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“Russian Propaganda”: On Social Networks, in Eastern Europe, and Soon Everywhere

Oleg Shakirov

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“Russia is engaged in an active, worldwide propaganda campaign,” reads the fairly straightforward beginning of RAND Corporation’s report on Russia’s influence on East European countries via social media. The document, compiled by eight authors with support from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, looks into the nature and effectiveness of this influence and aims to identify possible countermeasures to it. The report is the latest in a series of publications by the research centre, which has close ties to the Pentagon, on how to counteract Russia. In particular, it complements the widely cited 2006 report “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” which talked about the threat that Russia allegedly posed to the Baltic States and possible ways to deter it by conventional means. The new report extrapolates this logic to the digital space. Titled “Russian Social Media Influence,” it is a continuation of the collection of U.S. projects on Russia’s informational impact, which, in the light of the scandal concerning “Russian interference” in the 2016 presidential election, has turned into a new “major threat” for political circles in Washington.

The dispute involving key American think tanks, including RAND Corporation, extends to more general questions about the role of information in international relations. However, it poses a very practical question to Russia at the same time: what should Russia do about “Russian propaganda”?

What is Propaganda…

The main idea that runs throughout the second chapter of the new report is consonant with a quotation from a recent article in Vanity Fair on the “Russian threat” to the U.S. 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential election. “So what exactly is Russia planning for the upcoming election?” the author muses. “The correct question, a half dozen security experts and former and current government officials have told me, is what are they not planning?” To draw an analogy, the RAND report raises the question of what Russia does not influence.

The authors sound quite dramatic: “Moscow blends attributed, affiliated, and nonattributed elements and exploits new realities of online and social media to conduct information warfare at a perhaps unprecedented scale and level of complexity” (pp. 7–8). “The Russian government’s sphere of influence is global” (p. 9). “The Kremlin has built a complex production and dissemination apparatus that integrates actors at varying levels of attribution to enable large-scale and complex information operations” (p. 11).

These conclusions are based on a compilation of approaches and cases taken from English-language materials, most of them published after 2014. The authors do not question the results presented in the sources they cite; they give examples to illustrate their main thesis about the Russian information threat. The report achieves its primary goal of setting the context and leading the reader to the conclusion that “Russia is engaged in an aggressive propaganda campaign aimed at multiple different national audiences to include its near-abroad neighbors on its western border” (p. 25).

The main problem with this chapter and the report in general is that the authors do not even attempt to give a clear definition of what Russian propaganda is. On the contrary, the characteristics they mention – the complex, global and multilevel nature – render “Russian propaganda” potentially unlimited, and they can be arbitrarily attributed to any phenomenon whatsoever. The problem with such a comprehensive approach is that, if we bring it to its ultimate logical end, any information coming from Russia, or even any information about Russia with which the observer disagrees, may be viewed as propaganda. In this situation, the entire world is split into “us” and “them.” And this logic of confrontation is reflected in the report’s recommendations.

… How it can be detected…

The authors propose monitoring social networks as a method for counteracting “Russian propaganda.” In the third and fourth chapters of the report, they offer their own approach to analysing Twitter communities and the dissemination of pro-Russian information. The document uses Twitter data to identify pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian communities and the most influential actors within them. The authors also determined the language signature of pro-Russian users and attempt to assess the impact of “Russian propaganda” on Twitter users in Ukraine, Belarus and Latvia.

This approach is interesting in terms of its methodology, but it has a number of significant flaws; the authors acknowledge some of these but disregard others. For example, one of the reasons they give for their choice of Twitter for analysis is that tweets are easily accessible. However, Twitter is not the most popular social network in the region: only 14 per cent of internet users in Ukraine, and 2 per cent of internet users in Estonia have a Twitter account (p. 27). The report suggests that opinion leaders on Twitter can also lead opinions on other offline and online channels, but this assumption does not appear to be convincing enough, as it is not supported by additional evidence.

A more serious flaw, one which the authors omit, is the geographical filter. One of the criteria used for the selection of tweets is the account’s location. The authors obtain the location data along with the rest of the data available through subscription to GNIP (this company, which aggregates data from social networks, was acquired by Twitter in 2014). According to GNIP, an account’s location is determined based on the information entered by the user themselves in the relevant box. If no such information is specified, GNIP does not attempt to determine the account’s coordinates in any other way. If several different cities, or even a made-up city, are entered, the GNIP algorithm will try to establish the location, but its guess will not necessarily be accurate. And those researchers who only use the data available from Twitter have no way of running a mass verification to establish the actual whereabouts of each user, even if the user in question provided accurate information about themselves.

