Belarusians Protest against the War. Belarus Watch #22

March 15, 2022
This newsletter does not reflect the current situation in Ukraine and Belarus, but it can serve as a helpful tool to assess how the Belarus-Russia relationship in recent weeks may have impacted the Russian position towards Ukraine now.
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RECENT POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS

On February 24, Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is now clear that all official statements and press releases about "the Union State cooperation" were lies designed to mislead public opinion.

The real topic of the recent meetings of Lukashenka and Putin was the invasion of Ukraine, despite Lukashenka having stated repeatedly it will never happen.

The territory of Belarus and its infrastructure is being used by Russian military forces to attack Ukraine from the north. The involvement of Belarusian troops in the attack has not yet been confirmed.

Negotiation between Ukraine and Russia takes place in Belarus

Since the day of invasion, three rounds of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have taken place. The third round began on March 7 in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha residence in south-western Belarus.

The Russian President's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov informed Reuters News Agency that  Russian conditions for stopping the war are for Ukraine to cease military action, change the Ukrainian constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, and recognise the self-proclaimed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

According to experts, there is close to no chance for reaching an agreement on peace in Ukraine since Russia's conditions are impossible to fulfil. Ukraine says these talks have not produced any results, but negotiators have agreed to continue the process.

"For those negotiation to be successful, Russia has to withdraw its troops from Ukraine," — says Andrea Kalan, the US State Department's Spokesperson.

Referendum on Belarusian Constitution changes: nobody cares about the voting results

According to the Belarusian officials, about 83% of voters supported the Belarusian Constitution changes that put Belarus closer to Russia, remove neutrality status, and allow the country to host a nuclear weapon. Based on the official press-release, only 12.78% voted against the amendments.

There is no trust in these numbers inside the country nor from the international community. Vice-President  of the European Comission Josep Borrell stated that the Referendum was organized in a context of widespread human rights violations and its brutal repression against all segments of Belarusian society.

CIVIL SOCIETY

Belarusians protest against Russian war with Ukraine despite arrests and repressions

More than 900 persons in Minsk and in the regions were detained in protests against the Constitution Referendum and war in Ukraine. Most of the detained people received fines and days of arrests totalling 8257 days for 589 people, the Human Rights Centre Viasna informs.

Belarusian cultural leaders stand against the war that runs Russia with the support of the Belarusian regime

About 570 Belarusian cultural leaders have signed the public letter against the Belarusian regime providing Russia with infrastructure and logistic framework to aid in attacking Ukraine. Culture workers call colleagues to break the silence and publicly condemn this war.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaja declared Anti-War Movement Manifest in opposition to pro-Russian Belarusian regime

The day after the invasion, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the opposition who won people's support in the presidential election in Belarus in 2020, declared herself as the national leader of Belarus. Tsikhanouskaya attributed responsibility for the war to Lukashenka and his regime along with the Russian president and declared the Anti-War Movement Manifest. On behalf of Belarusian citizens, Tsikhanouskaya demands the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Belarus and an end to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

CHURCH

The heads of the Catholic, main Protestant and Orthodox Church in Belarus have condemned the war and made appeals for peace. Russian Orthodox priests have also called for an end to war. At the time of publication, an appeal was signed about 150 Russian Orthodox priests, including priests of the Belarusian Patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pastor of the "New Life" protestant church in Minsk Viachaslau Hancharenka, sent a public letter to Aliaksandar Lukashenka, Belarussian ministries, and state organizations with the main demand to not allow Belarusian troops and peaceful citizens to participate in the war and to not permit the use of Belarusian territory for military operations and engagement in war.

ENERGY AND ECONOMY

Finance

On March 2, the head of the Cabinet of Ministers of Belarus instructed to consider the possibility of switching to payments for energy in Russian rubles during a meeting of the Presidium of the Council of Ministers of the Republic. "The task for the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Energy, Chairman of Belneftekhim is decoupling our settlements from US dollars, possibly with the transition to fixing them in Russian rubles, primarily for energy," BelTA quotes Roman Golovchenko. This comment related to the decision to create an operational situational headquarters within the government, which would be tasked with preparing a comprehensive plan to support the economy. The prime minister made it clear that extraordinary times "require extraordinary decisions and approaches."

