Belarus Needs Peaceful U.S. Engagement
Published on October 13, 2020 by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies
Perspectives Paper No. 1,775, October 13, 2020
BELARUS NEEDS PEACEFUL U.S. ENGAGEMENT
By Dr. Jiri Valenta
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Peaceful revolution has finally come to the last dictatorship on Russia’s Eastern European periphery. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has become an illegitimate leader due to a rigged election. Facing weeks-long massive public demonstrations, he has appealed to Vladimir Putin for help—but what happens next might be up to Donald Trump.
A CIA assessment of Vladimir Putin’s views and policies concluded that he and his Kremlin apparatus clearly favor Donald Trump over Joe Biden in the 2020 US presidential election. Trump’s caution in remarking on the democratic movement in Belarus stands in contrast to Biden’s more hawkish posture. If he wins, Biden is likely to adopt more assertive policies toward Russia and to vocally support peaceful revolution in Belarus.
Mass protests erupted in that country in the wake of the rigged presidential election of Alexander Lukashenko, who conducted a secret ceremony in which he was sworn in for a new five-year term. Considered “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been in power in Minsk for over 25 years.
The huge protests in Minsk, largely organized by women, have shown police brutally trying to control masses of chanting women of all ages. Both men and women have been beaten, arrested, and hauled to jail. Whatever happens with the ongoing massive protests, the country’s society is growing increasingly less governable for a dictator.
Peaceful revolution in Belarus is a key national security issue for Putin. After the 1991 geopolitical dismemberment of Russia, when it lost its non-Russian republics in the Baltics and the Caucasus, Russia’s periphery moved dramatically inward. A small country with only 9 million people, Belarus is on the new Russian periphery, along with Moldova, Georgia, some of the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
To Putin, the Belarus demonstrations must evoke other peaceful revolutions that occurred at the Soviet periphery in the past, such as the 1968 Czechoslovak Prague Spring and Poland’s Gdansk Solidarity movement in 1980. In those cases, the potential for spillover to Russia was a key reason for Soviet intervention. Endless popular attempts at peaceful revolution and ensuing chaos in Belarus would put that country into question as a reliable geopolitical buffer for Russia against NATO countries.
It might also jeopardize Belarus’s standing as Russia’s economic partner in maintaining the Druzhba oil pipeline for supplies to Central Europe. Oil contamination has already halted the westbound supply at a cost of billions to Russia in US dollar terms.
As in the past, there is still the threat of potential spillover of revolt into Russia. There have already been small demonstrations inside Russia in support of freedom for Belarus. Tolerance of freedom in Minsk might encourage demonstrations and demands by Russian dissidents in Moscow, as occurred in 1968 and 1980.
But as in those earlier Soviet interventions, Russian military interference in Belarus could have incalculable negative consequences for Russia: above all, the possible pullout by Germany from the NordStream 2 gas pipeline project.
Although the US, along with Canada, Britain, and the EU, backs sanctions against Lukashenko and his associates, there has been no strong support for peaceful revolution in Belarus by the US State Department and no formal statement from the White House. Trump’s muteness is reminiscent of President Lyndon Johnson’s silence during the 1968 Prague Spring, and it may be similarly motivated by fears of antagonizing Russian leaders amid strategic arms reduction negotiations. Putin is certainly aware that under Trump (again as in 1968), the US and its NATO allies are not fully coordinated. Trump has neither voiced support for democratic values nor rejected the possibility of a violent solution by Lukashenko and Putin.
Putin has stated that he has designated a police force for a possible intervention in Belarus—but only “if protests there turn violent.” In an interview, he said, “There is no such need at the moment,” and voiced his hope that the situation in Belarus would ”stabilize.’’ The latest news indicates that not just a Russian police force but also Russian military troops, including paratroopers, have participated in joint exercises in Belarus, but it appears that Putin has not yet decided what to do.
Lukashenko can be considered an incarnation of Romania’s late dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. The Belarus dictator has skillfully played the West and Moscow against each other for decades, buttering up one to entice concessions from the other. In following the Ceaușescu model, which severely antagonized Brezhnev and Gorbachev, Lukashenko has not endeared himself to Putin, but he is likely warning the Russian president that if the Minsk protests aren’t contained, the spirit of revolution will one day reach Moscow.
Putin is suspected of supporting if not ordering criminal tactics against democratic-minded opposition figures who appeared to be developing close ties with other democrats in Eastern Europe. On August 20, 2020, in the midst of the Belarus crisis, Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, a man with many contacts in Belarus, was poisoned by a nerve agent and hospitalized in serious condition in Germany. The nerve agent had been tested by Russian agents earlier. It was used to neutralize a less prominent dissident in Russia, as well as former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Great Britain. The “advantage” of the nerve agent is that it does not kill but inflicts a long and difficult psychological and physical recovery.
