In normal times this would never have taken place. The potential backlash, both diplomatic and economic, would be so decisive and painful that no nation-state in the First World could even contemplate taking action similar to that undertaken by Belarus on Sunday. Unfortunately, in contemporary times, international rules and regulations are flaunted by certain governments, and a growing reluctance to punish governments that openly challenge international norms.
As for the Sunday’s action in Belarus, it falls into a gray area between state-sponsored terrorism and modern day impressment. A RyanAir flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Belarus because of a potential security threat on board,” according to Belarussian authorities. A Belarusian MiG-29 was launched to intercept the airliner and then escort it to Minsk. On the ground, the aircraft was inspected for explosives and none were found. Before being cleared to depart, however, Belarusian authorities boarded the plane and took Roman Protasevich into custody. Protasevich is a high-profile dissident journalist and active member of the opposition. He was placed on a terrorist watch list by the Belarusian KGB while living in exile. It is believed Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko personally gave the order for the airliner to be turned around. Belarusian officials have wanted him in custody for some time. Their wish has been granted.
This incident, along with being bold and reckless, has the power to bring about far-reaching consequences. Belarus is already contending with deteriorating relations between itself and most of its neighbors. There’s increasing suspicion about Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s growing influence in Belarusian affairs, as well as Russia’s long-range plans for Belarus.
The pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is not easing. Nearly one week after claiming a landslide victory in the 9 August presidential election, protests continue around Belarus and despite the efforts of the government, they are increasing in size, and attitude. Today thousands of protesters rallied outside of the state television studio in Minsk and demanded full coverage of the protests against the disputed election, and the demonstrations that followed. State television did not broadcast video of the demonstrations and violence. Around Minsk other protests also took place today including one at the metro station where a protester died last Monday. The cause of death remains unclear. Government officials claim an explosive device went off in his hands, but opposition leaders have disputed the claim.
With his hold on power becoming tenuous, Lukashenko is turning to Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin for help. The two leaders spoke today with Lukashenko claiming he secured a pledge from Russia to provide comprehensive security assistance to Belarus if needed. The Russian government has not mentioned a pledge but it is not outside the realm of possibility. Even though relations between Russia and Belarus have become strained lately, Moscow continues to regard the nation as vital to Russia’s interests and security. Much in the same light it once regarded Ukraine, the Kremlin views Belarus as a buffer against the West. As was the case with Ukraine, the Kremlin would view the collapse of a friendly government in Belarus to be a security threat to all of Russia, and act accordingly.
Author’s Note: There is a lot going on around the world this weekend and as a result, many areas to cover. For today through Monday I’m going to concentrate on brief updates unless a major event occurs. At the start of the week I’ll look around and decide which area takes precedence and go from there. Hope everyone’s having a good weekend. – Mike
The Belarusian government has moved to release thousands of detainees in an attempt to quell the growing number of protests around the nation in the aftermath of President Alexander Lukashenko’s contested reelection. The mass release is a relief-valve move that Belarusian leadership is hoping will bring peace back to the streets of Minsk and other cities around the country. For Lukashenko, the first major challenge to his rule shows no signs of going away anytime soon, releases or not.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Thursday, calling for new elections, and for Lukashenko to just ‘go away.’ Lukashenko is accused of rigging last Sunday’s election to win his sixth consecutive term as the Belarusian president. He has dismissed the demonstrators as being of a criminal element, and accusing them of being part of a foreign-supported operation to destabilize the country.
The election, and subsequent protests and mass incarcerations come at a time when Belarus is attempting to forge better relations with the West. Ties with traditional ally Russia have become strained in the last few years. Lukashenko has resisted accepting deeper political, and economic ties with Russia. Moscow responded by becoming more coercive in its dealing with the Belarusian government.
There are significant similarities between what’s happening in Belarus now and the events leading up to Euromaidan Ukraine in 2013-2014. Needless to say, many people are looking at Belarus now and wondering if a Minsk Summer could be in the cards soon. Perhaps. However, along with some striking similarities, there are major differences between Ukraine in 2013-14 and Belarus at the present. This weekend we’ll examine Belarus closer.
Before that, expect an update post on the Eastern Med tomorrow or Saturday.
With Zapad 17 set to commence one month from tomorrow, the Russian and Belarusian militaries are at work laying the groundwork for the massive exercise. Advance parties from multiple Russian Army and Air Force units have begun arriving in Belarus to make necessary preparations for the surge of forces expected to begin moving into the country later in August. Exercise areas, and other facilities must be ready for the combat troops when they arrive. Activity at Belarusian rail depots close to the Russian border has also increased sharply in recent weeks. The equipment belonging to many Russian ground units will be coming into Belarus by way of rail and preparations for the logistics side of Zapad has to be ready to go by the end of the month at the latest.
The 4th Guards Tank Division advance party has been sighted in Slonim, a city in western Belarus that is home to a Belarusian mechanized infantry regiment. The large training areas outside of Slonim are expected to be a primary exercise area for Zapad 17 and the appearance of 4th Guards Tank Division troops in the area adds credibility to the assumption. Lida Air Base, located south of Lithuania, is also seeing an upswing in Russian activity. There has been a limited Russian Air Force presence at Lida since 2013. For a time, Russia was considering permanently basing fighters there until the Belarusian government denied the request. Advance parties, as well as a small number of fighters from two or more fighter squadrons, have landed at Lida since 1 August. More aircraft and personnel will begin streaming in as the month goes on.
With the growing Russian military presence around them, more and more Belarusians are becoming anxious about Zapad 17 and what will happen afterwards. The consensus is that not all of the Russian troops, weapons, and equipment will be returning home when the exercise is over. Instead, concern is growing that Russia will establish a permanent military force in Belarus which will serve to erode the Belarusian sovereignty and independence. The worst-case scenario some Belarusians see is an annexation of their homeland along the lines of what Russia did to the Crimea region in 2014.
It is somewhat ironic that many Belarus natives are nearly as concerned about Zapad 17 as some NATO military officers. In a little over one month, NATO and the people of Belarus will find out of their fears are justified or misplaced.