“To say that the Russian media has been alarmed by the [recent] visitors to Minsk would be an understatement,” writes the online newspaper Ukraina.ru (Ukraine.ru, November 12), alluding to the November 5–6 trip to Belarus by a group of foreign policy analysts from the United States, led by The Jamestown Foundation (see EDM, November 12), and the earlier visit by US Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell (see EDM, November 8).
Yet, disregarding the usually more neurotic Russian television, the reactions in the country’s print and online media appear mixed. On the one hand, such leading outlets as TASS, RIA Novosti, Lenta.ru, Izvestia, and Vzglyad avoided emotional commentaries. TASS even published the statement by the Russian ambassador to Minsk, Mikhail Babich, which read, “The President of Belarus [Alyaksandr Lukashenka] is absolutely correct [in his own statement made during the meeting with US experts]: Today, the combat capabilities of Russian and Belarusian armies are enough to repel any aggression. […] But if the parity [between them and the West] is undermined, the commanders-in-chief will find the optimal solution” (TASS, November 6). Importantly, Ambassador Babich was speaking at Gantsevichi, in the Brest Region, where the early-warning radar station run by the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces is located.
The rest of Russia’s print and online media was, in fact, quite emotional. Reports can be subdivided into hysterical, pompous and confused, and moralistic. The aforementioned article in Ukraina.ru clearly fits into the second category. On the one hand, it suggests that “the content of the negotiations is unknown whereas what was articulated by the American guests for the media was part of a cover operation.” On the other hand, it claims that The Jamestown Foundation is “funded by the State Department under the false appearance of Chicago-based entrepreneurs from the ranks of retired spies”; that Vladimir Socor, one of the members of the delegation, “resides not in Jamestown [sic] but in Munich;” and that “he first visited Minsk in 2016.” Apparently, the author did not do his homework. Yet another revealing statement reads that “the idyll between the leader of the country allied with Russia [i.e., Belarusian President Lukashenka] and […] the most dangerous foes of Moscow caused a storm of ill-concealed jealousy in Russia’s media and analytical circles.” It follows from the last observation that many Russians evidently would love to rub shoulders with their sworn enemies. Finally, the article claims that “in reality,” Lukashenka does not trust the US analysts, and the Donald Trump administration distrusts Lukashenka; therefore, one should not pay too much attention to the meeting in question. And yet, ironically, that is exactly what Ukraina.ru’s article focuses on.
One more example of the pompous and confused treatment of the subject is an article by Viacheslav Sutyrin, who edits the Eurasia Expert analytic portal (Eurasia Expert, October 28). According to Sutyrin, nobody takes the idea of Belarus’s neutrality seriously. US policy is nuance free, he asserts, claiming Assistant Secretary Mitchell applies an “either-you-are-with-us-or-with-them” logic to Belarus, which is exacerbated by the talks of establishing a permanent US military base in Poland. However, Sutyrin’s piece fails to acknowledge that Mitchell explicitly noted the importance of Belarus-Russia ties in his remarks while in Minsk (see EDM, November 8), or the fact that the US base in Poland is still merely an idea, with some prominent Americans opposed to it. As such, Sutyrin’s analysis is better evaluated as a wholesale projection of his own zero-sum-game mentality.
Examples of demonstrably hysterical responses include articles by Yandex, the Foundation for Strategic Culture, and especially IAREX. The first of these claims that Lukashenka has lately begun to “bluntly distance himself from Russia and decided to conduct a pro-American policy that is a synthesis of the Polish and Ukrainian approaches to effectively converting Belarus into one more state of the USA. […] Moreover, Lukashenka wants to present the USA with one more foothold, from which to threaten Moscow at close range” (Yandex, November 6). The second source spotlights the allegedly most ominous aspects of the US analysts’ backgrounds, like Jamestown President Glen Howard’s 2014 appeals to the US government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to undertake more decisive actions against Russia (Fondsk.ru, November 10). And one more source suggests a cause-and-effect relationship between the March 19, 2010, Tbilisi-based and Jamestown-sponsored “Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes” conference on the one hand, and a March 29, 2010, terrorist attack on Moscow subway stations on the other. Now, IAREX warns, Howard and Socor, whose institution allegedly had something to do with this and other terrorist acts, have come to Minsk (IAREX, November 11).
Finally, the example of a moralistic attitude is Alexander Nosovich’s article pointedly titled “Regime Change Specialists Will Deprive Belarus of Immunity in the Face of Western Expansion” (Rubaltic.ru, November 12). Nosovich boasts of meticulous knowledge of the West’s purported steps to destabilize Belarus. The first step, supposedly, is reflected in Glen Howard’s initial idea (first publicly articulated in 2015) that Belarus ought to become the West’s new Yugoslavia, with Lukashenka becoming a second Tito, who used to have close ties with both the East and the West. The second step is associated with Howard suggesting (in 2017) that Belarus rather ought to become a Slavic Switzerland. And the final step, according to Nosovich, is going to be replacing Lukashenka with a Western-backed henchman. The whole narrative reads like a cautionary tale and a warning to apparently immature Belarusians to avoid being hooked by cunning puppet masters.
All the above analyses reveal utmost anxiety in Moscow over what seems to be an attempt to restore Belarusian-US ties to a reasonable level, with all the cited public statements made by experts from the United States actually having been well thought out.
In contrast, a November 8 statement to Belarusians by former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, calling upon Belarus to take guidance from Ukraine’s experience, was nothing short of a PR disaster (Vzglyad, November 8). If there is anything that brings Belarusians together, it is their willingness to stay away from the “Ukrainian experience.” Whereas, Ukrainians rate President Lukashenka of Belarus as their most popular world leader, with ratings far exceeding those of their own domestic politicians. Apparently, Rasmussen was unaware of this. Conversely, both A. Wess Mitchell and the group of US analysts who visited Minsk in early November succeeded in their respective missions primarily because of being well informed. If anything, the Russian media’s anxiety proves this, too.