No less controversial are the authors’ attempts to link pro-Russian Twitter activists with the Russian government. In the third chapter, they arrive at the conclusion that “many pro-Russia activists espousing a pro-Kremlin viewpoint hail from Russia and actively spread Russian propaganda on Twitter.” (p. 43) The authors acknowledge that the jury is out on whether or not the Russian government provides support to such users; nevertheless, “one can envision [italics added by me] Russia supporting these accounts either by creating nonattributed Twitter accounts that can serve as part of its bot and troll campaign or by supporting like-minded activists situated throughout the region adjacent to Russia” (p. 43). Yet further in the report the authors repeat several times that it is difficult to immediately distinguish authentic discussions from troll and bot activity.

The authors cite the opinions of regional experts to support their proposal to use this approach for monitoring the growth and geographic expansion of the pro-Russian Twitter community, since “such changes might presage pro-Russia influence and operations in the region that are more malign” (p. 59). However, given the aforementioned shortcomings of RAND’s approach, and its other flaws, it cannot be viewed as a reliable monitoring tool.

… And how to fight it

The report leaves the impression that it is very difficult for the West to tackle “Russian propaganda” in Eastern Europe: the United States, NATO and the European Union are not coordinated, and their awkward attempts at anti-Russian information operations in the region may well have the opposite effect – local Russian-speaking citizens are sceptical towards media which are openly sponsored by the West. The popularity of Russian media in the Baltic States presents the biggest threat, since it is difficult to compete with them for viewers. Worse still, due to their common past with Russia and the continuing infringement of their civil rights, Russian speakers in the region are more susceptible to information from Russia. This trend is additionally exacerbated by the discriminatory policy adopted by the regional authorities towards the Russian language. The differences between the region’s countries make the task of producing a single media product that would suit all audiences very difficult: on the one hand, “No one in Estonia wants to watch Latvian television” (p. 69); on the other hand, Ukraine’s approach, which involves the stringent censorship of information originating from Russia, is not that easy to replicate in the other countries in the region.

The authors suggest that these difficulties could be overcome by way of detecting, condemning and blocking propaganda on social networks. They propose using the experience gained as part of the Redirect Method programme developed by one of Google subsidiary companies aimed at countering Islamic State propaganda. The reports recommends that greater efforts be spent on promoting the United States, NATO and the European Union among Russian-speaking residents of Eastern Europe, as well as facilitating the creation of local content in Russian. In the latter instance, the authors recommend providing support to Russian-language influencers who have a “pan-European identity.” Contacts with NATO or the European Union are capable of undermining the reputation of such influencers, so the advice is for them to be supported by the local governments. However, this should be done with caution and, if possible, through local NGOs. Whether consciously or not, the authors’ proposal with regard to influencers brings them close to nonattributed Twitter activists, precisely those the report suggests the West should fight.

One of the recommendations in the report is potentially universal. Speaking about the need to increase immunity to propaganda among at-risk groups of the population, the authors effectively mean an increase in media literacy: developing people’s ability to process information and apply critical thinking. In a more benign political climate, raising media literacy could become a joint project of Russia and the West aimed at overcoming mutual misunderstanding and debunking mutual misconceptions. But the current situation is different; in keeping with the logic of informational confrontation, the RAND report does not contain proposals that could be implemented jointly with Russia.

Russian influence is the new black

In a broader context, “Russian Social Media Influence” reflects the interest of the U.S. research community in information influence, and in Russian information influence in particular. This interest has increased dramatically over the past few years. The authors of the report cite extensively from Clint Watts’s Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News. Watts, a former FBI operative, described the recent changes to the Washington ecosystem in a recent podcast interview. According to him, prior to the 2016 presidential election, Washington’s main fad was cybersecurity, which had replaced counterterrorism, the fad of the 2000s. After the election, the U.S. capital focused on disinformation: “[W]e have these big booms in D.C. where everybody starts up a project around whatever the big threat is. And so, there is a lot of discussion, but the big difference today [from counterterrorism in the past] is the government isn’t leading it, it’s coming from like think tanks, and the academic community, and social media companies […].”

