The Institute for the Study of War is launching a series of papers that explores the ways the United States, its competitors including Russia and China, and these and other potential adversaries are learning from ongoing geopolitical competition and military engagements. The series explores the ways these evolutions in the operating environment provide opportunities for experimentation and testing of new technologies, capabilities, and approaches to war. The papers explore organizational adaptations to incorporate new capabilities, doctrinal changes to harness them, and the ability to institutionalize these changes in ways that will shape the future of war.
5:00 pm EDT: Moscow has modified the prescheduled Slavic Brotherhood military exercises in Belarus to demonstrate its ability to deploy forces to Belarus on short notice. Elements of Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division arrived in Belarus for the Slavic Brotherhood 2020 exercises on September 15. Russia has not deployed significant conventional forces to Belarus since the start of protests on August 9. The number of Russian troops in the exercises is unclear.
Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Softens His Opposition to Protests, Seeking Leverage against Increased Russian PressureSeptember 14, 2020 - Press ISW
6:00 pm EDT: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on September 14. Putin and Lukashenko made initial public remarks before meeting privately for nearly four hours. Lukashenko has not traveled outside Belarus or met Putin in person since the August 9 election but has held several calls with Putin and hosted Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in Minsk on September 3. Lukashenko sharply changed his framing to tacitly accept continued weekly protests but retained the threat of violence against protesters in response to an unspecified “red line.” Lukashenko markedly changed his framing of ongoing protests to downplay their threat in his public remarks. Lukashenko stated that Belarusians “live an ordinary life” on weekdays and claimed that on Saturday and Sunday “we release a part of Minsk so that people can, if they wish, walk through this part.”
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.
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.
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.
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 OperationSeptember 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.
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 ContinueSeptember 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.