Poison, Protest and the Power of Putin - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because Russia's leader knows how to quash the opposition.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

By John McLaughlin

Taken together, the protests underway in Belarus and the poisoning of Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny — by what German doctors now say was the nerve agent Novichok — tap into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to avoid more serious challenges to his control and his regime.

It is virtually certain that Putin‘s fingerprints will never be found on the Novichok poisoning (notably, the same drug used to poison KGB spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in 2018). That’s because Putin does not need to give direct orders or sign a piece of paper when his security services and closest supporters are so sensitive to his needs and what will please him. I’m pretty certain that what is going on is a Russian version of something that in the Third Reich was called “working toward the Führer.” In other words, Hitler didn’t always have to order something directly or sign a directive. His henchmen had been around him, observed what pleased him, and knew what they could do without fear of censure and with the assurance of winking approval. So in all likelihood, the poisoners of Navalny were merely “working toward Putin.”

Navalny has been the most persistent outspoken opponent of Putin and his party, United Russia, which Navalny in 2011 labeled the party of “Crooks and Liars.” He helped rouse voters against Putin that year in unprecedentedly large protests against election fraud. He has challenged Putin allies in elections, running against Putin’s candidate for Moscow mayor in 2013, winning 27 percent and claiming fraud again. Navalny, moreover, has mobilized social media against Putin more effectively than any other opposition figure — and the regime has been unable to silence him by previous intimidations that have included physical attacks and jailings. 

This connects to Belarus insofar as events there make Putin even more sensitive to opposition in his own country. Belarus, unlike most in the region, is so culturally, linguistically and socially similar to Russia — essentially a mirror of Putin’s own country — that any progress toward a more open, less authoritarian society there could make Russians hungrier for the same. This was also a factor in Putin’s effort to destabilize and sow division in Ukraine, the region’s largest non-Russian Slavic country, which most Russians view as seamlessly connected to them.

Another motivation in both Belarus and Ukraine is a Russian concern about either of them drifting westward politically. This was a more acute and immediate problem in Ukraine, which at the time of Putin’s invasion was talking to the European Union about a possible association agreement. Belarus is nowhere near that, but if President Lukashenko was overthrown, new elections held and a new democratic constitution written — and if this endured for very long — the likelihood of an approach to the European Union would grow. At that point, a desire for NATO membership could even be conceivable, and this would probably be endorsed by Belarus’ contiguous NATO members: Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. If this eventually came about, it would add a sixth NATO country to the five already bordering Russia (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway and Poland).

Adding to Putin’s concerns is that he is already experiencing more protest at home, particularly in the Far East, where people are upset by the dismissal of a popular leader. Putin has also seen a striking drop in his popularity — from 85 percent five years ago to 59 percent this spring; young people aged 18-24 are particularly critical, with only 10 percent saying they trust him.

What does this mean for Belarus?

As Lukashenko’s power has weakened, Putin has become the most important player in Belarus. He will do what is necessary to ensure that Belarus does not turn into the kind of society that Russians might envy. He will try to avoid using his military for an overt intervention, fearful that this would provoke another round of Western sanctions. More likely is an infiltration of Belarusian institutions by his security services or their surrogates in an effort to exert indirect control and ensure that Minsk policies and pronouncements channel through the Kremlin. And he always has the option of infiltrating operatives in unmarked uniforms as he did in Crimea to help quell protests. In such efforts, Russia is unlikely to encounter resistance from the Belarus security apparatus, which probably views its interests and future tied to maintenance of tight central control.

While Putin will prop up Lukashenko, he would sacrifice him in a minute if he thought this would facilitate calm without fundamentally changing Belarusian dynamics. Russian officials have already hinted at support for some kind of referendum and new elections — things they could ultimately endorse, in the expectation of stage-managing them, if they concluded it was the only way to avoid the opposition seizing control through protests.

In this, they would be helped by the unfocused nature of the opposition. Despite the passion, persistence and courage of regime opponents, they do not seem to have an undisputed, widely accepted leader, although former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, now in Lithuania, has been the most prominent spokesman.

There is greater clarity about what they want to be rid of — Lukashenko — than about future goals and strategy beyond Lukashenko’s departure, release of political prisoners and new elections. And Tsikhanouskaya, in her latest statements, has stopped short of asking for any Western support, and nothing she says yet has an anti-Russian cast. Not only are there significant ties between Russian and Belarusian people, but Belarus is totally dependent on Russia for its energy needs, which drives a sizable proportion of its GDP.

Finally, when Putin looks over his shoulder at the Russian elite that supports him, he must wonder if they — watching what is happening in Belarus — may be having second thoughts about having endorsed his constitutional changes to stay in power until 2036. And they might be. Which is another reason for Putin to find some way to bring Belarusian protests to a peaceful end, with or without Lukashenko.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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