Russian Federation in some way. It bears mentioning that neither Belarusian national democracy matters nor issues of the national development or support to the strengthening of the ethnic identity are on the agenda.
Valery Tsapkalo, who has not been registered as a presidential candidate, started his professional life as an officer of the USSR Embassy to Finland that had been filled with agents of KGB’s First Chief Directorate—the predecessor of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. For a long time, he maintained close ties with Valery Skurlatov, a Russian far-right Black Hundred functionary. Together with him, he used to be a member of Russia’s Revival Party, aiming at restoring the USSR in its 1945 borders.
A fortnight before the end of the electoral campaign, Tsapkala fled to Russia and wrote an open letter to Putin asking him to support a “free presidential election” and defending Russian militants detained in Belarus. Russian media are quite active in covering his political activity. Valery Tsapkala can be identified as the main contender for a leading role in the new opposition.
Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a businessman, is yet another Lukashenka’s new opponent with presidential ambitions. Holding his core assets in Russia, he suddenly became active in Belarus media in March 2019, with Mikhail Babich still in his chair in the Russian Embassy in Minsk. His first video published on Country for Life YouTube channel immediately gathered dozens of thousands of views, a potential pointer to the targeted funding of the channel. Being totally unknown politically, he starts meeting with leaders of the Belarusian mainstream opposition. Unprecedentedly, Tsikhanouski starts claiming the highest office in the state to himself within a year.
InformNapalm International Intelligence Community established as a fact that Siarhei Tsikhanouski visited Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territory in Crimea unlawfully in 2017 and produced a video claiming that Belarus has always been a part of the so-called “Russian world.”
His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who mobilized all of Belarus’ protest potential, has become Lukashenka’s primary opponent. It was catalyzed by a special services’ provocation against her husband, who has been held in pretrial custody since May 2020. The joint headquarters of the “new opposition” that came into existence around her as the only registered presidential candidate has made use of her husband’s social capital to the fullest. Tsikhanouskaya has always been claiming the purely technical nature of her candidacy. On August 11, she also left Belarus; she is currently physically separated from the joint headquarters. Her statements pacified the hitherto radical mass protests.
Despite Tsikhanouskaya’s openly referring to Russia as the “big brother” and her pro-Russian rhetoric, it is possible that she would support the materialization of the native Belarusian scenario, given the appropriate influence of international actors.
Viktаr Babaryka, Lukashenka’s yet another emerging opponent with presidential ambitions, is directly affiliated with Russia’s strategically important Gazprom—for twenty years, he was the chief executive Belgazprombank, its Belarusian subsidiary. Babaryka was the chief executive officer of an entity whose profits funded, for instance, Russia’s military aggression in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. With the help of Belgazprombank, Russia was able to bring pressure to bear on Belarus directly in the energy sector.
In 2010, Russia waged a full-fledged information war against the Lukashenka regime, relying on Gazprom and its Gazprom-Media Holding subsidiary (NTV channel). This campaign resulted in The Godfather TV series that urged people to take part in mass protests against the regime in December 2010 after the so-called “presidential election.” At that time, the Russian Federation aimed at putting an end to the rapprochement of the Republic of Belarus with the EU dangerous to the Russian interests, intensifying the development of the Customs Union, and forcing Minsk to join the Common Economic Space.
Lukashenka’s reliance on the repressive mechanism, brutal crackdown on protesters on December 19, 2010, arrests, and criminal prosecution of hundreds of people throughout the country resulted in the international isolation of his regime. Russia’s goals and objectives have been met fully. Besides, Russia has gained strategic control over Belarus’ gas transit system, and become the country’s sole creditor and energy supplier. Belarus’ foreign policy became subservient to Russia in many respects, with the country’s almost becoming a Russian protectorate.
Ten years later, Russia is using the “presidential election” in Belarus in a similar fashion, trying to attain its current geopolitical goals. Direct agents of Russian influence pervading the entire public governance system in Belarus provide assistance.
On August 9-12, 2020, the whole world was shocked by the outright terror unleashed by the security forces against the civilian population of Belarus. By now, the deaths of at least three protesters against the dictatorial regime have been confirmed officially. These are Aliaksandr Taraikouski from Minsk, Aliaksandr Vikhor from Homel, and Henadz Shutau from Brest. Hundreds of people suffered gunshot wounds or injuries caused by grenade blasts. About 7,000 people were apprehended across the country, and a lot of them were subjected to torture and abuse. Many of them were treated in inhumane conditions, with 50 people held in four-person cells.
Unprovoked massive brutality of police units leading to deaths of protesters and a large number of wounded, the failure to provide information to relatives of detainees in the early days triggered large-scale nationwide peaceful protests, unprecedented for Belarus. There is evidence that even the elite Special Operations Forces of the Armed Forces of Belarus were involved in punitive operations against the protesters. In other words, even the army was sent against civilians.
While dozens of thousands of people protested in the early days, the number of protesters grew by a factor of ten after this outburst of outright terror against civilians. It was also one of the contributing factors to the broad-based industrial action.
The logic of the regime’s actions demonstrates that the processes of inhibiting the threat created for it are clearly taking place under Russian control.
As in 2010, after some thaw in relations with the West, Lukashenka’s rhetoric has changed completely, with accusations of interference from Poland, Czechia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Apparently, fears of the growing potential of the peaceful Belarusian protest, barricades in Minsk’s streets, street clashes in several cities at once, and the threat of losing real power urged Lukashenka’s regime to seek help from Russia. He also handed over the militants from Wagner private military company detained earlier to Russia.
