Now everything has changed. Facing an unprecedented popular uprising, Lukashenko has turned to Moscow for help. As his 26-year rule is rocked by massive protests and strikes, Lukashenko has called on his closest ally and principal benefactor, Vladimir Putin, to provide military support if the situation continues to escalate. Russia confirmed its readiness to do so.
But don’t expect Belarus to be a replay of events in Ukraine in 2014, when Putin sent his “little green men” — Russian troops without insignia — into Crimea. To be sure, the possibility that he could yet dispatch his military into Belarus is not to be excluded. Yet there is another, less obvious scenario for achieving the same result — and signs suggest that it’s already underway.
Military intervention would be difficult to justify. The protests that have spread across Belarus are not anti-Russian, but they aren’t pro-Russian either. The latest survey conducted by sociologists at the Belarus Academy of Sciences in June showed that less than seven percent of the Belarusian population wants their country to become part of Russia. Why would Putin send in his forces to “save” a country where nobody wants him as a savior? A Russian invasion would merely unite Belarusians further, this time against Moscow.
So the Kremlin has every incentive to act in a stealthier fashion. And in reality, Russian operatives have already started arriving — at Belarus state TV.
The broadcaster’s regular employees went on strike from Aug. 14 to Aug. 19 to protest censorship and an election widely seen as fraudulent. (The strike ended when police blocked access to the headquarters building.) But over the past week sources in the company’s headquarters have reported an influx of Russian-speaking strangers who have taken the place of the strikers. Lukashenko admitted on Aug. 21 that he indeed invited Russian journalists to work at state television and in his presidential press pool.
Lukashenko’s regime would have a hard time surviving without control of state TV, a primary source of news for many Belarusians and one of his main propaganda tools. The significance of these Russian media workers goes far beyond simply replacing Belarusian counterparts. The new arrivals are already spreading pro-Russian narratives and disinformation. “[NATO] set the goal to cut off the Grodno region. Polish flags appeared there,” Lukashenko said on Saturday. The claims, denounced by NATO and Poland as “baseless,” create a wrong impression that there is a confrontation or even division between the east and west of the country.
With Lukashenko’s silent acceptance and Putin’s money, currently marginalized pro-Kremlin organizations will become more visible. In fact, it’s already happening. Russian flags and those belonging to Russian nationalist groups appeared at recent pro-Lukashenko rallies. Even if Belarus is now far removed from the sort of intervention Moscow has used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian organizations in Belarus will most certainly promote either deeper integration and annexation, or, failing that, will try to divide and weaken the country. Since Lukashenko will work to suppress any expressions of dissent in national media, there will be less room for civil society inside the country to fight these narratives.
Expect Russia to leverage its dominance in other realms as well. Belarus is already nearly totally dependent on Russia economically. The two countries have a joint air defense and external border control system. Russia has two military installations in Belarus. Most of the weapons in the Belarusian army are Soviet and Russian, and Russian developers supervise the equipment’s operations in Belarus.
Belarusian servicemen train in military educational institutions of the Russian Ministry of Defense. There are joint military exercises. Heads of defense departments collaborate on a regular basis. The armed forces of both governments share intelligence.
Putin seems to be the only leader who Lukashenko has spoken with in recent days. Lukashenko has consistently refused to answer calls from foreign leaders. Instead, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to discuss the situation in Belarus with Putin.
Putin’s nightmare is a democratic, pro-Western Belarus that turns away from its longstanding ally. Lukashenko hasn’t shied away from threatening him with a “color revolution” in Russia if the Belarusian opposition movement succeeds. This is what Putin might fear himself, too.
Putin might eventually look for a more credible and agreeable partner replacing the weak ruler of a divided country. A hybrid approach — one that evades outright all-too-obvious military intervention — can work to great effect.