Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Tries to Control Protests Ahead of Meeting with Putin

September 13, 2020 - Press ISW

Lukashenko’s campaign to expel and detain opposition leaders is failing to disrupt increasingly adaptable and sustained protests. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in the fourth weekly women’s march in Minsk on September 12, and over 100,000 marched in Minsk and around the country on September 13. Telegram channel NEXTA intentionally refrained for the first time from publishing instructions for the Sunday march on Saturday night, to prevent security forces from pre-deploying to protest sites. NEXTA did not issue protest instructions until nearly noon on Sunday, directing protests to begin at 2:00 pm local time. NEXTA issued detailed instructions and maps – which tens of thousands of protesters followed – asking protesters to gather in several separate areas around Minsk before converging on key locations, including Lukashenko’s residence and large plazas, from several directions. NEXTA’s flexible control of the protests forced Belarusian security forces to redeploy throughout the day to follow protesters. ISW previously forecasted Lukashenko’s efforts to disrupt protests through the arrest and expulsion of the remaining opposition leaders in Belarus would not impede protests, which remain effective without on-the-ground leadership.

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Resists Moscow’s Pressure for Economic Integration

September 10, 2020 - George Barros

8:45 pm EDT: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko likely assesses his position against the protesters has stabilized to the point that he can resume balancing against Kremlin efforts to absorb Belarus though the Union State. The Kremlin will likely intensify pressure against Lukashenko nevertheless. The Kremlin is attempting to accelerate Union State integration with Belarus by expanding the intended scope of its annual regional economic forum. The initial purpose of this forum was to advance Russian-Belarusian Union State economic integration at local firm-to-firm levels. Kremlin officials said this year’s forum will culminate in the signing of “important economic agreements” and that Russian-Belarusian economic cooperation occurs at local, regional, and federal levels. Lukashenko pushed back against Kremlin efforts to expand the scope of the forum and stressed the forum will continue to work “at the enterprise level.” Lukashenko will likely continue to stall by attempting to limit integration to levels below those of the Kremlin's desires. He disregarded Russian Ambassador Dmitry Mezentsev’s pressure at a September 10 meeting to commit Belarus to significantly deeper economic integration with Russia during his upcoming meeting with Putin in Moscow.

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Begins Targeting the Kremlin Ahead of Meeting Putin

September 9, 2020 - George Barros

6:00pm EDT: Belarusian authorities formally imprisoned opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova – the last prominent opposition leader active in Belarus – and charged her with calls to incite a coup d’etat on September 9. Belarusian law stipulates imprisonment for two to five years for this charge. Belarusian authorities abducted Kolesnikova in Minsk on September 7 and failed to expel her to Ukraine on September 8. Kolesnikova previously stated her openness to working with the Kremlin and expressed support for constitutional reforms. Lukashenko may have detained Kolesnikova in order to disrupt Kremlin efforts to undermine Belarus’ sovereignty via constitutional amendments. Lukashenko additionally began balancing against Kremlin pressure in the information space on September 8 to push back on Kremlin efforts to absorb Belarus.

Warning: Russia Escalates in Eastern Syria

September 9, 2020 - Press ISW

Russia is scaling up pressure against US forces in eastern Syria. Russia invigorated its effort to provoke fractures within the US local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in early August through information operations tailored to sow doubt about the SDF’s reliability and the United States’ commitment to Syria. Russia and other pro-regime actors simultaneously scaled up a campaign of harassment of US forces, including rocket attacks on facilities housing US forces and a confrontation with a US patrol on August 25 that concussed four US soldiers. These incidents could indicate that Russia is using kinetic activity to bolster the effect of its information operations in accordance with emerging Russian hybrid warfare doctrine, which ISW will examine in depth in a forthcoming report. The intended target of Russia’s information operation, local tribal elements loosely aligned with the SDF, could perceive the United States’ inability to prevent such attacks as a sign of weakness. In one of the most dangerous scenarios, Russia may further escalate kinetically to provoke a crisis that causes local tribal elements to desert the SDF with the eventual objective of forcing US policymakers to reconsider the US commitment to Syria.