Watts’s words are corroborated by a review of the projects carried out by leading analytical centres in the United States over the past two years. Since 2016, nearly all of the centres engaged in foreign policy research on the University of Pennsylvania Top 15 ranking have either released reports on the influence of Russian information or mentioned the topic in their reports on Russia or U.S.–Russian relations (see the table). The only leading centres that have not launched projects on propaganda are the Cato Institute and Kennan Institute. In the latter case, however, it is only a matter of time: Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation and a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute, is working on a project entitled “How the West Can Learn from Eastern EU’s Experience Battling Russian Disinformation.”

Think tank Report or project addressing Russian information influence (2016–2018)
Brookings Institution The Future of Political Warfare: Russia, the West, and the Coming Age of Global Digital Competition
Center for Strategic and International Studies The Kremlin Playbook Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe

Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Russian Election Interference: Europe’s Counter to Fake News and Cyber Attacks

The Return of Global Russia Project

Heritage Foundation U.S. Comprehensive Strategy Toward Russia <
RAND Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe

The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It

Center for American Progress (CAP) Special website https://themoscowproject.org/

Russia’s 5th Column

War by Other Means: Russian Active Measures and the Weaponization of Information

Acts of an Adversary: Russia’s Ongoing Hostilities Toward the United States and Its Allies

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Countering Russian Information Operations in the Age of Social Media

Containing Russia: How to Respond to Moscow’s Intervention in U.S. Democracy and Growing Geopolitical Challenge

Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab Program

Special website https://disinfoportal.org/

Democratic Defense Against Disinformation

The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 2

Strategy of “Constrainment:” Countering Russia’s Challenge to the Democratic Order

American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) Populism in Europe and Its Russian Love Affair
Center for New American Security (CNAS) The Future of U.S.-Russia Relations

Together, these projects indicate that the significant portion of the U.S. political elite agree that there is an informational threat emanating from Russia, and there is demand for such studies on the part of their sponsors. The reports offer a variety of proposals, which can be notionally graded from “modest,” including improvements to information exchange between the United States and its allies and the regulation of social networks, to really massive-scale proposals, such as covert measures by U.S. special operations forces “to combat Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe with truthful information about U.S. and allied activities and intentions” (Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia, p. 156) or setting up a “Counter-Disinformation Coalition” (Democratic Defense Against Disinformation, pp. 13–14).

These numerous recommendations make no mention of the possibility to engage Russia itself in order to remove the West’s concerns about the information threat. The closest anyone comes is the following passage from the Council on Foreign Relations report: “The United States should make clear that it will continue to support free and fair elections, freedom of speech, and the rule of law in Russia, as it does all around the world. But it will respect Russia’s sovereign right to hold those elections free of outside manipulation with illicit means – just as it expects Russia to respect the United States’ right to do the same” (p. 22). This idea could be evolved into a dialogue on how both sides perceive information and political threats, if not into a mutual obligation to not intervene in each other’s internal affairs.

 “Russian Propaganda” and Russia

“Russian propaganda” is being touted as one of the main problems for the West, but it understandably worries Russia itself. The comprehensive approach of the RAND report and other similar projects on information influence makes it possible to detect a Russian trace virtually everywhere, and to level accusations at Russia irrespective of whether or not the country is actually involved.

At the official level, Russia (just like the West) considers itself under an aggressive information attack. Just like the West is sceptical of Russia’s concerns about information threats, the Russian leadership does not believe, or is unwilling to believe, in the sincerity of the revived fears in the West about Russia’s information influence.

Ironically, the growing focus of the United States on information influence leads to a convergence of the U.S. and Russian approaches to international information security. For years, the fundamental difference between the two sides was that the United States viewed cybersecurity in the strict sense of network security, software security and information protection, whereas Russia was additionally concerned with how information being disseminated could influence public perception. However, the convergence of approaches is not enough to reach an agreement in this field: as demonstrated by the recommendations put forward by the leading U.S. analytical centres, the possibility of negotiating with Russia remains an unpopular option.

For an individual, information warfare may not appear particularly terrible or even entirely realistic: it can be “switched off” by merely pressing a button on your TV set or smartphone and returning to whatever you were doing. However, at the level of societies and states, in which information plays a key role, this strategy does not work and avoiding confrontation is not at all easy. In Russia’s relations with the West, both sides are attempting to question or discredit each other’s information, which exacerbates mutual distrust.