Ordinarily Trump would have—and indeed should have—expressed his dismay at the poisoning of Navalny. Though he disavows Russian meddling in US elections, his silence on Lukashenko has the appearance of being tied to his belief that Putin has ordered Russian propaganda and media outlets to support him against Biden in the 2020 elections, as he did in 2016 against Clinton.
No matter how full Trump’s plate may be, upholding the sanctioning of Lukashenko and his associates is not enough. Trump needs to speak out on behalf of the people of Belarus and to express support for democratic values. Biden has already slammed Trump for not doing so.
Putin may even realize that any Russian intervention in Belarus prior to the November US election will negatively affect Trump, who would be accused of, if not colluding with Russia, at least making it easy for the Kremlin to suppress the peaceful revolution in Minsk.
Moreover, Trump should remember that in 1968, President Johnson, a Democrat, ignored a peaceful revolution in Prague in favor of arms negotiation with Russia. His closing his eyes to the Soviet intervention not only led to the postponement of arms negotiations but was detrimental to the election of his VP, Hubert Humphrey. The enduring lesson for US presidents is not to be indifferent to large peaceful revolutions at Russia’s periphery.
The Russian president has had mixed experiences trying to support political tyrants. It did not work out in Ukraine, where dictator Viktor Yanukovich had to run for his life to Russia in 2014. Putin’s rescue of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad a year later could only be accomplished through a direct and very expensive military intervention. But what was possible in the conflict-ridden Middle East would be much more difficult in an Eastern European country bordering NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Indeed, Putin’s latest moves—inviting Lukashenko to Moscow, providing him with a $1.5 billion loan, and holding joint Belarus-Russia military exercises—seem to suggest that the Russian president is still on the fence. Putin might choose to wait until it becomes clear who has won the US election before cutting the Gordian knot in Belarus.
With the EU having rejected Lukashenko’s election as president of Belarus as illegitimate, there is an opportunity for Trump to broker an alternative solution to the Belarus crisis that does not involve force.
Putin may be the “biggest liar in the world,” as Trump’s former National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster put it. World leaders tend to lie, and Putin, who was schooled in KGB techniques of deception, is a master. Yet as suggested by Henry Kissinger, he is also a staunch defender of Russia’s national interests. Instead of using forceful suppression, Putin might accept help from his opposite number, whom he views as a cunning and basically friendly leader.
A negotiated settlement involving economics, geopolitics, and politics could work in Belarus, a nation that has traditionally had close cultural, linguistic, political, and economic ties with Russia. High-level negotiations with Putin leading to the retirement of the Belarus dictator and support for democratic elections could have benefits for Russia. A negotiated settlement could preserve Russia’s strategic as well as economic interests. It could guarantee Belarus’s rejection of NATO membership, as well as economic agreements in which the US reduces burdensome sanctions on Russia. It might also provide aid to economically strapped Belarus from Western Europe and America.
One hopeful sign was a surprising statement by Putin in which he essentially proposed that Russia and America stop meddling in each other elections by agreeing on “… a comprehensive program of practical measures to reboot our relations in the field of security, in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).” He proposed the “exchange, in a mutually acceptable format, [of] guarantees of non-intervention into internal affairs of each other, including into electoral processes.”
This might be a step in the right direction toward recognizing the need for new and bold initiatives in the complex US-Russian relationship, no matter who wins the US election. The time has come for Trump to respond with initiatives of his own on the explosive situation in Belarus, with a possible role for the US as mediator.
Dr. Jiri Valenta, a former professor and coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies at the US Naval Post Graduate School, is author of Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia 1968: Anatomy of a Decision, with a foreword by Alexander Dubcek. He is a non-resident senior research Associate at BESA and a long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Alexei Navalny: "Prepared to Lose Everything"
By Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta
Published by the Gatestone Institute March 24, 2021
Edited version republished by the BESA Center For Strategic Studies, April 15, 2021
"I think that the ban of Donald Trump on Twitter is an unacceptable act of censorship... Don't tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn't ban anyone ...." — Alexei Navalny, Twitter, November 9, 2020.
Among the people who have Twitter accounts are cold-blooded murderers (Putin or Maduro) and liars and thieves (Medvedev)... Of course, Twitter is a private company, but we have seen many examples in Russian and China of such private companies becoming the state's best friends and the enablers when it comes to censorship. — Alexei Navalny, Twitter, November 9, 2020.
"If you replace 'Trump' with 'Navalny' in today's discussion, you will get an 80% accurate Kremlin's answer as to why my name can't be mentioned on Russian TV and I shouldn't be allowed to participate in any elections." — Alexei Navalny, Twitter, November 9, 2020.
