Authoritarian Statecraft in Belarus and Russia: Difference of Responsibility Deniability Approach

  • Danila Naumov
  • 27.5.2021 13:16

The recent Belarus Ryanair plane hijacking was an audacious act against international law. However, what followed were grotesque deniability and excuses that even the Kremlin does not use in its anti-western narratives.

On Sunday, 23rd of May, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair plane to be intercepted and grounded in Belarus. The plane was scheduled to land in Lithuania, but a Belarusian fighter jet escorted the plane to land in Minsk instead. After a brief delay, the flight continued as originally planned, however, several people left the plane. 

Using force, Roman Protasevich, a prominent opposition member in Belarus, was dragged away together with his partner, as they were travelling from Greece. It is not expected that anything would have happened to the plane, had the pilot not decided to heed the threats, however, from the standpoint of professionalism it was the correct decision to land the plane as ordered.
 

Belarus Excuses for the Breach of International Law 

While it is evident that Lukashenko wanted the plane in Minks to detain a high-profile opposition member, by doing so Belarus opened a political pandora’s box. Such an infringement on the rights and security of companies and foreign nationals will always create a tremendous backlash from the international community. This is why it is important to find a believable justification for this transgression, to make it more of an inevitability, a functional necessity rather than an authoritarian whim.      

However, without the Russian know-how for disseminating disinformation and carefully building excuses, Lukashenko has come up with the most grotesque narratives. The official excuse used for hijacking the plane was that the Minsk airport received an e-mail about a bombing threat. As later claimed by the Belarus government, Hamas, in a bid to prevent continued EU support for the Israeli state, made a threat against the Ryanair plane, and Belarus was forced to act on it. 

It was only a coincidence that in the very same plane there was a high-profile opposition member, his girlfriend and, presumably, several Russian agents who also left the plane, despite Minsk not being the flight’s destination. Several days later, however, on Wednesday, Lukashenko challenged his own limits and officially claimed that the bombing threat came from Switzerland. This was done in an attempt to shift the blame away from Lukashenko’s regime - making it an issue of terrorism rather than internal Belarus power-struggle - without any regard to how grotesque these claims are.

 

"Despite being tied to the Kremlin, now closer than ever, Lukashenko still fails to learn the tricks of deniability trade that Russia has perfected over the years."

Regardless of Russian involvement, the whole incident shows Lukashenko’s incompetence in handling the international scandal. To the point that Hamas, in an official statement, rejected any involvement with this case. Despite being tied to the Kremlin, now closer than ever, Lukashenko still fails to learn the tricks of deniability trade that Russia has perfected over the years. Reasons for it are numerous, but the most prominent being that no one really cared for Belarus before. Until the protests and unrest in Belarus began in August 2020, Lukashenko kept a rather low profile, at least in western media.

Since then, however, Lukashenko is feeling increasingly insecure and is willing to commit himself to drastic measures to retain control of the country. Russia is the only neighbour that is willing to help him, in exchange for loyalty to the Kremlin. Despite Lukashenko’s previous willingness to cooperate and integrate with Europe, staying in power takes priority and he sees no other choice but to join Russia. However, without prior experience and knowledge in international scandals functionaries, Belarus is levels beneath Russia when it comes to justifying its own escapades that endanger foreign nationals. 

Russian Sophisticated Know-How vs Belarus Brute Functionalism

Lukashenko is desperate but lacks human resources that can help the incumbent Belarus government to mitigate the blame and manage the ensuing crisis. It can be said that Lukashenko is still living in a long gone Soviet world, where governmentality meant policing and threats, as well as enemy-labeling.

Lukashenko has long assumed the role of a strong male chief (he has dismissed women as presidents as “too fragile”, which appeals to the mentality of his core supporters, as well as to the image of a powerful men-led state), who guards the nation with cohorts of loyal “militia” (police is still called the same way as it was during the Soviet era). Moreover, he himself has posed with an assault rifle, the iconic AK-47, in a symbolic display of masculinity and that he will fight tooth and nail for his position as the authoritarian leader.

 

"The brute force tactic has served Lukashenko well in domestic politics where he can control the media and detain any critics, but is now showing its obvious limitations for international affairs."

Unlike Putin, whose image is that of a strong, yet also shrewd political leader, Lukashenko lacks any intelligence appeal. His methods of staying in power are crude, they leave a tremendous amount of traces. This brute force tactic has served him well in domestic politics where he can control the media and detain any critics, but is now showing its obvious limitations for international affairs.

Despite Russia lending advisors to Belarus, it seems that they are yet to teach their Belarus counterparts how to efficiently shield themselves from foreign discontent and how to fabricate convenient evidence. The idea to intercept the plane is primitive and can be done in five minutes - from order to sortie - but as is evident from the aftermath, there has been next to no effort in devising damage control of what will come next.

Russia approaches its scandals with more care and thoughtfulness. As seen from the recent Vrbetice ammo-depot explosion in the Czech Republic, Russia did not only deny its involvement (which is effective in this case, as there is no publicly available evidence and overall the scope of the spy operation made it harder to trace), it shifted the blame towards the Czech Republic, its accuser. The Czech Republic is a unique case, but the mechanisms through which Russian operates when it comes to foreign pressure are well observable. 

The Kremlin claimed Czechs to be making up false accusations on the orders of the U.S. and EU (blame shifting and agency denial), but it was also empowered by the Czech president, Milos Zeman, who produced conflicting claims on the case, sabotaging the official investigation conclusions. This allowed Russia to present the whole case to the public as an internal Czech fabrication that was used for political gains in the Czech Republic, and had nothing to do with Russian involvement - painting itself as a target of scapegoating. Indeed, the number of controversial statements diluted the narrative and allowed many countries to maintain neutrality, rather than act on solidarity, as many claims had to be confirmed and investigated first.

 

"Russia does not only prey on the fears of its own citizens, it also foments unrest in foreign populations that are discontent with their own governments and societies."

While Russia does also inflict grievances on foreign nations, it always paints itself either as a defender of the people which is a centuries old trick that dragged Russia into WWI, and in this case Russia justifies its activities in Donbass as the need to defend its people, or it portrays itself as a victim of anti-Russian policies by the West. The Kremlin has competent, intelligent people working on its image as a bastion of truth, defending against the ever present threat from the West. This is supported by strong ecosystems of media that create and distribute the narrative both domestically and externally.

Russia does not only prey on the fears of its own citizens, it also foments unrest in foreign populations that are discontent with their own governments and societies. In comparison, Lukashenko cannot turn his “enemies” against themselves - he has never done that before. All this “active international condemnation” is extremely new to him, and with the hijacking he has shot himself and Belarus business in the foot. Granted he is still in power, his blatantly false narratives may dominate within Belarus. But, it will take years for him to cultivate a sophisticated deniability approach and bid farewell to grotesque, surreal methods that he believes others will find justified.

About author: Danila Naumov

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