7:00 pm EDT: The Telegram channel that has been organizing the protests called for demonstrators to march on a detention facility in Minsk on August 17. NEXTA - a Poland-based telegram channel which emerged as the primary organizer of protests – published a message at 9:00 am local time calling for protesters to gather in Independence Square at 6:00 pm local time – the latest yet start time for protests, which have so far begun between noon and 2:00 pm. NEXTA instructed protesters to progress past the Volodarskogo Street pre-trial detention facility (where most detained protesters have been processed) to the Akrestsin street detention facility (where the majority of alleged torture of protesters has occurred) by 8:00 pm. NEXTA called for doctors and journalists to then enter the facility to interview tortured detainees and “show on air what is happening there.”
5:00 pm EDT: Russia and Belarus are conducting military exercises in multiple locations. Izvestia reported the Russian combined arms army (CAA), presumably the 6th CAA, of the Western Military District began large-scale exercises with 3,500 personnel in Leningrad Oblast on August 17. It is unclear whether these exercises were prescheduled or snap. TASS reported the Southern Military District began pre-planned Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) rapid reaction force exercises in Astrakhan, Russia, on August 17. More than 1,000 servicemen are participating in the drill, including Belarusian forces. The Kremlin may use the exercises to set conditions to insert Russian forces into Belarus. Belarus began its own exercises in Grodno near the polish border on August 17. Tank, missile, artillery, air, and air defense units from Belarus, including the 6th and 11th mechanized brigades and 103rd airborne brigade, are participating in the exercises. Some of the units relocated from Vitebsk to Grodno for the exercises on August 15. Unconfirmed reports from local residents on social media suggested that Russian forces were concentrating on the Russian side of the border opposite Vitebsk. There is no evidence of an increase of Russian force presence inside Belarus as of August 17. Lukashenko reframed his statements that he would only ask for Russian help “in the event of external military threats,” implying a deployment of Russian forces would occur in the context of a confrontation with NATO rather than as an internal Union State issue. Continuous accusations by Lukashenko and the Kremlin that NATO is stoking the protests indicate that Lukashenko may take continued demonstrations as a pretext for requesting Russian aid against an ”external enemy.”
Mass protests across Belarus against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko overshadowed a pro-Lukashenko rally in Minsk on August 16. Over 120,000 Belarusians joined a planned 2:00 pm Sunday afternoon rally in Minsk – though most protesters did not gather until later in the afternoon. Rallies additionally grew in other cities across Belarus. The protest movement remains peaceful and largely coordinated through independent Telegram channels as of August 16. Demonstrators are calling for Lukashenko to step down and re-run the August 9 election. Protests since August 10 have so far dissipated by dark, and protesters are slowly returning home as of 9:00 pm local Belarus time. Belarusian security forces did not impede the Sunday protests.
4:00 pm EDT: Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko and the Kremlin have reached an agreement for a potential Russian intervention to crush protests. Lukashenko stated Russia is prepared to intervene in Belarus in a meeting with the Belarusian general staff the evening of August 15: Lukashenko stated "we have an agreement with the Russian Federation in the framework of the Union State and the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). These moments are fitting to this pact. We agreed that at the first request there will be comprehensive assistance provided to ensure the security of the Republic of Belarus.” Belarusian state media edited its reporting on Lukashenko’s statement at 9:45 pm local time to insert the comment that Lukashenko would only invite Russian forces “in the event of external military threats.” Lukashenko will likely increasingly frame the protests as foreign-backed to legitimize calling for a Russian intervention and in a continuing effort to separate protest leaders from the mass of the Belarusian people.
12:00 pm EDT: A Russian hybrid intervention into Belarus to support Belarussian president Lukashenko is likely imminent. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had a phone call on August 15 to discuss the situation in Belarus. Putin thanked Lukashenko for returning 32 detained Wagner personnel on August 14. The Kremlin’s readout of the call stated “all problems that have arisen will be resolved soon” and characterized the protests as “destructive forces” trying to harm the Union State. A Kremlin intervention would likely consist of Russian forces in unmarked uniforms supporting crackdowns on protesters. The Kremlin has not previously characterized the protests in Belarus as destructive. Kremlin-linked media outlets reported neutrally and slightly sympathetically towards protests in Belarus as of August 14.
Russia may send irregular forces into Belarus to quash growing protests against Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko. A senior Kremlin media official’s August 14 statement supporting such a move is a significant inflection in Moscow’s characterization of the protests in Belarus. It could be part of a new Russian information campaign to shape conditions for a Russian-backed intervention into Belarus under the pretext of restoring order. A Russian intervention in Belarus that resulted in the stationing of Russian ground forces in the country would dramatically increase the threat to NATO’s ability to protect the Baltic States and mark another advance in Putin’s efforts to regain Russian suzerainty over the former Soviet Union.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will likely survive current mass protests but will emerge substantially more vulnerable to Russian pressure. Lukashenko claims to have won the August 9 election with 80 percent of the vote, sparking mass protests. Lukashenko is successfully containing the demonstrations and forced leading opposition candidate Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya to flee to Lithuania and denounce the protests. Lukashenko’s domestic position is nevertheless weakened by these unprecedented displays of public opposition, and his ability to resist pressure from the Kremlin is reduced.
The Kremlin is successfully expanding its global cyber footprint to contest the West by signing cooperation deals in the field of international information and communications technologies (ICTs). The Kremlin prioritizes these deals to set conditions to expand its access to global technical networks and infrastructure, as well as to develop its human networks and institutional links around the world. The Kremlin launched this campaign in 2014, shortly before releasing an updated information security doctrine in 2016, which continues to guide Russian cyber policy. This campaign supports the Kremlin’s strategic goal of subverting Western global influence via nontraditional means. The Kremlin will likely use these deals to increase its cyber-attack capabilities and expand influence in key regions. The Kremlin may additionally use these deals to garner support for a Kremlin-friendly resolution on ICTs in the UN to shape international norms in cyberspace.
The Kremlin is using the COVID-19 pandemic to test an expanded societal control toolkit. The Kremlin has empowered Russian security services, deployed Russia’s national guard nationally, empowered the Ministry of Defense as a domestic actor for the first time, implemented mass digital surveillance, and further tightened control over Russia’s information space. The Kremlin seeks to expand its ability to control the Russian population in the long-term, as Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly relies on authoritarian measures to preserve his regime, and suppress potential unrest in the aftermath of the national voting on Russia’s constitutional amendments on July 1. Digital surveillance technology, such as facial recognition, geolocation on smart devices, and comprehensive digital databases for all Russian citizens, will help the Kremlin circumvent the cost requirements associated with constructing and staffing a massive control infrastructure. These technologies will further erode privacy in Russia and grant the Kremlin new capabilities to discretely identify and neutralize its opponents with minimal public confrontation. Putin will increasingly rely on societal control tools and digitally targeted repression to stifle critics and preserve his regime.
The COVID-19 crisis has impeded some of the Kremlin’s efforts but has not changed its objectives, one of which is expanding Russia’s power projection capabilities internationally. Russia’s military footprint and basing opportunities are expanding but remain limited. Putin is thus using coalitions and partnerships to amplify Russia’s security space - as ISW will analyze in its upcoming major report on Putin’s geopolitical thinking.