While the situation in Belarus is certainly an evolving one, we reached out to Grzegorz Małecki, the former Head of Poland’s foreign intelligence service, Agencja Wywiadu (AW) for his views.
Q: There seems to be an increase in violent tactics by the security services in Belarus and more arrests of protestors. What is your assessment of whether this is the result of Belorusian President Lukashenko feeling his position is more secure due to the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin?
A: I don’t think it has a direct relationship with the outcomes of the meetings between Lukashenko and Putin. It is rather an effect of his getting over the first surprise by the scale and form of protests, their peaceful character. The current situation is for him something new, something he probably was not prepared for and didn’t expect. Thus, the reason for initially inconsistent and chaotic reactions and peculiar immobility at the beginning. As time passed it began changing and in late-September; we have been observing a return to violence, typical for the regime. This time the violence is more selective than massive and is aimed to impact concrete persons and circles and to demobilize the masses. Nevertheless this doesn’t exclude the possibility that Putin could stimulate Lukashenko to more firm responses against protestors, being afraid that the view of massive anti-governmental demonstrations in Belarus could have a mobilizing effect on Russian society.
Q: Although there were apparently no formal, signed agreements as a result of the September meeting in Sochi, Russia between Putin and Lukashenko, what do you believe the two autocrats agreed to? Do you believe Putin pressured Lukashenko for further integration with Moscow but did not reveal this in order not to further weaken Lukashenko’s regime publicly?
A: I suppose Putin is not interested in further promises, because Lukashenko already has made a lot of pledges and failed in fulfilling the majority of them. Currently he doesn’t care about declarations, any formal further integration with Belarus, because it would mean assuming the responsibility of economic problems of the country, which is not in the current interest of Russia.
What he really cares about these days is to effectively restrain escalation of social rebellion and to avoid a situation in which the regime is overthrown following the revolt. This would be a terrible example for Russia.
I believe, the main purpose of Putin currently is to avoid by any means uncontrolled overturn in Belarus and shorten today’s period of instability.
Certainly, it is out of the question that Belarus while escape Russia’s sphere of influence. Indeed, nowadays there’s no one really even raising the question (with a few marginal exceptions). No one wants to challenge that status, neither domestically nor internationally.
Q: The protests in Belarus are likely not a good omen for Russia and Putin’s grip on power. Making any concessions to the protesters in Belarus could embolden Russians to demand the same from Putin. Beyond wanting to keep Belarus in Russia’s sphere of influence, a democracy on Russia’s border must be perceived by Moscow as a serious threat to its own stability. To what lengths might Russia go to crush the rebellion in Belarus, not only to maintain its influence there but to prevent the thirst for democracy from spreading to Russia?
A: Both realize that any overt forcible intervention by Russia would be counterproductive. They are aware that it would provoke reaction of EU and NATO, but, above all, it would antagonize Belarusian society, which is traditionally pro-Russian and has an affinity for Russia, regardless of aversion to Lukashenko’s regime.
Given the circumstances, the use of the army or security forces would jeopardize this positive sentiment and turn social aversion toward Russia. It would give Putin no positive effects. I’d rather imagine Russians conducting special covert operations, aimed to eliminate selected key persons or to provoke incidents justifying the use of violence by the regime’s security forces.
Q: The Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has warned Russia not to “take steps that may lead to undermining political sovereignty of Belarus and thus destabilizing the wider region” and Ukrainain lawmakers have passed a motion that would enforce future sanctions against individuals involved in fixing elections and using violence against demonstrators. To what extent do you think that Ukrainian opposition to potential Russian actions is significant? And to what extent does their threat of sanctions impact Belarus?
A: In my judgment, there are gestures targeted at internal needs of the Ukrainian political scene rather than to influence Russians. In my view, Russia will not take into consideration Ukrainian position when deciding on any possible direct engagement in solving the situation in Belarus. After all, any potential Ukrainian sanctions wouldn’t have significant impact on Belarus or Russia. At the present situation, from the perspective of Minsk and Moscow, such a kind of political demonstrations of current Ukrainian government and parliament are irrelevant.
Q: The United States Army has initiated the deployment of 500 U.S. troops to Lithuania, which borders Belarus and is where opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is in exile. While the U.S. Army says the deployment is previously scheduled training as part of operation Atlantic Resolve, the troops have reportedly arrived early and will stay longer than planned. Lukashenko has condemned this deployment and offered to conduct more joint military drills with Russia, saying “we need to stand closer to our older brother” Russia. For its part, Lithuania has said the move was part of previously planned NATO policy to move troops from Poland for military training. What effect, if any, do you assess this situation will have on Belorussian actions or the willingness of Moscow to intervene in Belarus?