One possible way to revert this trend would be for both sides to agree to a “disarmament” of their rhetoric or information campaigns. This idea was voiced in 2017 by EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer and Russian member of parliament Irina Yarovaya. Public diplomacy researcher Nicholas J. Cull recalls that Soviet and U.S. diplomats were discussing mutual stereotypes in the late 1980s. In practice, an “information disarmament” could include more substantive discussions on issues related to “incidents” in the information space and mutual accusations; coordinated measures such as a joint fight against common information threats; and also unilateral concessions such as opting for less belligerent rhetoric. The main objective of such information disarmament should be the restoration of mutual understanding between countries, but building trust between state and society is of no less importance. One way or another, this way could prove more effective than the promotion of “pan-European identity” by brand ambassadors on the backs of special operations forces.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Legitimate soft power or malign influence?

Celine Emma la Cour

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The last couple of years I have experienced Russian soft power firsthand through various NGO-programs. Here is what I learned – and how I was influenced.

There are two kinds of people: The ones who are curious about the unknown and the ones who are afraid. The first category includes the ones who are open towards strangers and the second includes the ones who would rather stick to their own.

For centuries it has been a core component of democracy that we can openly exchange worldviews and discuss how our society should be organized. This makes us able to understand each other – also if we disagree – and it makes us able to find solutions to current problems.

The point of engaging in discussions is often either to learn from others or to convince the counterpart that your own argument is better. In other words, the point with having discussions is to be influenced or influence another. But the last couple of years along with the fast emergence of online and social media a lot of discussions have been disrupted by so-called ‘disinformation’ and there for ‘foreign influence’ has become a matter of national security – especially in countries where the government is elected by the people whom might be easily influenced or manipulated.

In the West, and in many other places in the world, fear of the foreign is increasing. The appearance of disinformation and so called ‘influence-campaigns’ means that if we are not careful, we will be manipulated by outsiders into abandoning our true beliefs and into turning against our own. What a lot of people fail to see is that if we are too careful, we will all find ourselves in the second category of the two types of people mentioned above. If that happens, all foreign information will likely be perceived as disinformation and we might as well go offline and isolate ourselves in small homogenous societies. A core component of dialogue-based democracy is at stake–on a global level.

From state to people

I allow myself to represent “the West” in this article even though I know this is academically questionable because there are many countries, divergent opinions, and different approaches within the West. Some of the influence we “in the West” seem to be most afraid of is ‘Russian influence’. But what we often see as malign Russian influence-attempts, Russia often sees as legitimate use of soft power. And since the West also possess and uses soft power, Russia sees our fear and our accusations as a double moral standard.

Soft power involves the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion (Nye 1990).It includes promoting your countries culture, political values, and foreign policyto become an attractive and reliable partner. Soft power has some advantages to hard power because it is cheaper and more legitimate to convince people to voluntarily work with you than to force them to do so by for example military power or economic extortion or bribery. Why invade people’s territory with military means if you can ‘invade’ people’s minds by being or at least appearing favorable?

Russian soft power strategy was launched during Vladimir Putin’s second presidency in 2004-2008. Kremlin launched an active policy towards countries in the post-Soviet space to improve the image of Russia among its perceived compatriots. At first the strategy was directed towards regimes. For example, Moscow established the customs union that later became The Eurasian Economic Union and the Nord Stream gas pipeline to promote itself as an attractive economic partner and a reliable energy supplier. After the Ukraine crisis and Viktor Yanukovych’s departure other regimes started to play an anti-Russian card to consolidate their power (Sergunin & Karabeshkin 2015: 349). Thus, the soft power strategy had to change.

Today Russia’s soft power strategy is more people-oriented and stretches further than the post-Soviet space. Within this strategy public diplomacy plays a huge role meaning any government-sponsored effort to communicate directly with foreign publics to promote a government’s strategic objectives – or said in another way: a governments effort to influence foreign public opinion (Osipova 2014).

Make no mistake though: Russia is not the only country engaged with public diplomacy. More and more countries are competing to win over public audiences for a variety of reasons ranging from attracting tourists, students, or foreign investment to promoting national image and influencing international affairs.

Here is where it gets tricky because public diplomacy is considered legitimate but conducting influence-campaigns in foreign countries is not – but theoretically the two concepts look a bit like each other. When a foreign country wants to influence domestic public opinion up to an election it isseen as an effort to undermine democracy. It seems logical though– and even legitimate – that foreign governments want people in other countries to choose leaders that favor them. It is the methods used to do so that vary in legitimacy.

From digital to physical

In my time as a student of political science in Copenhagen I heard and read a lot about Russia. Russia’s image in Denmark is not very favorable. Russia is often perceived as an enemy trying to undermine democracy and as a regime that does not live up to human rights obligations. Russia is also quickly impersonated as Vladimir Putin: strong but unfair. Russia is a country far away, difficult to understand, but easy to fear. Said in another way: Russia does not have a lot of soft power leverage in Denmark and I imagine it is the same in many other countries in the West. Whenever and whatever good we hear about Russia; we don’t really believe it.

