The most well-known influence operations by the Kremlin are in the fields of disinformation and election interference.
Blurring the concept of truth, the tasks of journalism and turning the information field into competing narratives are the target of deliberate activities. This has been dubbed post-truth and appeared even before the Kremlin’s large-scale operations.
However, as a result of large-scale actions in the area of information, post-truth has turned out to be most closely associated with the work of Kremlin technocrats.
If we look at the history of Kremlin interference in the elections of other countries, we find that the first teams for such operations appeared immediately after the first colour revolutions.
Formally, they were engaged in ‘alternative’ election observation but in reality, they were deployed under the cover of election observation teams of technologists to export domestic Russian techniques to neighbouring countries.
The pinnacle of election intervention was the case of meddling in the US election, the methods of which are detailed in various reports.
Vulnerable to manipulations
In fact, we can say that now we are dealing with yet another phenomenon — post-elections. As a result of post-elections, the voting audience becomes engaged in a stream of confusing messages and emotional targeted influences in place of sensible, open political discussion.
Elections, as an instrument of democracy, are already going through difficult times for a number of reasons. Even in older established democracies built on the inviolability of a social contract and civil rights, societies, despite existing values, traditions, and practices, turn out to be vulnerable to various manipulations.
In the case of new democracies – countries with transitional forms of government and weakening autocracies – societies are especially vulnerable. Since the skills of political discussion are underdeveloped or lost, there are no unshakable fundamental foundations of social structure, the work of national independent media is complicated or suppressed, and civil society has limited space for action.
For Kremlin operations, this is an ideal situation and the propaganda machinery can run full steam.
The case of Belarus — landscape and scenarios
The pre-election Belarus represents precisely this kind of ideal situation. In addition to the factors listed above, Belarus is a part of the Russian-speaking universe and traditionally connected with Russia at different levels. This gives space for action to both the Russian media and the network of propaganda websites decorated as media, social media, and Telegram channels of various kinds.
Information and the public space on the eve of the election campaign were rattled by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and impending economic problems.
For those who have been watching the aggravation of “brotherly love” with Russia for the past 18-24 months amid attempts by the Kremlin to launch “deeper integration”, the intrigue of the current elections was about how the Kremlin would play in the Belarusian election field and which scenarios may be deployed here.
Expectations were fuelled by regular messages through Russian Telegram channels and media about the upcoming elections, over the course of which Belarus “does not need unnecessary shocks”.
When modelling the situation, we considered possible scenarios that could be sitting on desks in Kremlin offices and triggered by various circumstances. Among the possible scenarios:
1. A simple, easy form of ‘rocking the boat’. This would lead to a decrease in the legitimacy of the incumbent and provoke possible repressive actions. At the very least, such repressive actions would lead to another “cooling off” towards the West and, with a bit of luck, to purging civil society and media, leaving room for pro-Russian figures and narratives.
This scenario, oddly enough, has no need for an openly pro-Russian candidate. It would suffice to leave the COVID-19 crisis unaddressed or by making do with modest investments through third parties in any actions leading to moderate destabilisation. The main background would be created through actions involving information.
COVID-19 and the economic crisis would take care of the rest, evolving into a political crisis to be curbed by harsh repressions.
2. A controlled, serious version ‘rocking of the boat’ is, in reality, the creation of managed chaos. Here, the ingredients are almost the same as the goals, but the costs of rocking the boat would be much greater.
Provocateurs, mercenary agents similar to Ukrainian titushki, would be needed here to bring the situation at some point to a degree of tension such that either Minsk would have to ask Moscow for help or Moscow would help brotherly to suppress unrest.
In this situation, the incumbent stays in office but completely loses his decision-making autonomy and then “vacates” his seat in the next election. In fact, it is the Yanukovych scenario in its successful form.
The civil society and the media get completely mopped up; bang goes the Western vector. This scenario is feasible, however, only when there is the confidence that Belarusians will not resist “fraternal help” too strongly, otherwise it will turn bloody and ugly.
In a way, it is the Crimea scenario they want, not Donbas.
3. “Russian candidate”. The scenario in which one of the alternative candidates ‘takes off’ and gains popularity amid crises. Even the post-Soviet space has many examples, including those involving the Kremlin.
