Recognition of Crimea, restriction of imports, and closure of the border: How far will the illegitimate regime go?
For the anniversary of the pseudo-elections in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko prepared an eight-hour press conference, where he presented his version of reality. The Big Conversation is the culmination of outreach attempts produced by the self-proclaimed president since last August.
Lukashenko’s only goal is to retain power at any cost. It is pointless to look for logic in his words and actions. Unleashing terror against the Belarusian people and civil society, blackmailing and threatening EU countries and the «collective West» – he thinks nothing of the political and economic consequences for Belarus and deliberately exacerbates tensions.
At the same time, Lukashenko is trying to «talk up» the topic and to fill the media space exclusively with his own quotes and statements. Most often, the targets of information attacks are not only Belarus’s western neighbors, but also Ukraine. And here there is a clear connection and often a direct repetition of the narratives of put forth by Kremlin propaganda.
Lukashenko’s information parries are not always realized. But their analysis allows us to recognize the directions in which one should expect provocations or actions aimed at the Belarusian regime’s aggravating of the situation. Lukashenko’s rhetoric over the year since the election fraud has become increasingly intertwined with the Kremlin’s information campaigns.
Factory of «evidence»
Lukashenko began talking about the supposed danger coming from Ukraine almost immediately after the pseudo-elections in August 2020 and the large-scale protests that followed. The impetus for this was given by the Kremlin, which actively disseminated the topic of the «Ukrainian trace» in the Belarusian events of July-August 2020 through controlled media channels. This also includes a fake story regarding «Ukraine’s preparing of the Maidan in Belarus,» about «Ukrainian militant» participation in protests, and about the conducting of «international special operations» by Ukrainian special services in Belarus.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that «militants from Ukraine,» around 200 people, were involved in the destabilization of Belarus and were deployed to radicalize the protests. The same messages were repeated by Lukashenko with assistance in their promotion provided by the Russian propaganda team in Belarus led by Margarita Simonyan.
To form an image of Ukraine as an enemy of Belarus, Kremlin media conducted several information campaigns in which they actively quoted Lavrov and the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Naryshkin.
But these accusations were obviously lacking and required factual confirmation. Therefore, the Belarusian special services are involved in media support that is coordinated with their Russian counterparts. During a press conference, Lukashenko said this directly: «The FSB and the KGB are working in close contact. We cooperate and we learn. We have a lot of tasks in common and are assisting each other.»
However, all the materials of the special services that Lukashenko demonstrated – «Nick and Mike’s conversations,» 150 jeeps from Lithuania with machine guns to shoot the president, a cellar in the Gomel region where he was supposed to be put together with his sons, the CIA and FBI financing of the coup operation – in fact confirmed the opposite: all this «evidence» is crudely fabricated. This is seen by the regime’s cynical use of political hostages, such as Roman Protasevich.
Forging the image of Ukraine as an enemy
In his rhetoric, Lukashenko portrays Ukraine as an enemy, regularly tries to accuse Kyiv of radicalizing the Belarusian protest movement and of external interference, blames his own mistakes on his neighbors, and simply threatens Ukraine.
Lukashenko articulates attacks both directly – threatening, for example, to cut off fuel supplies to Ukraine – and by simply discussing the possibility or impossibility of some action, as, for example, with the constant exaggeration of the subject of recognizing Crimea as Russian.
In public speeches and media campaigns, there are several key tracks that Lukashenko uses for information manipulation and pressure on Ukraine. Among them, the most notable include the following:
- possible recognition of Crimea as Russian
- legitimization of illegal formations of the so-called Luhansk-Donetsk People’s Republic (LDPR)
- strengthening military cooperation with Russia
- covering the border with Ukraine and blocking or restricting the supply of goods, including petroleum products
Lukashenko is aware that even in discussing the possibility of recognizing the Russian annexation of Crimea, organizing flights there or developing ties with the occupied peninsula, he is not only deliberately violating the norms of international law, but also forces Ukraine to react. He uses this then, among other things, to demonstrate Kyiv’s supposed «policy of confrontation.»
During his last press conference, Lukashenko expressed his readiness to recognize Russian sovereignty over the temporarily occupied Ukrainian Crimea: «When will Belarus recognize Crimea? I answer publicly: when the last oligarch in Russia recognizes Crimea and starts supplying food there. I can wait.»
This statement was deemed ambiguous, with some analysts and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov interpreting it as Lukashenko’s unwillingness to recognize Crimea as Russian. While in Crimea, he said that Lukashenko should remember that the peninsula is a part of Russia, which is part of the Union State with Belarus. Thus, the Kremlin has overtly hinted that it is not leaving Lukashenko any room for maneuver in this matter.