According to the official version offered by Belarusian investigators, this proxy formation of the General Directorate of the Russian army’s General Staff was sent to destabilize the situation in the country. The hand-over of Wagner militants took place despite the significant damage to relations with Ukraine, which demanded their extradition. Many people in Ukraine perceived the hand-over as an openly hostile move placing Lukashenka’s regime side by side with Russia as the aggressor state.
For the first time, Ukraine summoned the its ambassador from Belarus for consultations. At the same time, the EU foreign ministers have decided to impose sanctions on those involved in the crackdown on protests and the falsification of “election” results in Belarus.
Crisis Management of Belarus
On August 12, the InformNapalm community detected a flight of two Tupolev-134AK aircraft owned by Russia’s Aerospace Forces to Belarus. These two VIP class airplanes usually transport high-ranking Russian military officers at least at the level of Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defense, together with service staff.
On August 16, Russia officially made it known to Lukashenka that it was ready to support solving the issues based on the so-called Union State Treaty or in the context of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, should the need arise.
A Tupolev-204/2014VPU on a special flight landed in Minsk National Airport on the evening of August 18. This aircraft is operated by the Russia Special Air Squadron of the Russian Presidential Office. It is equipped with a situation room and was custom-built for Russia’s Federal Security Service. Russia Special Air Squadron transports primarily the highest officials of Russia’s government. It means that both the Federal Security Service director and members of Putin’s office staff could have come to Minsk for urgent negotiations.
The above circumstances demonstrate that Russia is engaged in intensive talks with Lukashenka, and is advising him at the highest level. It is well within the realm of possibility that the planes delivered Russian military specialists, advisers, and political technologists to Belarus to engage in crisis management. It may well be the explanation of the sudden mass rallies supportive of Lukashenka held throughout Belarus for the first time since 1994.
In terms of their spirit, form, and nature, they resemble the Anti-Maidan rallies held to mobilize Yanukovych’s supporters and oppose the Revolution of Dignity Rally participants both in Minsk and in the regions were delivered en masse from various regions of Belarus. Symbols of the (pro)Russian far-right National Liberation Movement (NOD) and official flags of Russia have been displayed prominently at the rallies.
Lukashenka’s appearance in the center of Minsk in combat gear with an AKS assault rifle against the backdrop of special forces and internal troops engaged in the particularly ferocious crackdown on peaceful protests puts him for practical purposes among Kremlin-controlled Russian field commanders, like Kadyrov or exterminated Zakharchenko. Probably, this is yet another product of the Russian political technologists, so keen earlier on creating a superhero image for Putin. In any case, Lukashenka has become exceedingly toxic.
At the same time, the Kremlin strategists are trying to artificially inflame the civil unrest in Belarus and initiate the use of force on behalf of the part of society supportive of Lukashenka. Russia acted in a similar fashion in Ukraine both during and between the last two revolutions. Materials published by InformNapalm international community on the basis of the unearthed correspondence between the architects of the so-called Russian Spring—Vladislav Surkov, head of Putin’s office, see SurkovLeaks, and Kirill Frolov, a representative of Konstantin Zatulin’s CIS Countries Institute, see FrolovLeaks,—describe the internal workings of this element of the hybrid war by Russia.
Devouring a Nation
Meanwhile, the striking journalists and technical specialists of the Belarusian TV and Radio Company have already been replaced by several groups of Russian information warfare experts. RT, one of the key Russian propaganda outlets, is already streaming live from the pro-Lukashenka rallies. Evidently, establishing control over the information and socio-political domain of Belarus is among Russia’s priorities at this stage.
So far, there has been no influential political actor in Belarus, who would defend the Kremlin’s interests and represent it. Thus, Russia can make use of the available potential to establish a pseudo-pro-Democracy opposition movement similar to the (pro)Russian Opposition Platform for Life party in Ukraine to exert influence. Such a movement can emerge from the bowels of the “new opposition.”
Obviously, taking Belarus’ public governance system and uniformed agencies under control is Russia’s primary goal. As in 2010, Russia is also looking to gain full access to the key sectors of the Belarusian economy.
At the moment, both the Lukashenka regime and the Russian media run simultaneous information warfare and psychological campaigns to create perceived threat from the NATO and, first of all, Poland, purportedly seeking to take over territory in the west of Belarus. The Belarusian Army has already committed substantial forces and resources to Hrodna Oblast in order to counter this bogus threat. Media are conditioning the public opinion in both Belarus and Russia for a probable Russian invasion of the country.
These activities create opportunities for sabotage of any kind; in their turn, it will be used to justify the use of Russian troops in Belarus on the basis of the Union State commitments or the implementation of the Collective Security Treaty provisions. Obviously, the Lukashenka regime can resort to these tactics if it loses control over the situation in the country.
Notably, the Russian army has already formed a single offensive line near the border between Ukraine and Belarus. The assault formations of the 144th Motorized Rifle Division of the 20th Combined Army of the Russian army have been stationed near the Belarusian border. The military equipment in field camps near the city of Klintsi, Bryansk region, and in the city Yelnya, Smolensk region, is in full combat readiness, being located next to the main routes leading to Belarus. The second line comprises units of the 1st Armored Army, Russia’s main armored fist.
At this moment, Russia has, unfortunately, at its disposal all the forces and resources capable of establishing full control over Belarus. Russia’s principal geostrategic goal is to fully roll out the Union State of Belarus and Russia with a view to incorporating Ukraine’s occupied territories.
The firm will and wisdom of the Belarusian people can forestall these developments—they can, and they must turn their own scenario into reality and make their own existential choice. Undoubtedly, powerful external actors, such as the EU member states, the USA, the UK, Russia, and the PRC, will be highly active in trying to influence their choice and playing on the political chessboard of Belarus. Changes in Belarus drastically affect the balance of power across the European continent.