The fugitive Kyrgyz president Bakiev could probably tell the story here of his defeat.
In this scenario, we can outline two options:
- The candidate does not get registered and there is unrest. Then either the first or second scenario is enacted, or the situation develops towards the registration of candidates and conditionally free elections.
- The candidate gets registered and in the election receives a majority of votes in the first round or wins in the second round. This requires street pressure, support from the Kremlin, and support from some part of the security forces.
In principle, such a scenario in its opening stage does not require an agreement between the Kremlin and the candidates, and for the time being, it can unfold as the first scenario, creating room for manoeuvre.
Then, in a critical situation, explanatory-coercive negotiations are held with the candidate.
In such a situation, however, there is a serious ideological difficulty for the Kremlin, for the current Russian government supporting and recognising the ‘revolutionary’ scenario is taboo. This is owing to attitudes to the colour revolutions and because of Ukraine and its current situation.
Domestically no one dares to consider such an option. The ratings show that Russia’s ageing power vertical is far from being universally supported.
In order to use the third scenario propagandists would have to work very hard, in reality presenting Alexander Lukashenko as a ‘Maidan actor’ and a ‘Westerner’, monopolising power while the will of the people lies with a legally elected new president. The task is difficult, but not impossible.
In order to implement this scenario, one needs full confidence in controlling events during a shift in power and in honouring agreements with the candidate. One must be also completely sure that most security officials and governing elites agree with this scenario.
In short, such a scenario carries a lot of risks and costs but is not entirely impossible.
Russian media mirror of Belarusian election
Outlining the general landscape of the actions of Russian media at the onset of the election we should point out one important general detail. The current situation is unique in its own way — in fact, all Russian media are “on the side of the choice of the Belarusian people” hit by the economic and COVID-19 crises. All they need to do is just cover the campaign.
Ironically, all Russian media and public actors are playing against Lukashenko now — both the traditional ‘liberal’ opponents and those directly affiliated with the Russian vertical of state power.
It has been a safe bet that the liberal media remaining in Russia would be writing about repressions, people’s discontent, protests and the surrender of sovereignty, and doing so with a bite, causing irritation in Minsk. This situation is dangerous primarily for Russian liberals themselves and their colleagues from the Belarusian democratic arena.
Should the Kremlin greenlight the first of the scenarios the primary blame for a “disobedience festival” will be bestowed on Russian and Belarusian democrats and there is little doubt that the Kremlin, in the event of a reconciliation with Lukashenko, will frame everything as a conspiracy of “the West, Russian liberals, Russian fugitive oligarchs and the Belarusian opposition.”
There have already been the first signs of this.
What is unique is that so far there have been virtually no messages about insidious machinations of Western-oriented opposition in connection with the elections. However, this is understandable — the Russians are awarding the title of the biggest “nationalist” to Lukashenko himself.
In fact, in a number of media, we see the development of arguments to support the third scenario — namely, the transformation of Lukashenko in the eyes of at least Russian audiences into a ‘Maidan actor’ who seized and holds on to power. The imp implication is that Lukashenko’s rating is now so low that in the case of popular unrest over the elections, this would be not a colour revolution at all, but rather the will of the people who want a president who can negotiate with Moscow.
Vzglyad, which is directly connected with the Russian Presidential administration, draws a parallel between the “raiding” of Belgazprombank and the “takeover of Sberbank” in Kyiv after Maidan. Other mass media also feature ‘Maidan manuals’ in their headlines.
Like all the Kremlin’s instruments, however, this package for turning the incumbent president of Belarus into a Maidan actor pursues several goals.
In addition to preparation for a third scenario, this is also a message for Minsk on the need to curtail the Western vector and ‘Belarusisation’ if they are looking to have peaceful elections.
This theory also encompasses the idea of discontent with Lukashenko’s current policy among security officials. It is assumed that the military “will not be shielding Lukashenko from a Maidan” or even take a decisive stand in cases of crisis.
This, coupled with rumours circulated over the last year through Telegram channels about various conspiracies involving security forces, can be considered a direct threat. It is noteworthy that here the possibility of a second or third scenario is explicitly articulated.
