Having failed to swiftly translate popular support into tangible political achievements, there are signs the protests against the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus may be losing momentum in the face of the state’s resilience and still-confident security and enforcement apparatus.
Attempts to blame the unrest on the West have focused on groups Lukashenka and Russia can both call enemies. And now Aliaksandr Lukashenka is not only inventing anti-Russian policies supposedly held by the opposition, such as suppressing the Russian language and closing the border with Russia, but also a supposed military threat from NATO.
Increased military activity inside Belarus does give Lukashenka a wider range of options. Unscheduled activation of military units includes airspace defence practice with missiles and aircraft, electronic warfare (EW) units put on round-the-clock alert, and a number of infantry brigades preparing for live firing exercises.
Lukashenka is drawing attention to the north-west corner of Belarus, singling out the city of Grodno near the border with Poland and Lithuania as a supposed target for Western efforts at destabilization. Grodno is also the destination for an airborne brigade moving from the east to the west of the country and the focus of military exercises under way on the country’s western borders.
All this feeds Lukashenka’s narrative that Belarus is in danger from NATO and the West who are supposedly both stirring up the protests and seeking to exploit disorder - and that this danger extends to possible military clashes.
The Belarusian exercises are over the border from where NATO troops - including elements of the Light Dragoons, a British reconnaissance unit - have been in place in Poland as part of NATO's enhanced forward presence (eFP) since 2017. Pointing to NATO activity in Poland and Lithuania, Lukashenka said on Wednesday ‘we have to follow their movements and plans’ and that ‘they will answer for it if something happens’.
The danger is that having invented a tense situation in Grodno, Lukashenka may now need to be proved right. There may be staged incidents or ‘provocations’ against Belarus military forces, either supposedly instigated by protesters or even by NATO forces on the border - all aimed at bolstering the narrative that NATO, the EU, and the West in general are hostile to Belarus and that more drastic measures are necessary for protection.
Russia’s options still open
Although initial fears of a Russian move into Belarus have receded, Lukashenka’s complaints about NATO also bolster the case for Moscow to intervene. The military exercises fit the narrative that Belarus is under threat from the West - which is exactly the pretext Russia would need.
If this is believed in Moscow, where foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has already described events in Belarus as part of a ‘struggle for the post-Soviet space’, this makes a Russian intervention more likely. Moving forces away from their base near the border with Russia to the other end of the country near Poland and Lithuania also means any Russian entry into Belarus could go more smoothly, with fewer wild cards of possible Belarusian opposition to consider.
There are plenty of sensible, rational, logical reasons why a Russian military intervention in Belarus would be disastrous and counter-productive. But what seems sensible and rational in Europe and North America does not always carry weight in Moscow, which may see the situation completely differently and measure options by completely different standards.
One key area of doubt is the sympathies of the Belarus armed forces. Although some elements of the Belarusian army - particularly airborne and special forces - work closely with their Russian counterparts, more general suggestions that the Belarusian military is merely an extension of Russia’s and is not capable of taking decisions for itself are an over-simplification.
The Belarus armed forces do know that hosting Russian ground troops, airbases or air defence systems would fatally undermine the country’s hopes of avoiding being caught up in any confrontation between Russia and NATO.
And although the great majority of Belarusian officers are Russian-speaking and many have been trained and educated in Russia, there may be sufficient pride in national identity and resentment at heavy-handed treatment by Russia to lead to substantial obstruction of Russian initiatives.
The Belarus General Staff has already refused permission for a Russian aircraft carrying 155 personnel from the Rosgvardiya militarized security force and three tonnes of cargo ‘for the Belarusian interior ministry’ to land in Belarus. This could indicate not only tension between Russia and Belarus, but even between ministries within Belarus itself.
Like Russia, Lukashenka has plenty of options in reserve if his situation deteriorates further. Announcing a state of emergency would allow the Belarusian army to support the security forces in dealing with protests. If the army is on the move with their equipment they are better prepared to be brought into action if needed, but testing the loyalty of the armed forces could prove dangerous if the sympathies of army units turn out to lie more with civilians than with their oppressors from the interior ministry.
The military preparations against fictitious threats and a patiently-waiting Russia is a toxic mix and Belarus’s friends abroad must tread carefully. A key task for the European Union (EU) is to help the Belarusian people without providing a pretext for further violence and Russian intervention.
The right level of engagement needs to be carefully calibrated, avoiding disasters of strategic communication such as European Commissioner Thierry Breton being translated into English as saying Belarus is not part of Europe – with the lack of EU interest that that implies. Although the EU statement promising sanctions and offering funds received a mixed reception, at least it cannot be used by Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin as evidence that their warnings of a Western military threat are genuine.
Keir Giles is a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme (Chatam House).