A couple of years ago I decided to travel to Russia to test and question my perceptions about the country that have mainly emerged from what we hear and read in Western media.One of Russia’s soft power methods is to promote Russian culture and foreign policy through NGO’s targeting for example students and young professionals to promote educational programs and exchange (Simons 2018). I chose to cease this opportunity to get to know Russia better and thus I have participated in various NGO-programs in Russia. And boy; have I engaged in a lot of discussions, I have learned, and I have influenced.

Russian NGO’s are often viewed as illegitimate in the West because they receive economic support from the Russian government. Thus, they are not “non-governmental” people say. What we need to remember is that NGO’s can merely survive in Russia without government support because if they receive money from abroad, they risk being labeled ‘foreign agents’ (Svetova 2018). Surely if they receive government support, they might have some obligations towards their government, but it does not mean that they are deliberately trying to spread disinformation to manipulate people. At least this should not be our starting point.

Official opinions are often also reflected in people’s opinion and by denying those opinions we distance ourselves not only from the Russian government but from the Russian people. Say I disagree; then only by understanding official opinions, I can put forward a counter argument in an understandable way to those who share that opinion. This is what ‘mutual understanding’ is about– which is exactly what is missing in the relationship between Russia and the West.

Blurred lines: false or biased, fact or opinion?

Dialogue fosters mutual understanding, which fosters predictability and credibility, which fosters trust and furthers possibilities to cooperate (Head 2016: 360). But in the digital age credibility is a scarce resource and fear of being manipulated keeps us from cooperating. A Russian acquaintance once said to me: Whatever you say about Russia, the opposite is also true. In other words: Truth can be inflected.

A prominent discussion in philosophy of science is whether and when something can be viewed as knowledge and be defined as true. Positivists argue that when weknow something is true, it is also real. “Influence campaigns in this new digital reality do not try to convince us and win an honest argument. Instead, they question reality itself,” said the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofoed at a conference on how democracies can be protected against foreign influence. But it is questionable whether one reality exists.

In constructivist theory, reality is socially constructed within social contexts which means that different people in different contexts see reality differently. In other words, when people believe something is true, it is also real. Thus, it is difficult to define the line between disinformation and biased opinion. This is for example the case with the ‘annexation’ of Crimea as it is called in the west and the ‘reunification’ of Crimea as it is called in Russia. Those who agree with one or the other see true information, those who see an unfair framing see biased information and those who strongly disagree see false information. Information is interpreted within the framework of preexisting beliefs (Vuorelma2017: 120). Therefor it is questionable whether people are easily influenced by information that they strongly disagree upon, but it is quite possible that they would refer to the information as false.

Good image can be threatening

Things have happened recently that from a Russian perspective could give Russia more soft power leverage in the West. Russia sent medical aid to Italy and to other countries which could be a sign of goodwill. It has alsodeveloped a potential corona-vaccine, which could improve Russia’s image within biomedicine and broader academia – and could potentially put Russia in a position to help the whole planet. But in the West people are not exactly thrilled. In a Western perspective these are things that Russia can use for propaganda purposes meaning the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions and manipulate cognitions to achieve the goals of the propagandist (Jowet & O’Donell 2019: 6).

In the digital age aggressive behavior is not only expansionist behavior it is also a state’s intent to impose a good imageand thus, a signal of good intent can be interpreted as aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, I did not learn the solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, we should not be blind towards that states or even NGO’s might have an interest in lying about its intentions in order to change or control other people’s opinions. But on the other hand, we should primarily put it upon ourselves to explore the reasons behind divergent perceptions. Though, I suggest this should not take place through online media where misunderstanding rule and disinformation disrupt. What we need is good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings whether between students, teachers, NGO’s or government officials. Because the more we disagree the more dialogue is needed.

Framing foreign influence as pure malign manipulation will keep us both from learning and from arguing our own case abroad. So, let us prevent soft power from turning too ugly. After all the use of soft power is preferable to the use of hard power. And let us hope the covid-19-crisis is over soon so that we can visit each other and engage in dialogue where influence is not always a bad thing.

