After an “obviously crooked election” in Belarus sparked massive protests, USIP’s Don Jensen says Russia is quietly using the situation to assert influence. If Moscow’s military presence in Belarus increases, “I think you’re going to see a much more forward projection of Russian power against NATO,” he said.
On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.
Tim Farley: Last week of a question went to the United States and the Press Secretary at the White House Kayleigh McEnany about Belarus:
Kayleigh McEnany (from recording): We support international efforts to look independently into electoral irregularities, human rights abuse,s and the government crackdown, and a massive number of Belarusians protesting peacefully makes clear that the government can no longer ignore the peoples’ call for democracy.
Tim Farley: We have heard much about this lately. Let's make sense of it all, why we should know more about it. Donald N. Jensen is the director for Russia and Strategic Stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @USIP and he joins us. Donald, welcome. Thank you for being here today.
Donald Jensen: Thank you. Good morning.
Tim Farley: What is it, I guess in a nutshell, we've seen a lot of protests, but what are the protests about and what is, if you will, the state of the protesting right now in Belarus?
Donald Jensen: Yes. An obviously crooked election was held… for the Belarusian presidency in early August. It was falsified to ensure that the dictator Alexander Lukashenko won, and immediately hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets and protesting almost every day, it continues, especially with on Sunday, with particular intensity, and they are demanding a redo of the elections and Lukashenko’s departure. And it's a very, very tense situation. The regime is, with Russian assistance, is putting pressure on the opposition. And the question of course, is, should we care here in the West and the United States and what should we do about it? And my answer to both questions is yes, we should. And yes, we should do something. But it's a very difficult situation for all parties, except perhaps for the Russians.
Tim Farley: Before we get to that, just talking about the situation, Mr. Lukashenko himself has been boldly strutting around with full gear. In other words, he's been wearing a bulletproof vest. He's been brandishing a, what looks like an assault weapon as he's trying to, I guess, parade around and look really tough. I guess the question is, troops in some of the videos I've been seeing are a little overwhelmed and I wonder how they feel about trying to suppress their fellow countrymen? I mean, is this a moment for them? Or are they totally loyal to Mr. Lukashenko? They're the ones who are going to have to keep charge. Right?
Donald Jensen: Exactly, exactly. I think they are for now loyal, and not completely, and the question is always, if 100,000 people can be controlled and these people so far, cannot fully be controlled, what happens when it's 200,000 or half a million? So, I think the reliability of the security forces in some question. So far, they've held for the dictator Lukashenko. But the Russians are, I've think, pretty certainly, quietly infiltrating the ranks of the security forces to make sure that they don't lose their nerve. And that's really what we've seen in the last week or two, which is the Russians quietly closing the vise on Lukashenko, on the situation. They don't want to provoke violence, the Russians, and neither does Lukashenko, but they're they want to be tough, dissuade the West from getting involved and make sure that the regime transition, if it occurs, goes with Moscow's agreement and support.
Tim Farley: What happens if Lukashenko goes away? I mean, what fills the void?
Donald Jensen: Well, I think that's what you're watching this week, Putin and Lukashenko meet on the 10th. I think what Moscow probably wants is to prop him up now and then engineer a quiet transition maybe two or three months, six months, but either way Lukashenko will not disappear. He will sort of fade gradually and I think Moscow is pretty confident it can control the outcome if they have a new constitution and if they can redo the elections, at which I think Moscow is confident that they will find a candidate who really is beholden to Moscow. So, for now, Lukashenko is being pushed into Moscow's arms, but I think the longer term would include almost certainly a replacement with a new leader with the fig leaf of a presidential election in quotes to make it look legitimate not only to the Belarusians, but to the West.
Tim Farley: Donald N. Jensen with us, director for Russia and Strategic Stability of the United States Institute of Peace. Is there a strategic threat to the U.S. in the region?
Donald Jensen: Well, absolutely, they're very much is because part of this package where Russia is closing its grip may I would say probably will include bolstered Russian military bases in Belarus. The so-called NATO threat to Russia, which does not exist, is used by the Kremlin to justify a tough line. I think, if they expand Russia's military presence, which is already there, but expanded significantly, I think you're going to see a much more forward projection of Russian power against NATO, to the to the West. And looking to the south, this will allow Russia to exert more military pressure on Ukraine, which is our ally, of course, and which has already been resisting Russian interference. So, there's very much a security and strategic interest of West has in making sure that Belarus is independent from Moscow. It's going to be an uphill fight, however, and I'm not particularly optimistic that at this moment, our preferences and our strategy is going to work.
Tim Farley: As we heard at the top of our conversation, Donald, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the United States government is in full support of those individuals, et cetera, but one gets the sense that President Trump is loath to go against Vladimir Putin in almost any policy area. I wonder, what's your sense of the amount of resolve that this administration has to stand with the people of Belarus?
Donald Jensen: Well, I can only go by the public statements which are support for the opposition. I would also note that Stephen Biegan who is number two really in the State Department to Secretary Pompeo, made a very important trip recently to the region to show our support for the opposition, to talk to our allies in NATO and Lithuania, in particular, where he met one of the Belarusian opposition leaders, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. And I think that was reviewed by the Belarusian opposition as an important show for the U.S., for their cause, and for the opposition. The problem really is Belarus is next to Russia and our levers are relatively weak compared to having the big bear to the east.
Tim Farley: Is Russia though and Vladimir Putin somewhat weakened by the response that that government has had to coronavirus. In other words, he is having his own problems at home, is he not? The poisoning of Alexei Navalny also another mark against President Putin.
Donald Jensen: Absolutely. Excellent question. I would point out there are demonstrations still in the Far East, Khabarovsk. There's not only, as you said, the poisoning of Navalny, and I think the effect of this, however, is not to weaken the regime, in some ways, it may be, the effect is to steal the resolve of the Kremlin to fight and come back and push back against what it sees as threats to the regime. Russian behavior is in a major way, driven by its view of the world and its sense that the regime is vulnerable, and they see the U.S. as the enemy, they see NATO as the enemy, and they put this mix of elements that you described accurately together and they see that ultimately, the Kremlin and Russia itself may be threatened by what's going on in Belarus. And Putin does not want a so-called color revolution in Moscow, although the situations are quite different.
He also doesn't want a situation in Ukraine where it has come to a military stalemate with Russian involvement and Russian intervention, really pushing Ukraine to the West, he doesn't want that. So, what they're doing instead is, is you might call it a so-called hybrid kind of operation, turning the screws economically on Belarus and propping up Lukashenko, so he's more dependent on Moscow, and then reinforcing the security structures to make sure that they remained loyal to Lukashenko and ultimately, to their Russian patrons.
Tim Farley: As is so often the case, a work in progress. Donald N. Jensen, Donald, thank you for joining us on POTUS, today.
Donald Jensen: Thank you.
Tim Farley: Donald N. Jensen is Director for Russia and Strategic Stability at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The way forward with Belarus and the protests against the government there and specifically the president and of course the role of Russia and the U.S. in this issue. The Twitter handle is @USIP.