There is real danger for the Ukraine and NATO in the recent Potemkin Coup in Russia. I suggested this a few day ago, as the Progozhin Saga was unfolding, “A deal which takes Wagner out of the Ukraine war, sends in Prigozhin to Minsk to stabilise a weakened Lukashenko and keep Belarus on Russia’s side, and to absorb those Wagner elements who are willing to take Putin’s shilling, are all positive outcomes. Perhaps this might be a suggested motive of what prompted this weekend’s coup”. What I was reflecting was the view from the in-country and exiled opposition figures in the Belorussian opposition who have been warning about the possible Russian approach to saving Belarus when Lukashenko dies or is replaced. The Belarus card is the last option for Putin to play in his war in the Ukraine. It seems that this Progozhin maskirovka provided the vehicle for Putin to take control of the Belorussian action in support of the Russian attack on the Ukraine.
Belarus has been riven by internal dissent since the last election in 2020 when President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been in power for the past 28 years, claimed a landslide victory despite widespread evidence that the election was neither free nor fair and that opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was the likely winner. Before the election results were even announced, tens of thousands of people spontaneously gathered to peacefully protest the conduct of the election and to oppose the Lukashenko regime. The days that followed (9-11 August) were the most violent period in the country’s recent history: up to 7,000 protesters were arrested, many of them beaten and tortured by security forces, with three people dying at the hands of police. Then, between 17 and 18 August, workers across the country took part in strike action to support the democratic protests. Although protests continued until November, and despite international condemnation, Lukashenko refused to concede instead, more than 35,000 people have been arrested in 2021; opposition politicians, trade unionists, journalists, members of civil society, human rights lawyers and protesters have all been targeted with criminal prosecutions, and strict new laws have been introduced to further impede everything from press freedom to freedom of association. Scores of activists have fled the country, and dissents in exile have been kidnapped or found dead.[i] Many of the top leaders of the labour movement have escaped to Germany.
According to Viasna, which remains the principal human rights group in the country, at the end of January 2023 at least 1,440 people were in prison for political reasons. On 5 January 2023, the Minsk City Court sentenced three leaders of trade unions not affiliated with the regime – Henadz Fiadynich, Viachaslau Areshka and Vasil Berasnieu – to heavy prison terms. They were charged with, among other things, “forming or participating in an extremist group”. The men, aged 66, 68 and 73, were sentenced to between eight- and nine-years’ imprisonment in a penal colony. Earlier, on 26 December 2022, three other trade union activists – Aliaksandr Yarashuk, president of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), his deputy Siarhei Antusevich and a union staff member, Iryna Bud-Husaim – were sentenced to between one and a half and four years in prison. The authorities accused them of “threatening national security”. “Others were imprisoned but have already served their sentences and are now out. [ii]
· In February, several constitutional amendments were adopted via a referendum that was neither free nor fair. The approved amendments included provisions granting President Lukashenka lifelong immunity from prosecution.
· Belarus served as a staging ground for Russian military forces before they invaded Ukraine in February, and Lukashenka continued to allow Russian troops to operate on Belarusian territory through year’s end. During the year, the government deliberately obscured information about the scale and extent of Belarus’s involvement in the war against Ukraine.
· Authorities violently cracked down on antiwar demonstrations during the year, arresting more than 800 protesters in February alone. Security forces were also excessive when responding to people accused of disrupting railway links and supply lines used by the Russian military; authorities additionally harassed and threatened relatives of Belarusian volunteers in the Ukrainian military.
· The government approved several legislative measures targeting political activists living in exile during the year. In July, Lukashenka enacted legislation permitting authorities to hold trials in absentia for those accused of threatening Belarus’s national security; in December, the parliament approved a legislative amendment that allows the citizenship of both native-born and naturalized Belarusians residing abroad to be revoked if they are convicted of charges related to “extremism.”
The most important factor determining Belorussian behaviour is the ceding of authority by Lukashenko to the Russians. Without domestic support (made obvious by the population’s revolt after the farce of the last election) Lukashenko has nowhere else to go. Putin has rewarded him well. Russia has granted Belarus a stay in repayments on loans to the tune of $1 billion and issued a new loan for another $1.5 billion. Moreover, due to Western sanctions on Belarusian goods, 60 per cent of the country’s exports now end up on the Russian market. And Belarus receives Russian gas for the bargain-basement price of just $128.5 per thousand cubic meters. Indeed, Moscow has accommodated all of Minsk’s requests. Lukashenko has ceded all military sovereignty over the territory of Belarus. Russian troops can enter, leave, and return to Belarussian territory whenever they want, without the permission of local authorities. Lukashenko has put pressure on the Belarus military, to co-operate with the Russians. Former members of the military and retired police officers are receiving summons. Military medics are also in training, and some civilians have received word that, if the need arises, they will be mobilised in the first wave. Officers of the Belarusian KGB are visiting state-owned enterprises, spreading the word about an ‘impending attack’ against Belarus from Ukraine. And, in a special briefing for foreign military attaches, Belarus’s ministry of defence outlined its brand-new right to use “measures of strategic deterrence to prevent an attack”.
But the Belarusian army does not have the capacity or will to turn the tide of the war in favour of Russia. Firstly, it is too small, with the most combat-ready segment not exceeding 15,000 troops. The remainder are about as efficient as Russia’s press-ganged bunch of new conscripts. Moreover, the Ukrainian armed forces are now much better prepared for an attack from the north: they have mined the roads and fields on the border with Belarus, destroyed the relevant bridges, and modern Western weapons such as HIMARS anti-tank missiles could prevent troops even crossing the border. Belarussian society is overwhelmingly against the country’s participation in the war – more than 90 per cent reject the idea of joining on the side of Russia. Sending Belarusians to war could therefore provoke a serious wave of discontent within the country, even more so than Putin’s mobilisation has in Russia. The Belarussian democratic forces in exile would likely use this to overthrow the Lukashenko regime. They are watching closely: last week, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged Belarusian troops to respond to orders to attack Ukraine by laying down their arms and joining the Ukrainian forces.[iii]
Over the last month there has been considerable concern by Putin about the health of Lukashenko. He was flown to Moscow for treatment. At the same time there was an escalation of protest inside Belarus with train lines blown up, communications interdicted, and the Belarus security forces unable to contain these threats. Putin already had made an effort to stiffen Belarus potential by delivering tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. Belarus had 81 single warhead missiles stationed on its territory after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. They were all transferred to Russia by 1996. In May 1992, Belarus acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)and agreed to the anti-proliferation of these weapons in Belarus. The only rational solution to the possible collapse of Belorussian co-operation with Russia in its battles with the Ukraine and to the ’regime change’ of the nation in response to the disappearance of Lukashenko, was to take control of the nuclear weapons and the Belarus Army without it looking like an open Russian invasion of the country. To this end, the Progozhin Coup fit the purpose fully.
Now, the Russians are ‘exiled’ to Belarus. the Belarus Army is opening new military bases in the country for the Russian soldiers. the Wagner exiles will act as the Dzerzhinsky Brigade for the Belarus Army if it tries not to fight. Domestic repression will continue and there will be a slightly disorganised but coherent force on Ukraine’s northern border. For the loyal and patriotic Belarusians, that is the lesson of the Prigozhin Coup.
See: https://youtu.be/zXgnFreZjWw and https://youtu.be/ybRYaWIUEQg
[i] Equal Times, “One year after the protests, workers in Belarus are still pushing for democracy and labour rights”, 18/8/21