Litterature:

Head, Naomi (2016). ‘Transforming Conflict: Trust, Empathy, and Dialogue’, in Yohan Ariffin, Jean-Marc Coicaud & Vesselin Popovski (eds.), Emotions in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jervis, Robert (2017). ‘Signaling and Perception. Projecting Images and Drawing Inferences’, in: How statesmen think: The psychology of international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jowet, Garth S. & Victoria O’Donnell (2019). ‘Propaganda and Persuasion’ (ed. 7). California: SAGE Publications.

Osipova, Yelena (2014). ‘Russification‟ of „Soft Power‟: Transformation of a Concept’.The Journal of Public Diplomacy, Vol. 5, 56-77

Sergunin, Alexander &Karabeshkin, Leonid (2015. ‘Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy’, Political Studies Association, POLITICS vol. 35(3-4), 347–363

Simons, Greg (2018).‘The Role of Russian NGOs in New Public Diplomacy’, Journal of Political Marketing, 17:2, 137-160

Svetova, Zoya (2018).‘NGOs in Russia: Do They Still Stand a Chance? The Kremlin is steadily ramping up its control over civil society’. Moscow Times. Located on: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/02/12/ngos-do-they-still-stand-a-chance-russia-svetova-a60471

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Don’t Kid Yourself, Russia will Never Abandon Belarus

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The world has been rivetted by the largest protests in Belarus’ history over the course of the past month. Dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator” by former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, its President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus ever since winning the country’s first and only democratic election in 1994. But is this the end for Lukashenko? Certainly, some have already dubbed this as another “Color Revolution” moment in reference to similar civil society “People’s Power” protests that were able to bring down post-Soviet governments from Kyrgyzstan to Serbia, and most recently the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych in Belarus’ multiethnic southern neighbor Ukraine in 2014. But that will not happen in Belarus. This article does not mean to be callous but frank. The stark reality is that Belarus is an ethnically homogenous country that is vital to Russia’s national security interests. It will never surrender that to the opposition in Minsk or the West and NATO.

First, culturally Belarus is overwhelmingly Russian. Belarus’ population of 9.5 million people, 84% are ethnic Belarussians and 70% are native Russian speakers, Belarus’ only official language. Unlike Ukraine or the Baltic countries, Belarus lacks a strong ethnic base to sustain a pro-European political movement. Moscow will never abandon these Russians either, if needed it will intervene militarily under the guise of securing their rights, as it has done already in Eastern Ukraine. Such a maneuver would lead to a devastating conflict, with serious regional implications, and could begin a cascade of interventions to protect Russian speaking minorities on its borders.

Moreover, Belarus’ location situated right on Russia’s western frontier makes it is too strategically important for Moscow to allow it to join the fold of NATO. The Belarussian steppe is an invasion and counterattack route that quickly conveys invading European armies to the gates of Moscow, or Russian forces into Western Europe. Belarus was the first to fall during Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and it is in Belarus during Operation Bagration that the Red Army opened the road to Berlin. Today, Belarus’ existence within Russia’s political orbit is vital to provide it a buffer with NATO’s Eastern frontier. Without it, NATO could deploy forces just about 200 miles from Moscow. Thus, for Russia, any political change is a strategic threat. If Russia was willing to annex Crimea to, in part, protect its naval station at Sevastopol, after theUkrainians overthrew their pro-Russian leader Yanukovych, then it will do the same and more to Belarus in the event of Lukashenko’s ouster.

Additionally, a stable Belarus is vital to Russia’s core economic interests. It is through Belarus that major oil and gas pipelines transit from Russia to Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and the Baltic States. At least 10% of Europe’s oil needs come through the Druzhba pipeline in southern Belarus. And although Russia has also worked to diversify its avenues to export gas directly to the energy consuming countries of Europe, including with the construction of the Nordstream II and Turkstream pipelines, Belarus’ central location will always remain important as the most direct route to transport gas to Europe. In fact, Russia is already in a contentious dispute with Ukraine over gas pipelines, and it will not stand to also lose Belarus as a stable gas corridor.

And if that was not enough, one must remember Belarus is institutionally tied to Russia. It was at a hunting lodge in the Belarussian forest that in 1991, the leaders of the Soviet Union’s three Slavic republics: Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine came together to formally end the Soviet Union by declaring their independence together in the Belzahevy Accords. Five years later, Belarus then reversed its separation from Russia when it formed a Commonwealth in 1996, and finally the “Union State of Russia and Belarus,” or simply the “Union State” in 1999. This experiment in reestablishing the Soviet Union as a unitary political entity includes Schengen Area-style freedom of movement and a single executive that until a recent constitutional referendum, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked prepared to strengthen and assume the leadership of in order to stay in power. Now, Putin has raised the possibility of further integration as an antidote to the current protests. Belarus’ fate is thus closely tied to Russia’s own future as a nation state.

