Vladimir Putin. File
If you believe the message from the Kremlin, Russia currently has no plans to send police or military forces into neighbouring Belarus. But it has sent in some reinforcements — to the news media, as part of a strategy that should stand as a warning to democracies around the world.
Of course, President Vladimir Putin mused last week, Russia may eventually need to intervene in Belarus militarily. But as his spokesman put it this week: “At present we see that the situation is under control.”
Putin is trying to convey the impression that he is just a concerned neighbour in a crisis that has exploded in national unrest since Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in a stolen election last month. Russia, Putin wants the world to believe, is holding back.
This perception is deceiving. In reality, Russia is waging a kind of stealth intervention in Belarus, the first part of which is taking place in the media. Belarusian state television has replaced Belarusian journalists with those from the Kremlin-financed RT network, which Lukashenko confirmed this week in an interview. “You understand how important you were to us during this difficult period,” he told an RT correspondent. “And what you demonstrated technically, your IT specialists, and journalists, and correspondents, and so on ... and your manager. This is worth a lot.”
An early warning about the Russian takeover of Belarusian state television came from George Barros, who works for the Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War. Barros wrote on Aug. 20 about new montage videos that depicted the US and NATO as fomenting unrest in Belarus, as well as slick propaganda videos being released through Belarus’ interior ministry. State TV was engaged in an effort to “humanise Belarusian officials,” he told me in an interview, while portraying protesters “as threatening the families and lives of security personnel.”
This is the opposite of what was happening in Belarus. The state began arresting thousands of protesters indiscriminately after the disputed election last month. The BBC has reported that some of those detained said they were tortured in jail.
Russia’s assistance to Lukashenko did not end there, either. Barros and his colleague Mason Clark have also tracked three flights in mid-August of government-owned passenger jets from Moscow to Minsk. The first such plane, they say, belonged to the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service.
There is no direct evidence that FSB officers were on those flights. But Barros says there is circumstantial evidence that the FSB is advising Lukashenko on how to disperse the protests. After that first flight on Aug. 18, for example, the Belarusian security services ended a policy of mass arrests, which fuelled unrest, and began a strategy of targeted detentions of organisers and opposition leaders.
In an interview with reporters this week, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said there was little doubt that Russia was “exercising some level of influence” in Belarus, and said that publicly available flight tracking data showed that “elite aircraft from the FSB intelligence service has flown into Minsk on more than a couple of occasions.”
What all this means for the future of Belarus is not good. If Lukashenko is able to retain power, he will have to reverse any policies or stances that sought or promoted greater independence from Moscow. What will happen to his opposition to an economic and political union between Belarus and Russia? Will he still tout his anti-Russian bona fides, as he did during the presidential campaign, when Belarusian law enforcement agencies arrested 33 Russian mercenaries?
More broadly, Putin’s offensive in Belarus is yet more evidence that Russia considers the media landscape a battlefield for its own brand of hybrid warfare. Sometimes, the war requires actual troops, as in 2014 in Ukraine. Other times, the goal is to sow chaos and mistrust in democracy. This time, in Belarus, it appears that Russia is trying to quell a democratic uprising without firing a single shot.
Putin and Lukashenko met twice in December but failed to resolve their differences, resulting in Russia cutting oil supplies to Belarus at the start of this year.
Ukraine's new president could regain control over the separatist-controlled east of his country within months and get cheap gas and major investment from Russia if he does a deal with Moscow, the Kremlin's closest ally in Ukraine said.
Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal shared a Twitter video of Modi opting for a chair over the sofa as officials can be seen replacing the sofa with a chair on Tuesday.
As Europe gets ready for its biggest nation in the west of Europe to say goodbye under a nationalist leadership, and a parliament unable to control the executive at the other end of Europe, the parliament of Ukraine has just been elected with serious hopes for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell that
An allegation that had pursued Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since his days as Gujarat’s Chief Minister two decades ago, was set at rest at rest by India’s Supreme Court last week.
The initiative taken by the Sharjah Government Communication Award to honour organisations that have taken urgent action to combat climate change
The G-7— a group of the most industrialised and democratic countries, comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan and the European Union (EU)