PGI INSIGHT: Belarus – October 2020
Prospect of Russian intervention unlikely amid ongoing unrest
- The position of Russia-backed President Alexander Lukashenko remains insecure amid continued opposition unrest since a disputed election in August.
- Despite Belarus being an important ally to Russia, Moscow has so far had a limited intervention in the crisis.
- There are three potential scenarios for Russian involvement in Belarus. The most likely scenario is for Russia to not overtly intervene and to allow for the transition of power to a politician with opposition backing and popular support.
- The second most likely scenario is for Russia to intervene as a mediator between Lukashenko and opposition figures to transfer the presidency to a pro-Moscow candidate.
- The least likely scenario is a direct Russian military intervention.
Nationwide civil unrest
Hundreds of thousands of people have protested the 9 August re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko to his sixth term in office, amid allegations of election fraud. Opposition protesters have gathered in Minsk and other cities, and organised nationwide strikes in private and state-owned businesses. Lukashenko has increasingly cracke d down on opposition. Authorities have arrested thousands of people and allegedly tortured activists in detention centres. Despite this, opposition activists have not indicated that they will stop protesting. Although Lukashenko has hinted at reforms, there has been no indication that he is considering ceding power.
The domestic opposition has prompted Lukashenko to contact close ally Russian President Vladimir Putin for military and financial support. Belarus is strategically and economically important to Russia – particularly as a key market for Russian energy exports – which could motivate Moscow to intervene in the crisis. Russia has already warned other countries such as France and Germany not to interfere in Belarus. The combination of these factors suggests that Moscow is positioning itself as the main actor that is likely to influence the political crisis in the coming months.
Moscow’s intervention so far
Moscow has so far only intervened in the Belarusian political crisis in a limited capacity, despite the two countries’ union agreement stipulating close political, economic, and military ties. In August, Putin announced the creation of a military police reserve unit for Lukashenko. He also reportedly sent replacement staff to aid Lukashenko’s propaganda efforts after journalists of Belarusian state television resigned. In addition, in early September, Moscow announced an agreement to refinance a USD 1 bn debt to Russia, which equals around 12 percent of all Belarusian debt to the Russian government.
Most likely scenario: Non-intervention
Of three potential scenarios that could play out in Belarus, the most likely is that Russia will not directly intervene and instead wait for the transition of power to a politician with opposition backing and popular support.
Russia will be disinclined to risk damaging relations with Minsk and invite opposition from international actors by attempting to directly influence any transfer of power. For Moscow, intervention is unnecessary as most opposition lawmakers in Belarus are not anti-Russian. The opposition has also pledged not to change the country’s constitution or foreign policy, indicating a future government would likely align with Moscow’s interests without Putin’s active involvement.
Russia is likely to continue calling for a negotiated resolution t o the crisis that includes key political stakeholders. Given Lukashenko’s refusal to step down, this scenario could see months of continued protests and cause more damage to the Belarusian economy. As the protests continue, Russia might consider offering increasingly generous terms for Lukashenko to hand over power.
Second most likely scenario: Moscow brokers transfer of power
Another potential scenario is that Moscow oversees the transfer of power in Belarus to a pro-Moscow figure favoured by the opposition. In this scenario, Putin would persuade Lukashenko to resign and then engage with the Belarusian opposition to select a replacement leader with popular support.
However, Russia may be unwilling to overtly involve itself i n political talks. Political intervention by Moscow is likely to stoke anti-Russian sentiment among some opposition activists and could damage bilateral relations in the long-term.
Nevertheless, the likelihood of this scenario increases if the opposition begins to pursue closer relations with the EU or NATO. Moscow would want to reduce the risk of a future anti-Russian government holding power in Minsk.
Any reports of scheduled negotiations or further talks between Lukashenko and Putin would signal that Moscow is brokering a transfer of power.
Least likely scenario: Direct Russian military intervention
A direct Russian military intervention i s the least likely scenario. Moscow is unlikely to risk military clashes with Belarusian forces and a protracted military campaign. Even a limited military intervention could generate anti-Russian sentiment among the Belarusian people. It would also see the EU and US impose further sanctions on Moscow, which could harm the Russian economy.
However, there will be an increased possibility of military intervention should the EU or NATO overtly seek closer ties with the opposition or if there is a further breakdown of governance in Minsk. Signs of deteriorating governance may include reports of increasing factionalism among security forces or violence from protesters.
Any reports of irregular Russian forces or mercenaries in Belarus, or Russian troops in Belarusian uniform, would likely indicate Russian pla ns to intervene militarily.
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