Sberbank (Russia) has opened an additional reserve line for Sber Bank (Belarus) and will provide the necessary support if necessary, BelTA learned from the press service of the Belarusian bank. "Sber Bank operates as normal and is fulfilling all its obligations to customers and partners. The bank's customers have access to all operations both in branches and on online mobile applications. All funds are available to customers in full. The bank has all the necessary resources, experience and expertise for successful work in the current conditions," the bank said. OJSC "Sberbank" (formerly OJSC "BPS-Sberbank") is one of the largest banks in Belarus in terms of assets. PJSC "Sberbank" is one of the largest banks in Russia, accounting for about a third of the assets of the entire Russian banking sector.

Logistics

Alexander Lukashenka said that Belarus will have its own ports in the Russian Baltic in two years. Hesaid that the issue was discussed with Vladimir Putin before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. "We are talking about the construction of a port economy. We need our own ports. Therefore, we have expeditiously identified construction places. The places are very good. I have already been informed. Let's go there together in the spring. Maybe in June. Let's see how the construction goes. Within two years we will have ports there. We will load our goods there in our ports," a quote brought by Pool of the First telegram channel. Earlier, Lukashenko said that Belarusian private capital is investing in a port in the Leningrad region, through which it is planned to tranship domestic potash fertilizers. The Belarusian government is also going to try and seize opportunities to transport cargo from the ports of the Baltic countries. The EU has imposed an embargo on the import of cement, wood and metal products from the country, which also does not allow the use of EU ports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin supports the desire of Belarus to gain access to Russian ports in the Baltic. He stated this at the flag-raising ceremony of the new Marshal Rokossovsky ferry, BelTA informs. "I also support this, I asked you to provide all possible assistance. This applies to various places, various points, various structures where our Belarusian friends could implement these projects," he said, addressing the governor of the Leningrad region Alexander Drozdenko and other officials.

MEDIA

Russian state propaganda TV channel Russia Today will soon start broadcasting in Belarus. RT journalist Konstantin Prydybaylo mentioned this during a press conference of Alexander Lukashenko at the polling station for the referendum.

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

Lukashenka's Referendum in the middle of the war

On February 27, Lukashenka organized his Constitutional "Referendum", which took place in the middle of the largest military conflict in Europe since WWII. This "election" was completely overshadowed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this way, the formal prolongation of Lukashenka's rule over Belarus took place not under passive supervision of the Russian soldiers but in a situation of the most aggressive manifestation of the Russian military force in the region.

In terms of security issues, the new Belarusian Constitution formally shed the neutral and non-nuclear status of Belarus.

Belarusian referendum 'unmistakably' linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine

According to Julie Fisher, the U.S. special envoy for Belarus, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is "unmistakably" linked with a constitutional referendum in Belarus which took place on February 27, 2022 and ended the country's nuclear-free status, while providing Lukashenka with even more powers.

Fisher also underlined that there were no indications of support from the general Belarussian society for the proposed changes to the constitution, which were approved by around two-thirds of those who cast ballots, according to official referendum results. Several governments and civil society groups said the referendum failed to meet international standards.

The approved changes to the constitution not only gave Lukashenka the possibility to rule until 2035, a new lever of power, but also abolished a section of the constitution defining Belarus as a "nuclear-free zone," possibly allowing Russia to return nuclear weapons to Belarus.

Many Belarusians answered the call of opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to use the vote to protest the war against Ukraine. Protests broke out at several locations across Belarus on February 27. Crowds chanted "Glory to Ukraine!" and "No to war!" before police came. Nearly 800 people were detained by police, the Interior Ministry said on February 28.

"While they were not as large as the protests after the fraudulent 2020 election, they came after months and months of the authorities arresting, beating, and torturing protesters and anybody else they thought was expressing disagreement with how they were operating," Fisher said. "It takes great bravery to protest in public in such an environment. And, as they have since 2020, the people of Belarus demonstrated their courage by standing up for what they believe in. And, as they have done since 2020, hundreds of them paid a price for that, arrested by a regime that cannot tolerate even the slightest display of dissent or disagreement," she added.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

24.02.2022 - Russian invasion of Ukraine from the Belarusian territory

Since the outbreak of the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Army has been actively using the territory of Belarus to proceed with its military goals. De facto, the Russian authorities have complete military control over Belarus, and this control has strategic importance for the Russian war against Ukraine.

