October 23, 4:45 pm EDT: The Kremlin likely sent a senior intelligence director to Belarus to disrupt self-proclaimed President Alexander Lukashenko’s planned announcement of steps to defuse the protest crisis. Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Sergey Naryshkin flew to Minsk on October 22. Naryshkin’s visit is the latest in an observed pattern of senior Russian intelligence officials’ visits to Minsk. Each of these visits has coincided with key developments in the Kremlin’s hybrid war in Belarus, usually also marking changes in Lukashenko’s behavior.
The Kremlin has conducted military exercises in fall 2020 on an unprecedented scale, much deeper than usual integration of Russian and foreign military units, and a pattern of modifying pre-announced activities significantly but presenting them as normal and unchanged. These exercises mark significant developments in the Kremlin’s campaigns to integrate the security forces of Former Soviet Union (FSU) states into Russian-dominated structures. Russian forces conducted simultaneous exercises on a scale nearly equivalent to that of two normal annual capstone exercises, suggesting that Russian forces may be able to mobilize and control more combat units and at higher echelons than had previously been assessed. The Kremlin covered new deployments to Belarus by branding them as “preplanned exercises” to create a false sense of normality. The Kremlin will likely exploit this kind of rebranding as an instrument of its hybrid warfare toolkit to cover actual combat deployments abroad. Moscow also announced that it would intensify efforts to gain United Nations recognition of the revivified multinational military it is trying to create in the FSU as a legitimate peacekeeping force. There are several concrete steps the United States and NATO should take to mitigate these new threats.
7:00 pm EDT: Self-declared Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is intensifying efforts to de-escalate protests and degrade protester will in the runup to October 25. Lukashenko set October 25 as the deadline for submissions “from the people” of Belarusian constitutional amendments on October 3. He likely seeks to use this amendment process to broker a pretend compromise with protesters to end the crisis without actually ceding power.
7:30 EDT: Belarusian authorities continued their new phase of violent escalation against protesters on October 11. Belarusian police detained at least 713 protesters on October 11, the highest single-day arrest total to date. At least one thousand protesters marched in Minsk on Monday, October 12, a higher number than most Monday protests have seen. Belarusian police cracked down on these marchers with stun grenades and tear gas, detained at least 186, and flew five to six Mi-8 transport helicopters over Minsk.
Turkey and Azerbaijan may have jointly planned the Azerbaijani offensive to contest Armenia’s control of Nagorno-Karabakh that reignited that simmering conflict. Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed, Armenian-held region of Nagorno-Karabakh escalated into conventional combat on September 27. International media coverage has largely portrayed the ongoing conflict as the result of a spontaneous escalation. But Turkish-Azerbaijani military cooperation, drone sales, and force mobilization indicate Azerbaijan prepared – with Turkish support - to dispute Armenia’s presence in Nagorno-Karabakh prior to September 27.
6:00 pm EDT: Belarusian security forces violently confronted large groups of protesters for the first time since early August on October 11. Tens of thousands marched in Minsk on October 11 despite heavy rain. Belarusian security forces directly confronted concentrated protesters using water cannons, stun grenades, and firearms. Belarusian security forces have refrained from directly confronting large groups of protesters since early August. Security forces detained nearly 400 protesters and severely injured dozens. Security forces additionally detained over 40 foreign and domestic journalists. Nikolai Karpiankou, director of Belarus’s anti-corruption bureau, and Dmitry Balaba, head of Minsk’s OMON riot police, personally directed the crackdown in Minsk. Protests largely dispersed by 7pm local time, though small groups of protesters in the low hundreds re-gathered in Minsk around 10pm.
4:30 pm EDT: Self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced plans to establish his direct control over the Belarusian information space. Lukashenko said his administration should control major Belarusian media outlets to defend Belarus’ “information sovereignty” and that Belarusian authorities should wage a “more persistent” internet information campaign on October 9. Lukashenko likely seeks to consolidate control over the Belarusian information space to degrade protester will. Lukashenko likely additionally seeks to regain control of the Belarusian information space from the Kremlin as part of his ongoing efforts to resist Russian integration pressure.
5:00 EDT: The Kremlin is orienting its Unbreakable Brotherhood 2020 military exercises on peacekeeping operations as part of its hybrid war in Belarus. The Kremlin-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) stated on October 7 that approximately 700 CSTO personnel will participate in annual Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises in Vitebsk, Belarus, from October 12-16. The CSTO stated the exercise is intended to enhance the CSTO’s capability to conduct multinational peacekeeping operations by practicing monitoring ceasefire compliance, restoring “peaceful life,” maintaining checkpoint security, and riot control. The Russian military considers deploying conventional forces under the cover of “peacekeeping” to be a key means within hybrid war. The Kremlin considers its ongoing campaign in Belarus to be a hybrid war and is likely using CSTO exercises to advance its campaign.
4:50 pm EDT: Self-proclaimed President Alexander Lukashenko revealed that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the situation in Kyrgyzstan in an October 7 phone call. Lukashenko offered no additional details, leaving his purpose in mentioning the conversation unclear. Putin did not provide a readout from this call as of this writing, potentially indicating Putin may not have wanted this phone call to be publicly known. The Kremlin usually promptly publishes readouts from such meetings.
4:20 pm EDT: Self-declared Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is adopting tactics for passing constitutional amendments similar to those that Russian President Vladimir Putin used to pass Russian constitutional amendments in early 2020. The Lukashenko regime began soliciting constitutional amendment proposals from Belarusian citizens on October 3 with a deadline to submit all proposals by October 25. Lukashenko likely seeks to create the impression among Belarusian citizens that they possess political agency. Lukashenko, however, likely has predetermined which constitutional amendments to adopt.