Relying on Russia is not a viable plan.
Senior Fellow for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) Olga Lautman in an interview with Charter97.org assessed the likelihood of a full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine:
— If you look at the overall picture, people are focusing on beginning of November when suddenly Putin contrived this fear of NATO expansion and decided to direct attention for everyone to NATO expansion.
But if you go back, this operation has been in the planning for the past year. We saw Russia moving military equipment on Ukraine's borders last spring. They pulled back some troops, but at the same time they left their military equipment there.
And then we saw in the summer, they began with the propaganda inside Russia — starting from the top, all the way to the Russian media outlets — that Ukraine, it's not a sovereign country. Putin released an essay in Ukrainian, that "Ukrainian and Russians are one people". You have seen this operation unfolding phases.
And then you saw in late summer-fall Putin using Belarus to weaponize migrants to threaten European borders. And then after that, you saw the weaponization of energy where the prices went through the roof. And then we get back to it again: Russia begins putting troops and military equipment on Ukraine's borders surrounding Ukraine.
And to me, it's a bigger operation. When they went into the diplomacy, they didn't come in asking for fair demands. The demands were ridiculous: no one is going to go back to 1997 and tell every country who joined NATO, "Sorry, either you got to leave NATO, or we're not going to protect you." So, the demands were non-starter. Russia knew that the demands were non-starter. They probably laughed when they wrote it.
I think he was drawing out time because Putin is KGB, I think it was an operational test of the weakness of the allies to see where there is rift to split it. Which is working, for the most part alliance are United, but then you see for instance, some friends say, "We disagree with US and UK about the imminent invasion. And then Germany — look what they've been doing.
Putin has thrown a lot of noise for us but he has his strategic goals and that he has been pursuing.
— So, strategical aim is to invade Ukraine at some point, not necessarily now?
— … for over a decade. As far as "at some point" I'm not sure. If the reports are correct, they started delivering blood. Blood have an expiration date. So it can't be that far out if this is what they're doing. But at the same time they could be doing it to kind of, again, redirect our attention, so we think it's happening any moment.
— Can Moscow back off? Now, for example, in Russia they collect signatures against the war.
— I think again, it's more noise because inside of Russia for the most part, everything is controlled, the media is controlled, and Russia has taken a lot of criticism for silencing free speech. So I think here maybe something like, "Look, we are a democratic country that doesn't jail opponents and, and journalists. Look, people voice their opinion." People in Kremlin create so much noise and chaos to distract while they're still continuing with what their original aim is.
— Looking at Russian propaganda, do you see any hints that Belarusian troops will participate in the invasion?
— The risk for that is high. As far as with Russian media, they're very, very careful not to, you know, make these kinds of announcements about others. But you have Lukashenka who is a proxy right now of Putin, who is in power because of Putin. I think three times I already saw a speech on how he's going to "reunite Ukrainians and Russians and all the slavs". So, you have Lukashenka who's repeating this propaganda, so you don't need the Russians. And of course the Russians reprinted "Oh look. Belarus is in full support of Ukraine being reunited," even though Russia claims they have zero interest in it."
I've warned last summer about Belarus. When I saw how close Putin was getting with Lukashenka and how Russian agents helped Lukashenka to pull down a plane to arrest a journalist.
And then there were reports that came out that Lukashenka and Putin had discussed the migrants in May of last year — to start moving migrants in the summer to kind of threaten Lithuania and Poland. I said, this is very dangerous for Ukraine because Putin now has another military playground and he can use Belarus and Belarusian soldiers to launch an attack on Ukraine now from this entrance.
And at the same time, I was very worried about the Suwalki corridor, because the way the migrants were strategically placed, they were placed right at a location where you saw the Suwalki corridor next to it. And that would be another thing Russia would love to do is carve out [a piece of territory there] because one, it's a big problem for NATO and two, to connect Kaliningrad. So it a very, very worrying situation.
And here we are, I think there are over 30,000 Russian troops right now, inside of Belarus. I watched probably seven lines of military convoy trains, driving military equipment from Russia into Belarus in the past weeks. So it's very worrying.
And it's even bigger worrying on a bigger scale, not only for Ukraine — this is what Russia does. If they take a country hostage, they turn it into their own tool to use out all of the tactics for the hybrid warfare, like what they did when they threatened Poland and Lithuania and Germany with migrants. So right now Belarusians are silenced and they can't speak out and their country is being turned into a military base. And if they ordered to go fight, what are they going to do? They have two options: either to go fight Ukrainians or to get jailed. So it's a very troubling situation and it's not only Belarus. Putin doing the same in the Balkans, he did the same in Armenia. He tries to put his foothold in all the countries in order to pull them into his sphere of influence.
— How the West should react to the threat from Lukashenka's side?
— Right now, the only thing they can do until Lukashenka acts, it is to secure their eastern flank: to secure Poland, to secure Lithuania. When he acts, absolutely, they need to sanction him with everything that they have and use every kind of measure to go against the regime.
And my other worry right now is that Russia putting out a lot of disinformation about false flag operations is happening in Donbas where they said chemical weapons by US and Ukraine were moved in and there's threats to bomb buildings in Donbas.
What if they launch a false flag operation from Belarus and says, "Ukrainian soldiers shot into Belarus, killed the Belarusian soldier. And now we have to go in in order to protect our Belarusian brother's house."
It's a very dangerous situation. I don't think US right now should act. They should have acted for everything that Lukashenka has done: from political prisoners to weaponizing migrants, to hijacking a plane. They really should have acted stronger, but they need to keep an eye on it and make sure that they have appropriate measures to act if Belarus is used as a launching pad.