First of all, the Kremlin uses the Belarusian territory for a direct attack at the Ukrainian capital Kyiv — the forces of the Eastern Military District and several airborne units are actively trying to encircle Kyiv from several directions. Secondly, Russian aviation actively uses the Belarusian airbases in Baranavichi, Lida, Babruisk and Homel for airstrikes on Ukraine. Finally, the Russian Army continued to realizing missile strikes (Iskander, Tochka-U) from Belarus. In this way, the Belarusian authorities directly assist Putin in his invasion by allowing him to use the Belarusian territory and infrastructure.

Issue of the direct participation of Belarus in a military conflict

As of March 7, there has been no directevidence that the Belarusian Army units have taken a direct part in the Russian attack on Ukraine. Despite numerous rumours on social media, the Belarusian Army still has not crossed the border with Ukraine. Such reports about direct Belarusian participation in the war against Ukraine may be a result of the Russian hybrid warfare strategy (in particular Russian soldiers presenting themselves as "Belarusians" to Ukrainians). So far, the Ukrainian authorities have not confirmed the presence of Belarusian troops on their territory.

However, the situation with direct participation of Belarus in the Russian aggression on Ukraine could change momentarily. If Belarusian troops enter Ukraine, it will be a clear sign of the most severe political weakening of Lukashenka — this scenario would indicate Lukashenka's complete loss of military control.

Belarus dragged into war

The Russian invasion of Ukraine from both Russian and Belarusian territory has highlighted that Lukashenka is practically just a puppet commander-in-chief of the country. It is possible that Lukashenka may not have even been aware of Putin's decision to assault Ukraine until the night before.

In the weeks preceding the war, there were some attempts of the Belarusian government to manoeuvre away from the Russian position. Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei pledged that all Russian troops would leave Belarus after the Russia-Belarus military exercises "Union Resolve" concluded.

Russian troops not only remained in place, but also used Belarusian territory as a launching pad for the invasion of Ukraine. Russian military aircraft and helicopters attacking Ukrainian targets have continued flying to and from Belarusian airports and there have been several incidents of missiles fired from Belarus.

Although for the time being there have not been confirmed reports of Belarusian armed forces fighting alongside Russian ones, Lukashenka recently stated that: "Our troops are not [in Ukraine] but if it becomes necessary, if Belarus and Russia need them, they will be there."

Lukashenka is no longer hiding that key decisions regarding Belarus's military are now being taken without his involvement. The war in Ukraine has accelerated the morphing of his regime into a puppet of the Kremlin.

Lukashenka's "pro-peace" statements

After the outbreak of the Russian attack on Ukraine, Lukashenka made a number of "pro-peace"statements. According to him, "Belarus is a peaceful country, and it is not taking sides in the conflict, while the West tries to drag them into a war in Ukraine in order to leave the Belarus-NATO borders unprotected". This position of Lukashenka is explained by his clear desire to avoid direct Belarusian military involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as this step may result in catastrophic consequences for his rule. Lukashenka is perfectly aware that the Belarusian units will be quickly defeated in Ukraine, which in turn will infuriate Belarusian society. According to the polls, only 5% of Belarusians support the idea to send their troops to Ukraine. In this situation, Lukashenka is desperately seeking to convince Putin that the Belarusian Army should protect the border with NATO instead of taking part in the fights in Ukraine.

Morale of the Belarusian Army

There have been numerous reports about massive dissatisfaction among Belarusian soldiers and officers with their possible participation in the Ukrainian war. There are many reasons to believe that these reports are true. First, for decades, the Belarusian Army was an institution of a relatively peaceful state, which has never taken part in any foreign conflicts. Secondly, there is a clear understanding among the soldiers that they will be quickly slaughtered in Ukraine as they do not possess necessary training and battle skills. Finally, the Belarusian soldiers do not understand the reason for fighting Ukrainians — they do not share Putin's imperialist views on this country.

There are no military reasons for Putin to move the Belarusian Army into Ukraine. The only battle-ready part of the Belarusian Army is the Forces of Special Operations (two airborne brigades and one Spetsnaz brigade), with about 5,900 soldiers. Such a small force cannot make a significant difference on the battlefield — the Belarusian soldiers were never trained to participate in large-scale assault operations. The only reason Moscow may want the Belarusian soldiers to fight the Ukrainians is to drag Belarus much deeper into its insane aggression towards Ukraine.

Belarus Watch

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