If you believe the message from the Kremlin, Russia currently has no plans to send police or military forces into neighboring Belarus. But it has sent in some reinforcements — to the news media, as part of a strategy that should stand as a warning to democracies around the world.
Of course, President Vladimir Putin mused just over a week ago, Russia may eventually need to intervene in Belarus militarily. But as his spokesman put it last week: "At present we see that the situation is under control.”
Putin is trying to convey the impression that he is just a concerned neighbor in a crisis that has exploded in national unrest since Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in a stolen election last month. Russia, Putin wants the world to believe, is holding back.
This perception is deceiving. In reality, Russia is waging a kind of stealth intervention in Belarus, the first part of which is taking place in the media. Belarusian state television has replaced Belarusian journalists with those from the Kremlin-financed RT network, which Lukashenko confirmed this week in an interview. "You understand how important you were to us during this difficult period,” he told an RT correspondent. "And what you demonstrated technically, your IT specialists, and journalists, and correspondents, and so on … and your manager. This is worth a lot.”
An early warning about the Russian takeover of Belarusian state television came from George Barros, who works for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. Barros wrote on Aug. 20 about new montage videos that depicted the U.S. and NATO as fomenting unrest in Belarus, as well as slick propaganda videos being released through Belarus’ interior ministry. State TV was engaged in an effort to "humanize Belarusian officials,” he told me in an interview, while portraying protesters "as threatening the families and lives of security personnel.”
This is the opposite of what was happening in Belarus. The state began arresting thousands of protesters indiscriminately after the disputed election last month. The BBC has reported that some of those detained said they were tortured in jail.
Russia’s assistance to Lukashenko did not end there, either. Barros and his colleague Mason Clark have also tracked three flights in mid-August of government-owned passenger jets from Moscow to Minsk. The first such plane, they say, belonged to the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service.
There is no direct evidence that FSB officers were on those flights. But Barros says there is circumstantial evidence that the FSB is advising Lukashenko on how to disperse the protests. After that first flight on Aug. 18, for example, the Belarusian security services ended a policy of mass arrests, which fueled unrest, and began a strategy of targeted detentions of organizers and opposition leaders.
In an interview with reporters this week, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said there was little doubt that Russia was "exercising some level of influence” in Belarus, and said that publicly available flight tracking data showed that "elite aircraft from the FSB intelligence service has flown into Minsk on more than a couple of occasions.”
What all this means for the future of Belarus is not good. If Lukashenko is able to retain power, he will have to reverse any policies or stances that sought or promoted greater independence from Moscow. What will happen to his opposition to an economic and political union between Belarus and Russia? Will he still tout his anti-Russian bonafides, as he did during the presidential campaign, when Belarusian law enforcement agencies arrested 33 Russian mercenaries?
More broadly, Putin’s offensive in Belarus is yet more evidence that Russia considers the media landscape a battlefield for its own brand of hybrid warfare. Sometimes, the war requires actual troops, as in 2014 in Ukraine. Other times, the goal is to sow chaos and mistrust in democracy. This time, in Belarus, it appears that Russia is trying to quell a democratic uprising without firing a single shot.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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