Russian hybrid warfare – Putin strikes again. The Kremlin’s public denials that it did not see a need to assist Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko – against massive protests – appear to have been part of a disinformation operation. German newspaper Bild reports that Russian Air Force and Ministry of Internal Affairs trucks are now sending Russian National Guardsmen to Belarus.
The Institute for Study of War (ISW) notes that this Russian security force intervention into Belarus follows the defection of Belarusian Interior Ministry security elements in Grodno, near the borders of NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Moscow is “likely reacting to growing regional cracks in Lukashenko’s security services” and concern that he was losing control as his security forces sided with protesters.
ISW reports that a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)-operated Tu-214 VPU aircraft flew from Moscow to Minsk past midnight last night returning to Moscow a few hours later. This is probably FSB Director Aleksandr Bornikov’s airborne command post and would appear to show the FSB – not the Russian military – is taking the lead in this Russian intervention.
The ISW Critical Intelligence Team OSINT group also claims it “spotted more than 40 Russian unmarked trucks with soldiers inside driving toward Belarus from Smolensk” as early as August 16 – which would show Lukashenko has likely been hiding the ongoing Russian intervention. Putin probably intends to augment Lukashenko’s security forces with Russian security forces.
ISW elaborated by noting that:
Russian military police units began crowd control tactical exercises in the Western Military District on August 18 The exercises involve approximately 230 military police practicing tactics with riot gear, batons, handcuffs, stun guns, and less-lethal firearms in Luga and Mulino territorial garrisons in the Leningrad and Nizhny Novgorod oblasts, respectively and will continue until August 21.
It is unclear whether these exercises were snap or scheduled. The Kremlin has the capability to reinforce Lukashenko’s security services with Russian security personnel on short notice, just as the Kremlin likely took control of Belarusian state television.
According to ISW, Bild reported today that “Lukashenko had apparently lacked a clear strategy to deal with protests and was losing control over the situation.” Lukashenko’s spokesperson confirmed on Russian state television that Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin today began to coordinate actions under the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) accords.
Putin and Lukashenko are using the flimsy and fabricated excuse of other foreign intervention in Belarus to justify their own foreign intervention, since “foreign interference” is legal grounds for military assistance according to CSTO agreements. ISW reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said – “there is foreign interference in Belarusian internal affairs.”
Furthering the Russian disinformation effort, ISW noted that Lukashenko also mobilized Belarusian army units in western Belarus on August 18 in a “claimed response to a nonexistent NATO buildup.”
This is a dangerous and fluid situation.