Putin’s Silence: Inaction of the Russian leader regarding “mercenaries” in Belarus plays against him.
The scandal about Russian mercenaries in Belarus continues to flare up, bringing more and more political dividends to the President of this East European country, Alexander Lukashenka. July 6, Lukashenka instructed the Prosecutor Generals of Russia and Ukraine to Belarus to be invited to discuss the future of the detained militants. Not a day goes by that the president of Belarus does not remind the public about this episode. Against this background, the behaviour of the Russian authorities looks extremely helpless.
July 29, Belarusian media reported on the detention of 32 Russians in a health resort near capital of the country – Minsk. One more Russian was caught in the south of the country. On the same day at a meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, they were called militants of the private military company “Wagner”. The U.S. and European authorities accuse the company of destabilizing the situation in Ukraine, Libya and providing military support to the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
A criminal case was opened against the Russians under the article on preparation of terrorist attacks, the punishment under which is up to 20 years in prison. In addition, the detainees are suspected of intending to organize mass riots in the republic.
August 9, presidential elections are to be held in Belarus. There are protest rallies against Alexander Lukashenka, using all mechanisms to prevent alternative candidates’ election.
Lukashenka himself used the situation with the detention of Russians in his favour, accusing Moscow of interfering in the elections and reminding about the threat to peace by Russian mercenaries. This puts the irreplaceable Belarusian leader, once called “the last dictator of Europe,” on the same board as the leaders of the U.S. and Europe, where accusations of Russia’s interference in the elections have become commonplace. Thus, it seems that Lukashenka, who is ruling his country since 1994, has been counting on the recognition of the election results by the Western countries.
For the Belarusian leader, there is a chance to get an additional portion of support from the West, primarily from the United States by blaming Russia. Last year former national security advisor to President Trump, John Bolton, and Mike Pompeo visited the country. Belarus has agreed with the US on oil supplies as an alternative to Russian energy resources.
The country and its authoritarian leader, who was once considered Russia’s main ally, took an open course to get closer to the US. By doing so, Belarus refuses to play the role of a buffer to ensure Russia’s security in Europe in a situation where the U.S. is establishing a permanent military base in neighbouring Poland and increasing its military presence in Eastern Europe as a whole.
Menace of Lukashenka
Perhaps that is why the scandal with the arrest of Russians in Minsk has not been hushed up, but rather promoted as much as possible. On August 4, Lukashenka made an appeal to the people and the Parliament, stating that Russia had lowered the status of relations with Belarus.
The President promised that the country would build strategic partnerships with the West as a whole, as well as with the United States and China.
The Belarusian expert circles are discussing the prospects for reducing cooperation with Moscow – up to the abolition of the integration association, which includes both Belarus and Russia – “the Union State”.
Many of the Russians detained in Belarus participated in the war in eastern Ukraine on the side of the pro-Russian rebel republics. Now Ukraine is seeking their extradition. Belarus seems to use this factor to blackmail Russia.
Ukrainian journalist Dmitri Gordon, whom Lukashenka gave an interview the other day, said that the Belarusian leader was ready to extradite the detained Russians to Ukraine. If this happens, it will become a public humiliation of Moscow.
Against this background of the unbridled behaviour of the Belarusian leader, who at the expense of the detained Russians is clearly gaining points in the international arena, Russia’s behaviour seems strange.
Moscow has not yet managed to make any concessions on this issue. The detained Russians stay in Belarus, while some may go to Ukraine. Anti-Russian propaganda on Belarusian television actively reminds the residents of the country of Moscow’s treachery. In general, the situation is a huge reputational damage for Russia. It demonstrates that Moscow is unable to control the situation near its borders, in a state that seems to be close to Russia itself. Thus, Lukashenka’s behaviour demonstrates that Belarus is Putin’s Achilles’ heel.
Why Putin? Because any other international leader would immediately raise his voice in support of his arrested fellow citizens, no matter what they were doing in the country of detention. And that would make sense. It would be strange to imagine that in a similar situation, not only Donald Trump, but his predecessor, Barack Obama, was silent.
However, the Russian leader, whom all world politicians are accustomed to considering a tough guy, acts as if nothing had happened.
All statements on this situation come from either the Russian Foreign Ministry and Intelligence and Ambassador to Belarus, or Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov.
The latter said that Russia does not have full information about what happened, but Vladimir Putin hopes for their release.
The weakness of this position is self-evident. However, the Russian president has already managed to disavow everything that may come from Peskov. In an interview with NBC in 2018, Putin said that his spokesman sometimes ” says things” that President himself has “no idea what he said” (http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/57027).
So how anyone can interpret Peskov’s statements in this case? It is clear that only Putin’s own words have prestige.
So far, the Russian president’s silence has been playing against him on both a foreign and domestic political level.
A sign of weakness
Is it a signal that the Russian president has lost his grip, has aged and is no longer able to defend his country aggressively? The Russians chose him precisely for his strong leadership qualities. The same is being said by Putin’s friends and enemies abroad. No matter how he is treated, he is considered a strong leader.
The situation with Belarus demonstrates that strongman is not so strong. If we remember the classic of political theory – “Prince” of Niccolo Machiavelli – it is the lack of strength and efficiency that leads to the fall of the ruler, not the moral of his actions. We seem to be seeing this very process.
Putin’s image as a strong leader is collapsing inside Russia, because in the midst of new protests (in the Far East – in Khabarovsk) Russians see that their president is not omnipotent and is not able to take the broken ally down a peg.
In the foreign policy arena, the situation with Belarus and Putin’s strange silence shows the rest of the world that Russia is weak, since it allows itself to be pushed around the way Alexander Lukashenka does.
If even the Russians are released, but in exchange Lukashenka will receive some preferences from Russia, and Putin will continue to pretend that he is not involved, it will be a signal that Russia can be blackmailed. Then Moscow should prepare for further arrests of its citizens in other countries.
The main conclusion to be drawn from this story is that Moscow’s potential is greatly overrated. The fact that the U.S., for example, is using Russia’s “aggressiveness” as a pretext to change the architecture of its domination in Europe (imposing American LNG, increasing military presence in Eastern Europe etc.) does not mean that Russia is indeed as strong as it appears.
Naturally, this is sad news for all those who hoped that the alliance with Russia would help them change their positions on the international arena. It is possible, of course, that Putin will make some unexpected gesture that will allow him to restore confidence in the international arena and return his citizens without reputational losses, but for now his behaviour is playing against him.