Notably, Belarus is also a party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian led security alliance of regional states including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. From the CSTO countries, Belarus can request an international (albeit Russian-led) “Collective Rapid Reaction Force,” to intervene and stabilize the country. As an elected leader, Lukashenko would be well within his rights to request the CSTO to intervene, and Russia already noted weeks ago that it forces remained ready in “reserve” at Belarus’ request. This would be an entirely legal use of military force to quell the domestic unrest and secure Lukashenko’s rule.

Lukashenko is the human embodiment of Russia’s interests in Belarus. He has made possible the expansion of Russia’s influence in the country since his election in 1994 and has had the unenviable task of placating Russia, balancing Europe and preserving his own independence, to some degree, from Moscow. He is the only ruler modern Belarusians have ever known, and the only one who can be trusted to steward the interests of Moscow and ethnolinguistic Russians. He is therefore the lynchpin of any strategy to preserve Russia’s interests in the country. Whether Moscow likes it or not, Lukashenko is irreplaceable. Frankly, sanctions will not convince him to retire, but only remind him that to fail, to lose power, will lead to his demise, and possibly his imprisonment or death for only Russia can affect the situation on the ground in Belarus.

Most of all, Lukashenko is the only one trusted by the military. As noted by Belarus’ Soviet-era leader Stanislav Shushkevich, the Belarussian army is manned and led by Lukashenko loyalists, it is one of the largest military force per-capita for its population, and its general staff leadership are well paid for their service to the state. Their fates are inexorably tied: a large, well-paid, ethnically homogenous military and their patron leader President Lukashenko. It is highly unlikely they will defect to the opposition, but even if so, that will only lead to a civil war and a Russian intervention. The presence of Lukashenko loyalists in the military ensures buttressed by the Russian speaking population ensures he will always have a strong power base in the country.

There may be a tendency in the West to think the Belarussian opposition will win. This belief is what guided overwhelming international support for Juan Guido in Venezuela to take power from the government of Nicholas Maduro. But Maduro held firm, knowing his allies in the military will decide his and the country’s future. They stayed in lockstep with the government, and despite massive opposition protests and the defection of much of Maduro’s political base, his government did not yield. They mortgaged the country’s future to survive –but survive they did.

The US especially must learn from Venezuela, or for that matter the rest of the interventions on its diplomatic resume. It is not a simple matter of course to remove governments even when the population is resoundingly opposed to their rule. Unless NATO, the US, and Europe plan on supporting a military opposition against Russia (which nobody is proposing), risking a direct confrontation with Moscow as well, there is little to no chance of changing the rulers in Minsk.

Of course, for the West, it still makes sense to support the opposition vocally, even if their defeat is inevitable. At the very least, it is a chance to draw attention to a crisis on Russia’s doorstep, at most, it will grant it an ally in a revolutionary Belarussian government –for all of five minutes that is, before Russian soldiers duly force it from office and restore Lukashenko to power. Belarus is in Russia’s backyard. The West should not forget that as it watches events unfold in Minsk.

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Russia

Navalny, Nord Stream 2 and Moscow’s Response

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As expected, Alexei Navalny’s case is seriously tearing apart relationship between European Union and Russian Federation. The alleged “poisoning” of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on August 20 in Tomsk (Siberia), has similarities to the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, and that of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the city of Salisbury, England. Russia’s political history is dotted with that well-colored inerasable image.

Navalny is a Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for political office, to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia. As a citizen, he has the fundamental right to freedom of expression and to associate with social and political groups. But his activities has angered the officialdom and becomes most hated politician. He has been detained several times by Russian authorities.

Now Navalny, who was “allegedly poisoned” in August, stands a determining factor shaping the relationship between Western world and European Union and Russia. Sanctions are the punitive measures against Russia. When he was first treated in a Russian hospital in Omsk, the doctors claimed that there were no traces of poison in his body, a claim that Russian authorities continue to endorse.

Specialist labs in France and Sweden have confirmed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the German government Spokesman Steffen Seibert said mid-Sept, and confirmed that the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had also received samples and was taking steps to have those tested at its reference laboratories.

According to Seibert, the European Union’s summit, set to take place on September 24-25. The world would be looking for what measures be collectively adopted with regard to Navalny and against Russia.

