Russia and Ukraine will hold a third round of talks on 7 March. Earlier this evening Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia made the announcement. In the second round held earlier this past week, both sides agreed to establish humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee from battle zones. However, in Mariupol, there are reports that the Russians closed the corridors for the city and resumed shelling, which made evacuation impossible.
The Ukrainian Air Force has claimed to have inflicted a heavy number of air losses on Russian aircraft in the last few days. According to Euromaidan Press reports, Air Force Command reported air defenses shooting down two Su-30 Flankers, a UAV and several cruise missiles. Ukrainian government officials also claim having shot down 8 Russian aircraft alone on 5 March. Right now there’s no way to independently verify these claims.
Belarussian opposition figures claim that the Belarus military was supposed to enter Ukraine over a week ago, according to the plan of operations. It didn’t, however. According to the Senior Advisor for opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the reasons were officers resigning and some fleeing the country. Conscripts are reported to be massively fleeing their units and returning to their civilian homes. Again, independent verification of any of this has been difficult to obtain.
With discussions over Russia’s security proposals set to start in early January with the United States and NATO, the Kremlin is moving 10,000 troops away from the Ukrainian border. The action is intended to make the Russian position appear less belligerent and signal a willingness to compromise. How much difference the withdrawal of 10,000 Russian troops will make to the military balance in the region remains to be seen. When it comes to a ground force primed to invade Ukraine, either 90k or 100k will be a sufficient enough number. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the end of a series of military drills in the Southern Military District, as well as the subsequent withdrawal of 10,000 troops to their permanent bases. What was not explained in sufficient detail was whether or not the weapons and equipment of those troops was also being withdrawn.
Yesterday, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said he will consider a host of options if the West refuses to meet his concerns over NATO expansion to Ukraine. He was not specific, but the intent behind the words was apparent. Putin said Russia’s response would be diverse and and dependent on the proposals Russia’s military leaders submit to him. Putin also repeated the Russian position that NATO membership for Ukraine is a red line he will not allow to be crossed.
Next month, Russia will conduct its quadrennial military exercise centered on the readiness and combat capabilities of its Western Military District. Zapad 2021 will take place in Belarus and include forces from Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. As is generally the case when a Zapad exercise rolls around, there is growing concern and angst among Russia’s neighbors right now. In light of Russia’s mobilization of troops and equipment along the Ukrainian border back in March and April, the concern is reasonable. The troops eventually departed from the staging areas near the border, but the equipment remained. Under prime conditions it will be easy for the officers and troops from those units to redeploy from their installations around Russia, marry-up with their equipment and move to the border. In the eyes of many Western military analysts (professional and otherwise) a major exercise like Zapad could provide Russia with the cover needed to undertake such a move.
In all candor though, alarm and dire predictions over the exercise spring up like weeds every four years when Zapad exercises approach. This goes back to the late 70s and early 80s at the height of the Cold War when NATO warily monitored the movement of so many troops, tanks and aircraft into Poland and East Germany. Back then, what appeared to be an exercise could of very well been the prelude to a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Those fears were never realized. If they had, we probably would not be here right now, truthfully. Now in 2021, outside concerns are more varied and contingent on the respective vantage points of nation-states and supranational organizations.
As we move closer to September, this will be touched on regularly.
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.