- FOREIGN AFFAIRS - Sep 8, 2020 -
By Michael Carpenter and Vlad Kobets
Popular protests against the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus have left Western leaders anxious about how Russia will respond. Forceful intervention would not seem out of character for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has noted on state television that Lukashenko asked him to keep riot police at the ready in case “the situation gets out of control.” But such a course of action is almost certainly not Putin’s preference in Belarus. The Kremlin invaded and occupied territory in Georgia and Ukraine to prevent those countries from moving geopolitically westward. But in doing so, the Kremlin’s neoimperialists planted deep roots of resistance to Russian occupation and intensified popular support for Euro-Atlantic integration—especially among younger Georgians and Ukrainians. Belatedly, Moscow is learning that no amount of disinformation can reverse these trends.
For this reason, Putin has a different plan in mind for Belarus. Instead of deploying “little green men” to occupy Belarusian territory, Moscow is aiming for something we have called “soft annexation.” The strategy is to “boil the frog” gradually, starting with economic integration and a common currency, followed by political integration through a common foreign and defense policy, and culminating in a full-fledged Union State that would mean the de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia.
For the last few years, Putin has been pressing Lukashenko to submit to this plan by emphasizing its economic dimension. Russia long provided Belarus with large subsidies on oil exports; Putin has withheld them in the hope of pummeling the Belarusian economy into submission. Among other petty tactics, he has placed restrictions on Belarusian agricultural exports to Russia. Now, under cover of the current political crisis, Moscow is sending planeloads of “political technologists” to Belarus in addition to covert intelligence officers, cyber-operatives, media consultants, propagandists, and security advisers. These are little gray men rather than little green ones, and their specialty is political warfare. Their immediate task is to lay the groundwork for a soft annexation.