War Polarizes Belarusian Analysts and Belarusians Themselves

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 43

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko attend their joint press conference at the Konstantinovsky palace in Strelna just outside St.Petersburg, on March 15, 2013, after a meeting of the Russia-Belarus Union State's Supreme State Council . AFP PHOTO / RIA-NOVOSTI POOL/ ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

The Belarusian service of the Russian independent media outlet Mediazona, founded in 2014 and blocked by the Russian government on March 5, recently published an extensive interview with Yegor Lebedok, a military expert (Mediazona, March 24). Lebedok is a doctor of physics and a graduate of the Academy of Public Administration. On January 31, he was fired from the Belarusian research-and-development firm Optics, Optoelectronics and Laser Technology, where he headed a lab, for his anti-war pronouncements and analyses (Euroradio, January 31).

In his conversation with Medizazona, Lebedok observed that contrary to Minsk’s long-running rhetoric about the purported dangers posed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Belarus has actually weakened its ability to defend the country’s borders with NATO members Lithuanian and Latvia. Notably, a battalion group from the Slonim brigade was just withdrawn from that border to an area in southern Grodno Oblast. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka understands, Lebedok posited, that no actual danger emanates from any of the NATO member states that sit across Belarus’s western border.

The key question posed by Lebedok’s interviewer concerned the likelihood of the Russo-Ukrainian war quickly coming to an end. According to the Belarusian military analyst, “regardless of whether Ukraine wins or Russia does, or they sign some kind of peace agreement, the war will continue. This is a protracted conflict because the claims are significant, and the losses are colossal.” Regarding further battlefield developments, Lebedok stated that “Russia has stopped its offensive along a wide front. The current task is to bring up the rear: to finish off Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernigiv; localize Izyum; and to ensure an advancement along the banks of the Dnieper River. As soon as they [Russian forces] accomplish this, they will regroup and then advance again, but only in the key areas. Most likely, the Donetsk group of the Ukrainian army is going to be encircled and cut off from the Dnieper River. Lebedok discounted the Ukrainian statements that the Russian Armed Forces had fizzled out. He conceded that this assertion makes sense regarding a broad-front offensive—but not when it comes to Moscow achieving the preset goals of the operation more generally. The seizure of Kyiv, once it did not pan out within three to four days, has been postponed to the very end of the operation, he theorized (Mediazona, March 24).

The notion of victory for Russia, the way it is currently worded—i.e., regime change in Kyiv and the latter’s recognition of the separatist republics and of Russia’s seizure of Crimea—is a subterfuge, according to Lebedok. Moscow’s true objectives include the incorporation of the land corridor to Crimea (see EDM, March 17) and possibly of other areas. How these territories will be incorporated is unclear at present. But the Russians are occupying them, and “sadly for the Ukrainians, knocking the Russians out of there is going to be difficult,” Lebedok believes (Mediazona, March 24).

According to the commentator, the potential participation of the Belarusian Armed Forces in the war entirely depends on how expedient Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks that would be. Opening a new front is problematic, as contrary to the Ukrainian estimates of 10,000–15,000 Belarusian troops, “we have only 6,000 contract soldiers and sergeants,” although using some cadets and converting some draftees into contract soldiers is possible. Utilizing the Belarusian Armed Forces in Ukraine might make sense militarily for only one reason, Lebedok contended: for reconnaissance and sabotage activities in the western direction against supply columns coming in from the West (Mediazona, March 24).

Finally, according to the former high-technology lab director, President Lukashenka has lost any remnants of autonomy. Attempts to talk him out of participation in the war will surely continue on the part of the West. But Lukashenka’s dependency on Putin has become so overpowering that wriggling out seems impossible; even special relations with China are of no help. China, Lebedok asserted, is going to cease new investments in Belarus, as the East European country no longer offers a “passage” to the West for Chinese cargos—although some of what is already functioning may linger (Mediazona, March 24).

Lebedok’s lack of hope for a quick ending to the Russian war against Ukraine echoes similar sentiments made a day earlier by Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty (Svaboda.org, March 23). Based on the last (sixth) online survey of willing urban internet users of Belarus, conducted in March by Chatham House, Drakakhrust also observes that in contrast to previous, i.e., pre-war surveys, the respondents’ views regarding Belarus’s relations with Russia have polarized. Previously, only 5–6 percent belonged to the extreme groups (willing to either sharply curtail bilateral relations or to become part of Russia); now, each of these two maximalist positions enjoys the support of 20–25 percent of respondents. On the other hand, 28 percent of Belarusians surveyed support Russia’s war and want to penalize Ukraine (Zerkalo, March 26). The usual caveats regarding the limited accuracy of online surveys in Belarus are much less relevant when talking about trends, as Drakakhrust’s comparison is across six identically shaped samples. In fact, the same polarization effect of the Russian-Ukrainian war can also be observed in social media. That said, an online survey such as this still may not accurately assess the actual numerical proportions of those trends.

One aspect of polarization is that the pronouncements of Belarusian supporters of the ongoing war are becoming more esoteric by the day. For example, the philosopher Alexei Dzermant is now touring the country with the aim of politically “instructing” local audiences. In his last recorded speech, Dzermant observed that Ukraine committed “civilizational treason.” “That is why the current Ukrainian state is doomed, and the other two [Slavic] sisters, Russia and Belarus, help her to recover and return to her family. Yes, the method is painful, but the case has long been neglected and there is no other choice left,” Dzermant declared (T.me/dzermant/3617, March 26). Such language is imbued with almost occult ecstasy, and in that sense it matches some of the pronouncements made in Russia (Vzglyad, March 26). According to the London-based Russian philosopher Vladimir Pastukhov, three sources of this ecstasy are Orthodox fundamentalism, Slavophilism (a Russian school of thought at war with the Westernizing school), and Stalinism (a radical version of Bolshevism) (Novaya Gazeta, March 23). In any case, the reality this quasi-occult ecstasy strives to paint is so indefensible that rational thinking is put to rest—which is what Pastukhov’s analysis and Dzermant’s pronouncements seem to demonstrate.