5:00 EDT: The Kremlin is increasing its projection capabilities against both NATO and Belarus. The Kremlin announced in December 2020 its decision to field a new motorized rifle division in Kaliningrad. Baltic Fleet commander Admiral Aleksandr Nosatov announced on December 7, 2020, that the Kremlin decided to reinforce the Baltic Fleet’s 11th Army Corps with a motorized rifle division in response to an alleged NATO military buildup near Kaliningrad. Nosatov said this new division includes one motorized rifle regiment, one artillery regiment, and one separate tank regiment.
A Belarusian veterans group claims the Belarusian Armed Forces (BAF) are preparing to deploy two battalions of so-called “peacekeepers” to Syria in September 2021. BYPOL, an association of former Belarusian security service personnel and military veterans who sympathize with the protest movement against self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, claimed on January 30 that the BAF ordered Belarus’s two operational commands—roughly equivalent to Russian military districts—to construct units for peacekeeping and patrolling operations in Syria. BYPOL claims the first Belarusian deployment to Syria will consist of two approximately battalion-sized (300 personnel) units totaling around 600 personnel. The Kremlin likely instigated this order and will facilitate the deployment of Belarusian troops, which would support Russia’s military forces in Syria.
Russian Western Military District (WMD) and Belarusian forces began simultaneous, large combat-readiness exercises in Kaliningrad, Belarus, and mainland western Russia on January 25, 2021. The Russian and Belarusian exercises are nominally separate and do not mention any joint activity; however, the exercises’ similarities in timing, geographic proximity, scale, and type of activity in resemblance to previous joint exercises indicate they are likely connected and complimentary.
An independent Russian media outlet published documents allegedly detailing Kremlin plans to cement control over Belarus through constitutional changes and a Kremlin-amenable political party in Belarus. Independent Russian news outlet “The Insider” published several documents allegedly from internal Kremlin discussions on December 25 outlining Kremlin plans to maximize Russian influence over the Belarusian government through shaping constitutional amendments and restructuring. Among the documents are a framework for gaining political and social influence in Belarus, a speech by Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) General Vladimir Chernov seemingly to Kremlin officials on an unknown occasion outlining the role of Kremlin-amenable Belarusian politicians in constitutional reform, a list of Belarusian “assets,” and the foundational document for a new Kremlin-run political party in Belarus.
5:00 ET: Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya failed to marshal large protester turnout for her so-called “People’s Tribunal” on December 20. Tikhanouskaya called for the protest to be the opposition’s largest turnout when she announced it on November 13. No more than a few thousand protesters marched as part of the “People’s Tribunal” protest in the 20th consecutive week of protests, far short of the tens and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in some previous rallies.
7:45 pm EDT: Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the ongoing crisis in Belarus to increase his sway over self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has long stonewalled Moscow’s persistent efforts to integrate Belarus into Russia. A sustained protest movement following Lukashenko’s overt manipulation of Belarus’ August 2020 presidential election has seriously degraded Lukashenko’s ability to resist Russian pressure to integrate Belarus into Russia – a key Kremlin campaign ISW’s Russia Team has analyzed extensively in over 70 published assessments in 2020.
Key Takeaway: Pro-Western Moldovan politician Maia Sandu won the Moldovan presidential election by defeating pro-Kremlin incumbent President Igor Dodon on November 15, 2020. Sandu’s election limits the Kremlin’s opportunity to expand its influence toward the eastern Balkans and presents the United States with an opportunity to reverse the Kremlin’s recent gains. However, the Kremlin will likely exploit its control in the Moldovan Parliament to contest Sandu’s electoral mandate. The United States and its allies should support Sandu’s efforts to expand, strengthen, and intensify cooperation agreements with Western countries as well as Sandu’s stated objective to end Russia’s military presence in the breakaway region of Transnistria to limit a dangerous Kremlin position in the eastern Balkans and on Ukraine’s western border.
Ukraine conducted countrywide local elections for the first time since 2015 on October 25, 2020. Zelensky’s Servant of the People (SoP) Party’s performed poorly—in part due to reinvigorated Kremlin military, diplomatic, and informational pressure campaigns targeting Zelensky. The Kremlin intensified these campaigns in fall 2020 after Zelensky rejected holding local elections in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin will likely exploit SoP’s poor electoral performance to impair Zelensky’s reelection campaign in 2024. Zelensky is more vulnerable to Russian pressure and subversion following the October 25 elections. Ukraine backslid on a key anti-corruption reform, a development that could undermine Ukraine’s efforts to become a liberal democracy and join Western structures. Kremlin pressure is likely compelling Ukraine to disengage from positions close to the frontline in Donbas. The Kremlin may escalate its military pressure campaign against Ukraine in the winter of 2020-2021.
The NEXTA Telegram channel likely launched a new campaign to spur the development of local opposition leadership in Belarus on November 20, 2020. NEXTA issued unprecedented directions for protesters to “build local connections” among their fellow protesters on November 20. NEXTA instructed protesters in Minsk to gather in regional groups within their local neighborhoods for Sunday protests on November 22. NEXTA called for these neighborhood-level groups to rendezvous with other local neighborhoods’ groups for larger localized marches in six larger protest areas in Minsk. These six protest areas are all smaller than the single large protest location in downtown Minsk where the protesters historically congregated.
6:00 pm EDT: The Kremlin sent Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Minsk on November 26, 2020, likely to secure the implementation of Union State integration concessions that self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made on September 14. Lukashenko reaffirmed his commitments to Moscow after Lavrov reminded him about his concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin from their September 14 meeting in Sochi. Lukashenko apparently agreed to a plan for coordinating Belarusian and Russian foreign policy and committed to the creation of a single market for natural gas.