The question of the recognition of Crimea is being voiced not only by Lukashenko. In July, a public campaign called Recognize Crimea!, which could not have taken place without the blessing of the Belarusian dictator, was launched in Belarus. Prior to this, the newspaper Minsk-Novosti, the press organ of the Minsk City Executive Committee, published a long editorial titled «A Minsk resident and his family vacationed in Crimea.» It should be recalled here that crossing the border with the occupied Crimea outside the Ukrainian checkpoint, that is, from the Russian side, is illegal and may carry criminal liability.
During the «big talk» Lukashenko also acknowledged the admission of the so-called «prosecutors» from the temporarily occupied Luhansk to Belarus to interrogate Roman Protasevich. It is interesting that earlier the Belarusian Foreign Ministry in their official response to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry categorically denied that Protasevich was interrogated by representatives of the so-called LPNR.
Military cooperation with Russia
In information campaigns in Belarus designed to turn Ukraine’s image into that of an enemy, the theme about the strengthening of NATO’s presence in Ukraine is a constant. It is used to substantiate the need for organizing military countermeasures to threats from Ukraine and for increasing military cooperation with Russia.
The rhetoric of the government in Minsk forces Ukraine to assess the veracity of threats of expanding Belarusian-Russian military cooperation and possible provocations on the Belarusian border.
The fact that such a threat is real is evidenced by Lukashenko himself, who at an August 5 meeting with Belarusian security officials on the border situation said, «… but the Ukrainian leadership, pursuing an anti-popular course, took a confrontational stance… And for us this is an additional threat, which we did not have before… These actions of our neighbor, if this happens, will threaten us with conflict, because the border guards, according to the law, must protect the border and not allow it to be violated.»
Lukashenko instructs Belarusians to think about the need for a Russian military presence and regularly repeats statements similar to the following: «If it is necessary for the security of the Union State that we are building, for the security of Belarus and Russia, to deploy all armed forces here with all types of weapons, they will be deployed here immediately.»
Кремль также навязывает как Украине, так и Европе необходимость рассматривать Беларусь в качестве противника и ожидать военного вторжения с ее территории. Этой же цели будет служить и проведение в сентябре совместных военных учений «Запад-2021».
The Kremlin is also imposing on both Ukraine and Europe the need to view Belarus as an adversary and expect a military invasion from there. The same purpose will be served by the holding of the Zapad-2021 joint military exercises in September.
Lukashenko’s administration commented on the results of his regular meeting with Putin as follows: «Ukraine. The situation with the increase in the military presence of the NATO bloc in country was discussed separately. Specifically, the conducting of large-scale exercises and plans for the Alliance in the construction of military bases.»
On July 30, Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin stated that «Ukraine continues to implement a course towards integration with NATO. It is most likely that Kyiv, to receive additional dividends from its Western partners, will continue its attempts to speculate on the possibility of Russian aggression from inside Belarus. At the same time, according to our assessment, on the eve of the Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2021 exercises their intensity will increase. It cannot be ruled out that to obtain tangible material for accusing Belarus and Russia, the Ukrainian leadership may organize various provocations on our southern borders.»
Ukraine needs to consider these statements «from the opposite end» and, in turn, be ready for attempts by Belarus to organize provocations on the border, including during the Zapad-2021 exercises.
Lukashenko also regularly threatens Ukraine with restrictions on imports of various goods to Belarus and a ban on supplies to Ukraine, in particular petroleum products – an export that is critical for Belarus.
For example, in November 2020, Lukashenko said, «You be careful so that we do not close the border for goods from Ukraine. You would not only be unable to supply products to our market, but also to process Ukrainian products in Belarus and supply them to all markets, primarily the Eurasian market.»
At a press conference in August of this year, Lukashenko was already talking about the possibility of «bringing Ukraine to its knees» within a day if Belarus, together with Russia, stopped supplying fuel and oil: «And tomorrow Zelensky and everyone else would be carried away on a pitchfork. Because we supply 35% and Russia supplies 35-40% of fuel to Ukraine.»
However, Belarus has not imposed significant economic sanctions against Ukraine, despite statements about Ukraine’s crossing «red lines» in reacting to the hijacking of the Ryanair aircraft in May: «Belarusian-Ukrainian political relations [are] at a very low level, and the red line was crossed when the European Union continued flights with us and Ukraine ceased. For what? Is it really possible to go so low as, I’m sorry, to ruin everything that has happened so far, everything that we are doing and have done for Ukraine?»
The process of individual licensing for the import of many Ukrainian goods, specifically confectionery, chocolate, and agricultural machinery, which was introduced in Belarus in May for a period of six months, did not seriously affect Ukrainian-Belarusian trade.
As with the economic sanctions, the situation is almost the same with Lukashenko’s systematic statements on the closure of the border with Ukraine. Statements are made but they are not implemented.
Lukashenko has been threatening to close the border since last fall. At the same time, this is wishful thinking. In December 2020, he spoke about this again in the context of the alleged supply of weapons to Belarus: «And now that they have already closed [ed. – the border] with Ukraine, the mouse will not get out.» He came around to this topic several times in subsequent speeches, for example on July 2: «A huge number of weapons comes from Ukraine to Belarus. Therefore, I instructed the border troops to completely close the border with Ukraine.»
