Putin’s Belarusian strategy: arsonist and firefighter?
Vladimir Poutine has proven himself to play the arsonist surreptitiously and then offer his services as a firefighter.
In Ukraine, he started a war in the Donbass and then managed to have Russia recognized as a mediator in a conflict in which she was both instigator and fighter. In Syria, Russia’s intervention alongside Bashir al-Assad has not only prolonged and exacerbated this war; he also bought Russia a seat at the negotiating table on his resolution.
Is Putin about to pull off the same trick with Belarus in the aftermath of the hijacking of Ryanair flight 4978 and the kidnapping of passengers Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega? The question will certainly arise when Putin meets with US President Joe Biden in Geneva on June 16.
“It is possible that the result of the US-Russian summit is that the Kremlin is given some carte blanche to interfere in the internal affairs of Belarus in order to resolve the political crisis without any international consequences, including in the form of sanctions from the West ”, Arsen Sivitsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies and Foreign Policy based in Minsk, wrote recently.
“It is possible that Belarus will become a bargaining chip in the context of extensive geopolitical negotiations between Washington and Moscow, in which the United States may agree with the Russian version of the resolution of the Belarusian political crisis,” he added.
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It is still unclear to what extent Russia was involved in the decision to force the May 22 Ryanair flight, which was in Belarusian airspace en route from Athens to Vilnius, to land in Minsk.
I wrote in this space that a combination of several factors makes such an implication highly plausible, to say the least. These factors include the integration of Russian and Belarusian air defense systems; the deep infiltration of Russian agents into the Belarusian security services; and Moscow’s openly favorable stance towards Belarus after the fact.
In a confidential report not released this week, the Sivitsky Center for Strategic Studies and Foreign Policy, known for having excellent sources in Minsk and Moscow, wrote that mounting evidence suggests that “the Belarusian side received information about Pratasevich’s trip from the Russian special services and decided to use it to arrest the journalist.
Moreover, in recent days additional indirect evidence has surfaced suggesting that Russia was more than a bystander in this act of air piracy.
On May 26, Belarusian the authorities have announced they would sue Pratasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who is a Russian citizen. Sapega appeared in a video in which she made a confession that appeared to have been coerced.
The Kremlin’s reaction indicates that Putin is not particularly bothered by Sapega’s fate. Putin and Lukashenka met for a two-day summit in Sochi on May 28-29, their third meeting this year, which included a friendly photoshoot on a 54-meter luxury yacht.
After the summit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “The subject of the Russian citizen who was detained was raised [and] naturally, we are not indifferent to its fate. Peskov added, however, that the Kremlin would take note that Sapega also has a Belarusian residence permit. Meanwhile, Putin approved a second loan of $ 500 million to Belarus.
In the days following the summit, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that Moscow will defend Belarus and help it if the European Union imposes economic sanctions.
Putin also instructed his Ministry of Transport to identify new possible destinations in Russia for the Belarusian national carrier Belavia, which was recently banned from access to European Union airspace and airports due to fallout from the air piracy incident.
It would be a mistake, however, to view Russia’s actions regarding the Ryanair hijacking as mere solidarity between the autocratic Putin-Lukashenka axis. Putin’s game here looks much more sophisticated and carries all the hallmarks of a classic reflective control operation.
Reflective control is a doctrine developed by Soviet military strategists in the 1960s which aims to force opponents to behave in a way that is advantageous for Moscow. It does this by preemptively shaping the environment through disinformation campaigns, commercial ties, political interference, fact-finding on the ground, or any combination of the above.
Putin’s strategic objective in Belarus is not necessarily outright annexation. It’s about turning Belarus into a docile and obedient client state, albeit ruled by a less capricious and less troublesome figure than Lukashenka.
Since Belarus entered the political crisis last August, Russia has steadily increased its economic, political and military footprint. Putin is also pressuring Lukashenka to amend Belarus’ constitution to increase the authority of the country’s parliament at the expense of the presidency. Russia has been actively put the pieces in place to ensure that Moscow controls the new post-Lukashenka legislature through pro-Kremlin parties.
If we look at the Ryanair incident through the prism of reflective control, debate Whether Russia was actively involved in forcing Ryanair flight 4978 to land in Minsk becomes less important. All Moscow had to do was pull out all the stops, for example providing Lukashenka with information that Pratasevich was on board a flight crossing Belarusian airspace.
While the ensuing international crisis makes Lukashenka an even more international outcast, it makes him increasingly dependent on Putin. It also offers another key advantage ahead of the Putin-Biden summit on June 16 in Geneva. The crisis creates an opportunity for Putin to make a “concession” to Biden by pledging to remove Lukashenka from power through the constitutional reforms that the Kremlin has been pushing in Belarus for some time.
As Sivitsky writes, if it works, “the decision that the Kremlin imposes on Lukashenka following the political crisis will in many ways not be contested by the United States. From the outside, everything will look like a kind of democratization of Belarus after Lukashenka leaves.
Of course, it won’t. And the arsonist will once again have turned into a firefighter.
Brian Whitmore is a Non-Resident Principal Investigator at the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, Adjunct Adjunct Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and host of The Power Vertical podcast.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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