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Expels Opposition Leaders to Support Kremlin Information Operation

September 8, 2020 - Press ISW

7:20 pm EDT: Belarusian authorities are holding Belarusian opposition leader Kolesnikova after a failed attempt to expel her to Ukraine following her abduction on September 7. Ukrainian officials confirmed Belarusian authorities “forcibly expelled” Ivan Kravtsov and Anton Rodnenkov – two of Kolesnikova’s staffers – to Ukraine on September 8. Belarusian security personnel in civilian clothes abducted Kolesnikova, Rodnenkov, and Kravtsov in downtown Minsk on September 7. Rodnenkov claimed Belarusian authorities decided to expel him and Kravtsov to Ukraine, rather than Poland or Lithuania, because they did not have passports with EU visas. Kravtsov and Rodnenkov confirmed at a press conference in Kyiv on September 8 that they witnessed Kolesnikova destroy her passport while in Belarusian detention to avoid expulsion.

Belarus Warning Update: Belarusian Security Forces Likely Kidnap Opposition Leader Kolesnikova

September 7, 2020 - Mason Clark

Unidentified men abducted opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova and two of her staffers in Minsk on September 7. An unidentified group of masked men in civilian clothes abducted Kolesnikova and two of her staffers, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, using an unmarked van in downtown Minsk the morning of September 7. The whereabouts of Kolesnikova and her staffers is currently unknown. Kolesnikova is a key member of the opposition Coordination Council and the last remaining Belarusian opposition leader active in-country.

Belarus Warning Update: Belarusian Security Forces Escalate Violence against Protesters but Large Protests Continue

September 6, 2020 - Press ISW

5:00 pm EDT: Belarusian Interior Ministry personnel without insignia, possibly including Russians, seriously beat and detained protesters in Minsk on September 6. Around 15 men in civilian clothes carrying batons and body armor beat and detained protesters in Minsk at approximately 7:00 pm local time, after most protesters had begun to disperse. The men, who bore no insignia, pursued protesters into a nearby café, later bringing the detained protesters to liveried police vehicles. The men used significantly more violence than Belarusian security forces have since the first week of the protests, continuing to beat already unconscious protesters.

Belarus Warning Update: Security Personnel in Green Uniforms without Insignia Appear in Minsk

September 5, 2020 - Press ISW

6:00 EDT: Security personnel wearing unmarked green uniforms appeared in Minsk for the first time on September 5. The personnel are reportedly Belarusian riot police (OMON) in new uniforms. These personnel wear Russian-made Dozor body cameras – a model of cameras Russian police and interior forces as well as Belarusian OMON personnel use. Belarusian OMON previously wore all black uniforms with identifying markings. It is unclear why Belarusian OMON would have changed their uniforms and removed identifying markings. They could be setting conditions for the appearance of Russian security personnel in similar unmarked uniforms.

Belarus Warning Update: Moscow Claims Poland Is the Lead Sponsor of Belarusian Protests; Minsk Calls Protests a “Color Revolution”

September 4, 2020 - George Barros

5:15 EDT: The Kremlin framed Poland as a leader in sponsoring Belarusian protests for the first time and Belarus claimed the ongoing protests are part of a Western-sponsored “color revolution.” The Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) dedicated a segment of its September 3 briefing to accusing Warsaw of providing direct financial, NGO, and influence operation support to the Belarusian opposition and said Poland is “at the forefront of the EU's unfriendly policy.” The Kremlin has not previously framed Poland as the leader of Western inference in Belarus, but rather as a coconspirator along with Lithuania, Germany, the Czech Republic, the United States, Ukraine, and Canada. The Kremlin may be setting information conditions to conduct hybrid operations against Poland.

Syria Situation Report: August 19-September 1, 2020

September 4, 2020 - Press ISW

The pro-regime coalition is increasing pressure on the US presence in northeast Syria through kinetic activity targeting US forces. A Russian military police (MP) vehicle collided with a US military vehicle in northern Hasakah Province on August 25. Russia seeks to disrupt the US ground supply lines in northern Hasakah that connect US forces in Iraq and Syria. Pro-regime militias conducted two rocket and mortar attacks near a US base in eastern Deir e-Zor on August 18 and 29. The pro-regime coalition seeks to exploit security tensions in Deir e-Zor to undermine the US and its local partner’s presence along the Euphrates River.