A: In my view, in the short-term it will not impact the Belarusian position and conduct as well as Russian willingness to overt intervention. Nevertheless, it could be instrumentally utilized to increase tensions both in Belarus and Russia.
Raising the temperature through provoking an atmosphere of external threat will serve to justify repressive actions toward adversaries of both regimes.
Objectively it doesn’t change the situation significantly, this is a typical war of nerves, but it could be instrumentally used by Belarus for internal purposes.
Moreover, Russia could use it as an excuse for demanding from Minsk permission to enhance its military and intelligence presence in Belarus, including access to the most mission-critical elements of reconnaissance systems. This presence is already significant but it does not cover all sensitive elements. This could be changed.
Q: Lukashenko has inspected military units in Grodno, near the border with Poland, and ordered security forces to be on high alert. He has also previously accused Poland of fomenting dissent and planning to occupy parts of Belarus and most recently has ordered his armed forces to use the “most stringent measures to protect the territorial integrity of our country”. Do you think military conflict between Poland and Belarus is possible, particularly at the border? Is it possible that, for example, the deployment of NATO AWACS aircraft to Krakow, Poland for bi-national training exercises in air command and control for Polish and U.S. fighter aircraft might reduce the possibility that Belarus would engage in armed conflict with Poland?
A: Lukashenko has been deliberately fueling anti-Polish sentiments in order to provoke Polish minority and to escalate national tensions. He believes it will bring him consolidations of his supporters around these issues. Such playing “the Polish card” is supposed to help him to crush the revolt by association of the opposition with the Polish minority in Belarus, allegedly disloyal to the state.
Besides, he also seeks to provoke radical extremists in Poland to aggressive actions and pronouncements, which could serve as pretext to reprisals against opposition in Belarus. This is an element of inspirational operations conducted by Minsk in order to stimulate extremist groups and circles. They are traditional targets of special influence operations carried out by the intelligence services of Belarus and Russia in Poland and neighboring countries. The majority of them are being penetrated and manipulated by them according to their needs.
I believe the risk of armed conflict with Poland is in short and medium term negligible, although further provocations from the Belarusian side couldn’t be ruled out. Certainly, allegations against Poland are baseless and nobody serious is planning such activities. None apart from marginal circles inspired by the Kremlin and Minsk for this purpose.
Q: Belorusian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemondanova has said an investigation has been launched into the release of the personal information of more than 1,000 interior ministry employees by hackers. Taken together with the aforementioned efforts by protestors in Belarus to expose the faces of those cracking down on the protests, do you think it is possible the security services will think twice before taking action against protestors for fear of being exposed, especially if there may ultimately be a change in government and a retaliation against the forces that have rounded up protestors?
A: Definitely, it will undermine the morale of the personnel of security forces and will impact their motivation for taking part in forcible actions. In particular, the release of facial image and personal data will cause them to lose their self-confidence, based on their belief in the strength of the state security apparatus, which was supposed to protect them and failed.
They will feel naked and unprotected. Their example will work on other members of the apparatus. As protests and anti-Lukashenko sentiments increase, their will to participate in repressions will be weakening in fear of their future after possible collapse of the regime.
Q: Given Putin has limited trust in Lukashenko as a partner and supporting him may come at a high cost both politically and economically, do you think Putin could let Lukashenko fail?
A: I am convinced that Putin is considering seriously such scenario and is ready to implement it, under the condition, that appears a candidate or rather political framework allowing him to substitute him in a manner which ensures stabilization and keeps Russia’s sphere of influence. Therefore, I believe from Lukashenko’s perspective, the most important goal of talks in Sochi was to receive assurance that, at least for the moment, he is in danger from Putin’s side.
In the event of Lukashenko’s replacement by the political framework acceptable to Putin, he could even enhance his influence on the situation in Belarus despite the collapse of his current protégé. The example to follow could be Armenia or Moldova, where the former leaders of massive rebellions against pro-Russian autocrats, in a short time after winning elections, set a course toward Moscow. This new framework, free from the compromised face of autocrat, may be even more docile and easier to control. That is why I think Putin would be more interested in carrying out controlled succession to the benefit of a popular politician without a strong political background than he would be in keeping the current regime.