"This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world. In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: 'this is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter'." — Alexei Navalny, Twitter, November 9, 2020.
"The election is a straightforward and competitive process. You can participate in it, you can appeal against the results, they're being monitored by millions of people. The ban on Twitter is a decision of people we don't know in accordance with a procedure we don't know..." . — Alexei Navalny, Twitter, November 9, 2020.
"This [imprisonment] is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They're imprisoning one person to frighten millions. This isn't a demonstration of strength — it's a show of weakness." — Alexei Navalny, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, February 3, 2021.
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was nearly murdered in August by poisoning with the nerve-agent novichok, and on February 2 was sentenced to two and a half years in a penal colony for an alleged parole violation. The resultant protests in support of Navalny have been attended by tens of thousands of citizens in more than a hundred Russian cities. Pictured: Navalny attends a hearing inside a glass cell at the Babushkinsky District Court in Moscow on February 20, 2021. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)
The near-murder of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny by the nerve-agent novichok last August, his return to Moscow in January, and the resultant protests attended by tens of thousands of citizens in more than a hundred Russian cities, raise the question of how long the Russian people will continue to tolerate President Vladimir Putin's repressive acts against political enemies and rivals.
The crowds were rallying in support of Navalny after his return to Moscow on January17, 2021 from medical treatment in Germany, some in temperatures of -60 degrees Fahrenheit. The police, attacking the protestors with batons, arrested more than 3,300 people.
While recuperating in Germany, Navalny, aided by an investigative organization, filmed himself calling Konstantin Kudryatsev, a toxins expert in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). Using a disguised telephone number, Navalny posed as an aide to the chairman of Russia's Security Council. He asked Kudryatsev for the details of his poisoning. In the 49-minute conversation that followed, Kudryatsev divulged full details of the poisoning, including how the novichok poison had been placed in Navalny's underpants in a hotel in Tomsk.
In December, Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) released the video of the telephone call.
After his January arrest in Moscow, Navalny released a nearly two-hour documentary entitled, "Putin's palace. History of world's largest bribe," that has drawn more than 100 million views on YouTube. The billion dollar plus residence was financed, claims FBK, through a corruption scheme run by oligarchs in Putin's inner circle.
On January 23, Navalny was arrested for allegedly violating the terms of his parole -- which was imposed in 2014 under a suspended sentence for what he calls a "fabricated" charge of embezzlement. The European Court of Human Rights in 2016 had already ruled that the 2014 conviction was unlawful.
According to the BBC:
"The case against Navalny was based on his failure to report regularly to police during 2020 - an absurdity, his legal team argued, as the authorities knew full well that he was getting emergency treatment in Berlin for the Novichok nerve agent attack. He reminded the court that for part of that time he was in a coma."
In a speech to the court on February 2, when the judge sentenced him to two and a half years in a penal colony for the parole violation, Navalny said:
"[Putin's] main gripe with me is that he'll go down in history as a poisoner. We had Alexander the Liberator, Yaroslav the Wise, and we will have Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner."
In the courtroom, Navalny drew a heart with his finger on the glass wall of his enclosure for his wife, Yulia.
Navalny, the next week, was hauled back to court for allegedly "slandering a World War II veteran who took part in the promotional video in support of last year's constitutional amendments that cleared the way for President Vladimir Putin to run for two more terms in office..." Navalny had "described those in the video as 'traitors,' 'people with no conscience,' and 'corrupt lackeys.'"
Meanwhile, nationwide protests continued. In the freezing winter, Russians gathered in groups and held up their mobile phone flashlights in a display of support for Navalny.
Why is this outpouring of support for Navalny significant?
Since 2018 he has headed a political party, "Progress," also known as "Russia of the Future." Its platform stands for, among other things, the decentralization of power; the rule of law; ending censorship; reducing government interference in the economy, and partnering with Western countries.
It is also no secret that Putin has a history of allegedly taking revenge on journalists -- such as Anna Politkovskaya, Paul Klebnikov or Natalia Estemirova -- as well as enemies or opponents.
In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western candidate for president of Ukraine was left with his face pock-marked and disfigured by a poisoning attack.
In 2006, Russian double agent Alexander Litvinenko was killed with radioactive polonium. Popular political reformer Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015. His friend, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, but survived. Sergei Skripal, a former Colonel in Russian military intelligence and allegedly a double-agent working for Britain, was also poisoned with novichok, along with his daughter Yulia, while living in the UK, presumably to underscore that no one was out of reach.
How did Navalny to rise to prominence in Russia? In 2007, holding a small number of shares in Russian state-owned oil and gas companies, Navalny obtained information on their corruption and misuse of funds, which he then publicized on his widely-read LiveJournal blog.