On Sept 17, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told the local media that there were another series of anti-Russian sanctions being initiated by the West amid the situation involving Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, all these designed to deliver a blow to relations between Russia and the European Union.

“The main goal today, at least it appears to be this way, is to deliver a blow to the relations between our countries and the European Union, and countries that are part of the union. Everything is going in this framework,” Zakharova said in the 60 Minutes show on the Rossiya 1 (VGTRK) television channel.

On Sept 15, during its session the European Union planned to create a global regime sanctioning human rights violations around the world and the intention to name it after Alexey Navalny. The Russian Foreign Ministry believes that will erode the basic principles of international law and undermines the prerogatives of the UN Security Council through endless illegitimate unilateral sanctions imposed by Brussels and Washington.

As for whether it would be advisable to name this sanctions regime after Alexei Navalny, it viewed  “this exclusively as an undisguised attempt to give a manifestly anti-Russia tonality to the new EU restrictions. At the same time, Berlin persists in brushing off proposals to work together in order to get to the bottom of what happened, using clearly far-fetched pretexts. We hope that common sense will prevail in the European Union and our partners will renounce the arbitrary practice of assigning blame and in the future will draw conclusions based on real and confirmed facts.”

That however Moscow readies to hit back on EU sanctions. Local daily newspaper Izvestia also wrote that Russia vows to retaliate against potential European Union sanctions. Even though the European Union is trying to elbow Russia out of the gas market, it is unlikely that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project will be abandoned over the incident with Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, quoting sources in the Russian Federation Council (Upper House of Parliament).

The resolution approved by the European Parliament (EP) stresses the need for an international investigation into the alleged poisoning of Navalny with a Novichok-type toxic agent. European MPs called for suspending Nord Stream 2 and slapping sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow is urging Berlin to cooperate in the investigation of what happened to Navalny. If the EU levies sanctions on Russia, Moscow can provide a tit-for-tat response, Russian MPs told the paper.

“I don’t think this option will come to life, because it is difficult to connect the situation with Navalny to the construction of Nord Stream 2. This is just an excuse to push Russia out of the gas market. We need to react calmly and not be dragged into those discussions,” Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Vladimir Dzhabarov told Izvestia, commenting on the resolution.

Similarly, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alexei Chepa explained to Izvestia that in the event of any real anti-Russian sanctions, Russia could provide a tit-for-tat response. For example, if the European Union approves personal restrictions and a sanctions list, Moscow will do the same.

“Of course, we will respond. However, this will impact both our economy and the economy of Germany and the European Union. No one wins here. However, there may be a tit-for-tat blacklist that would include, for example, the MPs that called for anti-Russian sanctions or for the suspension of Nord Stream 2,” the MP said, stressing that Moscow will only retaliate if the European Union introduces real sanctions against Russia.

Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote that European Union to loosen legal mechanism for new sanctions against Russia. It said that the European Commission is working on broadening its legal instruments that would enable the introduction of personal sanctions against human rights violators in different countries, counting Russia among them. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has announced plans to adopt Europe’s version of the Magnitsky Act and suggested adjusting the mechanism for approving sanctions in such a way that does not require the support of all European Union member states.

According to Kommersant, this amendment, if adopted, will no longer allow Moscow to count on friendly European countries that have called on European Union allies not to impose tough sanctions on Russia. According to von der Leyen, the proposals for a European ‘Magnitsky Act’ will be ready soon. She explained the European Union should be able to respond clearly and quickly to what is happening anywhere, whether in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk.

The German Council on Foreign Relations, does not believe that the European Union will be able to agree on an extensive package of sanctions against Russia soon. Rather, an agreement on a blacklist similar to the ‘Magnitsky list’ could be expected. According to experts, regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Germany and the European Union would rather allow the project be implemented in full, and then introduce some measures to restrict or prohibit transportation of gas through the pipeline.

“With the crises around Navalny and Lukashenko unfolding, the freezing of Nord Stream 2 seems to be in the cards. Nevertheless, we are not talking about a complete breakdown of relations. Even during the Cold War, economic ties between the USSR and the West were not completely severed,” Head of the European Political Studies Department at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),Nadezhda Arbatova, told Kommersant newspaper. “Today’s confrontation between Russia and the West is a struggle of ideology and real politics. Minimal interaction will be maintained, but this will not change the quality of relations between Russia and the EU,” she predicted.

European Union and Russia have strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011 but that was later challenged following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Russia has five member states: Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland share its border. The relations are determined by European Union member on bilateral basis, but all the members adopt common or collective policies toward the Russian Federation.

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