6:30 pm EDT: The Lukashenko regime began a new phase in its crackdown by starting to disperse and arrest protesters and conduct targeted arrests against opposition leaders in Minsk for the first time since August 19. Belarusian authorities detained Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) strike leader Sergei Dvlevsky and opposition leader Olga Kovalkova – both members of opposition leader Svitlana Tikanouskaya’s Coordination Council – on August 24. Belarusian security forces also detained Alexander Lavrinovich – the strike leader at the state-owned Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT) – and Anatoly Bokun – the strike leader at the Belaruskali potash fertilizer plant – on August 24. Authorities released Bokun after fining him 675 rubles on August 24. Authorities had previously arrested a key Belaruskali strike organizer on August 20, but he reportedly managed to escape his detention facility. Lavrinovich’s status is unknown as of this update. Authorities brought Kovalkova to the Akrestin St. detention facility – a location the opposition associates with the physical abuse of detainees. The opposition had marched on the Akrestin St. detention facility in a poorly organized effort directed by the NEXTA Telegram channel on August 18. The Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has not attempted to disperse any protests in Minsk or detain protesters since August 19. Belarusian authorities ended the last round of mass detentions on August 14 when they released a large number of detainees. The renewed dispersions and arrests are likely intended to intimidate protesters. The Lukashenko regime will likely increase the scope of targeted arrests against opposition leaders and use force against protesters in the coming week.
2:45 pm EDT: Massive protests in the Belarusian capital of Minsk have naturally seized the world’s attention. But Belarusians are protesting throughout the entire country and in almost every significant urban area. Most protests outside Minsk are relatively small and have been peaceful despite persistent intimidation from Belarusian authorities and regime-organized counter-protests. The extent of the protest wave suggests no significant regional variations in opposition to Alexander Lukashenko. This pattern contrasts with that observed during the 2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, which saw significant regional differences. Lukashenko appears to have alienated the Belarusian population across the board and brought into being a country-wide opposition to his oppression and possibly to his continued rule.
1:00 pm EDT: Telegram channel NEXTA has disrupted the August 23 protest in Minsk. NEXTA unexpectedly changed plans for today’s march in Minsk’s Independence Square by directing protesters to instead move toward Belarusian army positions at Victory Park around 4:00 pm local time, a move that could be portrayed as intended to provoke a confrontation with the Belarusian military. Representatives of opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikanouskaya’s Coordination Council arrived and asked protesters to move away from security forces, defusing the situation. As the crowd was beginning to draw back at 5:50 pm local time, NEXTA issued new instructions directing protesters to march on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s palace, approximately one mile northwest of Victory Park. Thousands of protesters began moving up the road toward the palace. The Belarusian military quickly began assembling defensive positions in front of the palace. After 30 minutes, as protesters were nearing the palace, NEXTA issued new instructions asking protesters to disperse and return to Independence Square, the original stated focus of the Sunday protests. NEXTA claimed Lukashenko is currently in the Presidential Palace and planning an evacuation. Protesters remain in place around the Presidential palace.
10:00 am EDT: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is likely preparing to suppress protests in Minsk by force. Lukashenko appeared in a military uniform during public appearances on August 22, likely to signal a new phase of his response. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense released a statement on Telegram the morning of August 23 claiming protesters are waving the flags of “fascists” and stated the military will directly protect World War II memorials in Belarus. The defense of World War II monuments has been a major theme of Russian information operations for years. The Belarusian military began deploying in Minsk the morning of August 23. The military is assembling in Victory Park, about two miles north of the main protest location at Independence Square. Belarusian army units are preparing barricades and setting up barbed wire. The head of the Minsk Metropolitan Police additionally warned protesters to halt two weeks of illegal protests that have ”damaged” Minsk and not to take part in planned “provocations.”