During the «big conversation» accusations were directed towards Volodymyr Zelenskiy: «Okay, you [Zelenskiy] ran after the West and spat on everything, but why are you preparing militants in Ukraine and bringing weapons to us here? After all, the weapons come mainly from Ukraine. Now, of course, we have closed the border tightly. Why are you doing this?»
All these statements are propaganda and are intended more to accuse Ukraine of smuggling and exporting radicals than to impose any restrictions.
Accusations of radicalization
In conjunction with attempts to put pressure on Ukraine on these points, Lukashenko and the Belarusian security forces accuse Ukraine of interfering in the internal affairs of Belarus, involvement in the destabilization of the situation after the 2020 presidential elections, organizing and financing extremist and terrorist activities, and arms smuggling into Belarus.
The statements about the detention of «terrorist groups» and «extremists» in Belarus and Ukraine’s involvement in this are usually voiced by Lukashenko personally and are complemented by Belarusian pro-government and Kremlin media.
Such materials are systematically manufactured, which is indicative of a deliberate discrediting of Ukraine. Such statements are repeated through the Kremlin’s narratives about Ukraine’s carrying out of «orders from the West,» which allegedly has deployed a powerful intelligence center in Ukraine to work against Belarus.
Lukashenko voiced this idea, for example, in November: «At this period the most powerful special services in the world are working against Belarus… The U.S. created a center near Warsaw and now they have created one in Kyiv. I would say sure, but we and the Russians – our intelligence team – have been working. We saw these centers.»
In such statements, Lukashenko often refers to statements by the Kremlin accusing Ukraine, along with Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and the «collective West,» of interfering in Belarus’s internal affairs.
When talking about the detention of terrorist and extremist groups in Belarus – for example, Olinevich’s anarchist group in October 2020 or the Belarusian ex-political prisoner Autukhovich in June 2021 – it is emphasized that the groups were formed, hid, supplied with weapons, and were supervised from Ukraine. Quoting Lukashenko: «Now we have uncovered all their channels. They were carrying tons of weapons across Ukraine.» And the head of the KGB Tertel said, «We have reliable information about the involvement of the Ukrainian special services in the Autukhovich project.»
The fact that the campaign to fabricate accusations to discredit Ukraine will continue is also evidenced by Lukashenko claiming that «dormant» terrorist cells, so-called self-defense units, have been uncovered in Belarus. The goal of these cells is a violent change of power on the appointed day.» According to him, Lithuania, Poland, the U.S., Ukraine, and Germany are serving as coordinators.
Using the results of provocations and manufactured materials, Lukashenko calls Ukraine the executor of the will of the «collective West» and accuses the country of pursuing anti-Belarusian policy, supporting “fugitive” oppositionists and harboring extremists. On July 19, in an interview with Sky News Arabia, Lukashenko said the following: «We are absolutely certain that the U.S. and its special services and others are behind it behind the provocation… Because ordering the murder of the President and journalists and prominent citizens of Belarus and committing other terrorist acts is possible only with the consent of a country’s top leadership. Those people or countries that carry out these actions are also known to us – Lithuania, to some degree Latvia, and primarily Poland and Ukraine.»
In the same context, the Belarusian regime has accused Ukraine of participating in an information war against Belarus. The head of the KGB, Ivan Tertel, said the following: «We see very close interaction of Ukrainian information war units with Polish and Lithuanian ones. There is coordination at the level of specialists for carrying out specific information operations in relative to Belarus with the aim of causing harm.»
Ukraine regularly refutes the fake stories produced by the Lukashenko regime and Kremlin propaganda. On August 10, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry summoned Kamyshev, Charge d’Affaires of the Republic of Belarus in Ukraine, to protest a series of inappropriate statements made by Lukashenko during a press conference on August 9, including readiness to recognize Russian sovereignty over the temporarily occupied Ukrainian Crimea and accusations of Ukraine’s «transporting weapons» and training «militants» for actions in Belarus. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also said that with a fake story about external threats to the Belarusian statehood coming from Ukraine and other Western states, Lukashenko is attempting to justify his repressive methods and restrictions on the rights and freedoms of Belarusian citizens.
In the year that has passed since the fraudulent elections in Belarus, Lukashenko has renounced his neutral status in relations with Ukraine. He also lost his «information sovereignty» and is forced to follow in the wake of Russian propaganda, voicing threats against Kyiv. All this was the price that Lukashenko paid for helping the Kremlin to maintain his personal power in Belarus.
Further confrontation between Lukashenko and Kyiv will take place at Moscow’s behest, which in the short term risks turning into real provocations with West-2021 exercises being held on the border, and in the long term an information war on the side of Russia in its confrontation with Ukraine in the energy sector.