In 2011, he founded his Anti-Corruption Foundation. He also ran for mayor of Moscow but lost. The same year, he led a series of protests against election fraud. In addition, his organization created a "smart" voting platform, which advises the public of alternatives to Putin's candidates.
In the 2012 parliamentary elections, Navalny's party lost out to Putin's United Russia Party by a large margin. In 2020, however, thanks to Navalny's growing influence, Putin's party lost seats in Moscow, Khabarovsk, Tomsk and Novosibirsk.
In 2018, Navalny campaigned and sought to run against Putin in the presidential election. Navalny obtained 200,000 signatures and opened 81 campaign offices nationwide. But unlike less well-known candidates, he was barred from running against Putin because of his 2014 conviction for embezzlement and money-laundering, a case he called "trumped up."
Since then, waves of protests have swept Russia, along with growing admiration for Navalny worldwide.
Navalny has made some telling comments about former President Donald J. Trump and censorship. Indeed, comparisons between underdogs Trump and Navalny are hard to avoid, particularly as both are censored. Navalny tweeted on January 9:
"I think that the ban of Donald Trump on Twitter is an unacceptable act of censorship...
"The election is a straightforward and competitive process. You can participate in it, you can appeal against the results, they're being monitored by millions of people. The ban on Twitter is a decision of people we don't know in accordance with a procedure we don't know...
Don't tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn't ban anyone (not that I ask for it)...
"Among the people who have Twitter accounts are cold-blooded murderers (Putin or Maduro) and liars and thieves (Medvedev). For many years, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been used as a base for Putin's "troll factory" and similar groups from other authoritarian countries.
"Of course, Twitter is a private company, but we have seen many examples in Russian and China of such private companies becoming the state's best friends and the enablers when it comes to censorship.
"If you replace 'Trump' with 'Navalny' in today's discussion, you will get an 80% accurate Kremlin's answer as to why my name can't be mentioned on Russian TV and I shouldn't be allowed to participate in any elections.
"This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world. In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: 'this is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter'."
Navalny had previously commented on the fact that unlike many other world leaders, Trump was unusually quiet about his poisoning. According to CNN:
Speaking to CBS on Sunday, Navalny said "I think it's extremely important -- that everyone, of course, including and maybe in the first of all, President of United States, to be very against using chemical weapons in the 21st Century."
In 2018, President Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the US days after the British government positively identified the nerve agent used in the Skripal poisonings as novichok. He also ordered the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle. European Union countries, Canada and Ukraine followed suit in expelling Russian diplomats.
The use of novichok is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty of which Russia is a state party.
Before Navalny, opposition figures who survived attacks have retreated or fled. Navalny, physically attacked, jailed and released many times, has refused flight, emigration and silence.
So far, Navalny, now in the IK-2 penitentiary in the city of Pokrov, said "he had seen no violence in his new surroundings," which he called a "friendly concentration camp," in a message posted to his Instagram account on March 15.
"I have not yet seen any violence or even a hint of it, although due to the stiff posture of the convicts, standing at attention and afraid to turn their heads, I easily believe the numerous stories that here, in IK-2 'Pokrov', quite recently people were beaten half to death with wooden hammers. Now the methods have changed, and, to be honest, I don't even remember a place where everyone speaks so politely and in a way, kindly."
"He is prepared to lose everything," said the economist Sergei M. Guriev, a Navalny confidant who in 2013 fled to France after coming under pressure from the Kremlin. "That makes him different from everyone else."
On March 2, 2021, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russian officials and companies and are presently considering further steps. According to The Guardian:
"Senior administration officials described the measures taken, which are also a response to Navalny's continued imprisonment, as catching up with sanctions imposed on Moscow by the EU in October..."
They are not likely to be sufficient. Russia has already imposed sanctions of its own against European officials in reprisal.
Voices worldwide need to continue to call for Navalny's release.
Putin, of course, is still popular with much of Russia. Polls show his approval rating in the mid-60s. Russian media are portraying Navalny's supporters in a negative light amidst footage of violence directed against the police. Crackdowns on supporters are anticipated.
Yet Navalny has hope that his movement can carry on without him. Reacting to his sentencing, he addressed his followers in the courtroom:
"This [imprisonment] is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They're imprisoning one person to frighten millions. This isn't a demonstration of strength — it's a show of weakness."
Dr. Jiri Valenta is a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan. A former tenured associate professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, he also served as coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies for the Master's program for intelligence officers of all armed forces. A member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, he is the recipient of the Jan Masaryk Silver Medal for his directorship of a post-revolutionary think tank in the Czech Republic. A recipient of several distinguished fellowships, he is the author of several books, some based on on-site research and covering Grenada, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Syria and Cambodia. For the last decade, he has worked with his wife, Leni, who holds a 3-year Masters from the Yale School of Drama in playwriting.
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