2:30 pm EDT: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko fully mobilized the Belarusian military and continued to emphasize his false claims of a NATO military threat on August 22. Lukashenko traveled to the Western region of Grodno, bordering Lithuania and Poland, on August 21 and 22. Grodno has previously been a protest hotspot and was the site of the only major defection (now suppressed) by regional officials to date in Belarus on August 18. Lukashenko claimed during a meeting with military officers in Grodno that the West continues to attempt a “color revolution” against Belarus but that Belarusian authorities remain in place and are “strongly resisting.” Lukashenko falsely claimed NATO is mobilizing troops in Poland and Lithuania to add an “external factor” as this color revolution falters. NATO is not mobilizing protests and protests remain strong. Lukashenko additionally continued his efforts to reorient the Belarusian crisis as a struggle between NATO and Russia, stating NATO wants to use Belarus as a “springboard” to destroy Russia later.
7:30 pm EDT: The Kremlin has assumed direct control of Belarusian media to conduct an information campaign for its own ends as the key component of its hybrid operation in Belarus. Lukashenko stated on August 21 he “invited” Russian media professionals to work at Belarusian state media. Lukashenko’s statement confirms ISW’s August 20 assessment that the Kremlin began an information operation in Belarus and took control of Belarusian state news agencies on August 19. The Kremlin, Lukashenko, Belarusian authorities, and Belarusian state media organizations’ rhetoric are converging. Belarusian state entities are acting as components of this Kremlin information operation and must be studied as such. This information operation is likely a component of a larger Russian hybrid operation currently underway.
7:00 PM EDT: The Kremlin very likely deployed Russian media professionals to run a new information operation in Belarus with the objective of regaining control over the information space in Belarus. Lukashenko’s counteroffensive against protesters has an informational component. Kremlin security and media professionals likely began helping Lukashenko implement a new information operation on August 19. The information operation’s likely objective is to regain control over the Belarusian information space in order to erode sympathy for the anti-Lukashenko opposition and characterize it as pro-Western. The information operation, if successful, will degrade the opposition movement and decrease the likelihood of opposition protesters successfully consolidating and reemerging. It will also continue the process of turning an intra-Belarus issue into a Russia versus NATO problem, an aim the Kremlin has been pursuing for some time.
11:00 am EDT: Russia’s intervention in Belarus likely deterred protesters on August 19. The threat of a Russian intervention to support Lukashenko, which ISW reported on August 19 and forecasted on August 14, likely deterred protesters on August 19 and 20. Belarusian security forces additionally deployed in force on August 19 for the first time since August 13 following instructions from Lukashenko to “crush” the protests. Belarusian security forces deployed around key buildings in Minsk and cleared opposition protests in several cities around Belarus – with protesters quickly withdrawing without a fight.
11:00 am EDT: A Kremlin security force intervention into Belarus on behalf of President Alexander Lukashenko is reportedly underway following the defection of Belarusian Interior Ministry elements in Grodno, which is near the Polish and Lithuanian borders. German newspaper Bild reported on August 19 that the Kremlin began using Russian Air Force and Ministry of Internal Affairs trucks to send Russian National Guardsmen to Belarus. Lukashenko had apparently lacked a clear strategy to deal with protests and was losing control over the situation as of August 18. Lukashenko’s spokesperson Natalya Eismont confirmed on Russia’s Channel 1 state television that Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin began consultations to coordinate actions under the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) frameworks on August 19. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "there is foreign interference in Belarusian internal affairs" on Channel 1 on August 19. "Foreign interference" is a legal ground for a military assistance according to CSTO agreements. Kremlin media outlet RT claimed the Kremlin denied seeing a need to send assistance to Belarus on August 19.
1:00 pm EDT: Russian President Vladimir Putin warned European leaders to stay out of the Belarus crisis on August 18 to consolidate Russian management of the situation. French President Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed Belarus with Putin in separate calls the morning of August 18. Putin warned both leaders that Russia would not accept any “external attempts” to interfere in Belarus or pressure Lukashenko. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov additionally called German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and reiterated similar talking points. The Kremlin will attempt to dominate likely negotiations over a potential transition government in Belarus and block any European involvement.