The block of media messages associated with the main candidates is very interesting:
- Valery Tsepkalo and Victor Babaryko are candidates from the elites
- candidates have no Maidan in mind, they stand for fair elections
- candidates will be able to reach an agreement with Moscow
- Babaryko consulted with Moscow
In principle, the first three points fit into conventional blackmailing techniques and follow the messages that were promoted last year through Telegram regarding the people and elite’s discontent with Lukashenko’s policies and the Kremlin’s readiness to acknowledge this discontent all the way up to regime change in Minsk, so long as it all works out without too much hassle and bloodshed.
However, these arguments are circulated by the very same people who, according to our data, manage pro-Russian telegram channels targeting Belarus.
No preliminary agreements
The first and primary question is why would the Kremlin blow Babaryko’s cover if he really were a Russian candidate? And why this was done through Bloomberg and not through Kommersant, which is usually used stove-piping of the kind?
We have an idea who Bloomberg’s interlocutor at the Russian Presidential administration is, and this person would have to have had serious reasons for taking such action.
All in all, for us this ‘ratting out’ is proof that Babaryko did not have any preliminary agreements with Moscow, and the Russian Presidential administration was, at best, possibly considering the option of negotiating with him at subsequent stages.
The statement about consultations undermines Babaryko as an independent candidate and makes it extremely unlikely that he will make it to the elections. Did Bloomberg’s interlocutor proceed from his knowledge of the real situation and the domestic popular mood in Russia and in Belarus and it turned out that rocking the boat now was too risky?
Was it because of Babaryko’s high rating, or the unwillingness of Belarusians to accept “fraternal help” in the event the situation gets out of control? Was it because Babaryko, by not consulting with the Kremlin, proved disloyal and thus cast doubts about his willingness to negotiate?
From other sources, we know that an overly tough “Plosča 2010”-type option is not considered desirable within the Russian Presidential administration for a number of reasons.
So, why Bloomberg and then Forbes in Russian? Bloomberg is read by all whom the Kremlin targets abroad with their messages, both in Europe and in the US. Bloomberg raises no suspicion of being biased, and what is delivered through this agency has a seal of credibility.
If something needs to be reported to a serious audience about Babaryko and the Kremlin’s position on Belarus, therefore, Bloomberg is your agency.
The connection with the Kremlin is now so toxic, at least in politics, that the mere fact of consultations with the Kremlin prevents Babaryko from seeking support in the West, even if he wanted to.
Another message goes to the West: Belarus does not have a strong pro-Western candidate, so stay out. In fact, the whole situation in Belarus, according to the same individual, is the result of the “Russia-US” struggle for spheres of influence, which the Belarusian president carelessly got himself into. And here we see a combined message:
“We surrender our candidate and leave Lukashenko in for another term, but relations with the US should see no further development.”
Babaryko turns out to be a convenient casualty in the Kremlin’s games over the sovereignty of Belarus. He challenged the Russian system at all possible levels.
They just do not forgive this kind of thing. What could be done to save face for the Kremlin at this stage was done – the candidate was ‘privatised’ publicly, and at the same time was handed some trouble, according to the views of that same person from the Presidential administration.
What happens next?
So far, to be honest, there are no good scenarios for Belarus. It seems that the current leadership of Belarus is not ready to steer the country through free elections and start any handover of power. Up to now, only promises of dispersal, executions, arrests, and references to civil war have been heard.
Powering up the repressive machine will push the country into dependence on Big Brother — both economically and politically.
The purging of the civil and media spheres in the process of freezing the country would have devastating consequences — it will free space up for Russian and pro-Russian actors fed and nurtured by the Kremlin. And one should not be delusional that state-owned media and government-organized non-governmental organizations will be able to somehow resist them.
They employ the same talent that only recently laboured under the banner of the glory of the ‘union state’.
Belarusian society is now too annoyed to listen to state propaganda and follow a pre-determined course. The only possible way out is to end cautionary searches and seizures and transfer the discussions to a normal socio-political plane, minus the batons and handcuffs.
As they say, it is better to take the lid off the boiling pot than to try to hold it down with gaffer tape.