— How realistic is a scenario when Russian military remains in Belarus?
— I actually am writing an article how Belarus quietly got swallowed without even attention. Yes, there was no war because Putin has a willing participant Lukashenka who said, "You keep me in power and I'll assist you in every way."
...But this is not what the Belarusian people want. Lukashenka for years has always tried to claim some kind of independence from Russia — this one out the window. After elections and protestors came out peacefully there were a few FSB planes flew right away to help Lukashenka secure power, to stop the protest. And that's where you saw when the military was throwing grenades into Belarusians and torturing them and beating them and kidnapping them.
So, we have a country in the middle of Europe with a leader who has political prisoners, who is torturing innocent protesters for just asking for free elections and who is under the full military control of Russia.
And people haven't paid as much attention because they think, for Russia to invade a country there has to be a military conflict. Sometimes there does not. And we saw it with Kazakhstan: Russia right away sent their military, started helping watch the protesters. We heard the famous "we need to protect our Russian speakers in Kazakhstan, so we have to keep our military here". And I think somewhere along the lines, from what I heard, China stepped in and Russia quickly got out. But they came into Kazakhstan, they were gonna stay there — when Russian military arrives they don't go anywhere.
So, yes it's a very big worry.
— Are Baltic states in danger as well?
— I do believe so. I think that's why United States is keeping an eye and prepare to send soldiers. I watch - sadly for me - Russian TV and monitor their propaganda. They had one show where they show how quick they would take Lithuania and they were joking, "Are we going to keep Lithuania or should we give it to the Chinese?" So, they clearly have it in sight.
And even more worrying, they have propaganda even with Norway. In January we were seeing a similar situation with flyover and exercises. There were worries that they would cut off underwater cables. In Sweden, we saw mysterious drones pop up over the nuclear plants.
The whole region right now is at risk. Neighbors of Russia are at risk, and bigger Europe, because once you get a NATO country involved, this turns into a European war that involves United States and Canada. Strategically for military purposes I know that over a decade Russia has had their sights on the ports: Odessa, Mariupol. And that is the best case scenario (and extremely horrific scenario). They might make it look bigger and then just take, maybe Mariupol or Odessa or cut off Ukraine from the ports.
And then, I worry, Europe will say, "Thank God. This wasn't that bad," and take a sign of relief. They could create this kind of big show and then take a little chunk of sovereign territory. So that's the least deadly scenario that I see.
— Plus occupation of Belarus?
...— And occupation of Belarus. Which is unbelievable. This is happening in Europe. But at the same time I don't see Lukashenka lasts. You can not run a country like this for a very long time. The short term — yes, Belarusians are hostage. Long term — that's not a viable plan, especially for him. For Putin this is a different story. This country is essentially Soviet Union turned to Russia going back to Soviet union. It's the same Soviet mentality around it.
Here [in Belarus] at one point there is going to be something that shifts. Maybe not today-tomorrow but but soon enough. I don't see Lukashenka holding on to power. He relies strictly on Putin. If tomorrow Putin turns around, he will be dragged out the scene, like we see with every other dictator that falls.
— If to look at Putin-Lukashenka relationship through mafia lens, clearly Putin is the boss. Where is Lukashenka in that relationship?
— He is a loyal foot soldier. He has a country right now thats gifted to him. Because if Putin pulls his support today — by tomorrow you'll see Lukashenko dragged out of his house.
At the moment he's a loyal foot soldier. With Russia this is not how you exist: when Russia have all your parts you're not going to make it that long. And Putin not the most stable person, so it could be anything that happens. Or Putin can push Lukashenka to a point where even he feels hesitation because Russia now discussing moving nuclear weapons into Belarus. And there could be a point that comes and Lukashenka just not going to feel comfortable, or the people around him are just going to feel, maybe not Lukashenka, but immediate people there. If I were Lukashenka, I would not be sleeping well at night. That's not how I want to be a leader by relying on someone else.
Putin on the other hand, is in the situation where he controls everything, in his country he doesn't have to rely on anyone. He has his inner circle, and they can be always rebel, but he doesn't have to rely on anyone to make sure that tomorrow he is still the leader of the country.
So, I would not want to be Lukashenka
— Is there a political will in the West to respond to the two dictators?
— Europe and United States didn't have to get this far. And the reason we got to this point is because of the appeasement and because United States and Europe looked away and maybe punished Russia a little bit, but not strong enough.
We know who Putin is. He invaded Georgia. He committed one of the biggest cyber attacks, I guess, in Estonia. He committed atrocities inside of Syria: killing children, bombing schools, hospitals. He invaded Ukraine. [Look at] what he's doing inside of Belarus — so we know who he is.
And my recommendation inside Europe, especially Western Europe, and US, they have to start listening to Eastern Europeans more. I could have told you who Putin is when he blew apartment buildings 20 years ago.
It shouldn't be a surprise why we're here and had they listened to Eastern Europeans and their warnings and studied the hybrid warfare tactics that Putin was practicing inside of Ukraine and Belarus they would have learned a lot and we could have even potentially avoided the attacks on US elections and avoided the attacks on European elections.
It's very important to focus on that region. For example, Romania — that's a key player. Right now, Europe and US should be doing everything to build up Romania, help Romania, clean out corruption and move towards the West.
And at the same time study all the tactics of Russia. [Eastern Europe] is their playground. This is where they test everything. And then you see the cyber attacks in United States, the election interference, the propaganda, the division campaigns— this has been tried and tested in Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, the whole region.
That's my advice and they need to focus more on these threats and not let it get to this point where we have a potential for a big catastrophe.