Belarus Provides a Model for Putin in Ukraine

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BERLIN — A pro-Russian authoritarian regime devoid of popular consent that only holds power with the support of Moscow and rules with an iron first? Vladimir Putin’s possible plans for Ukraine, following a massive invasion launched in the early hours of today (February 24), could resemble the way Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for the past two years.

Western intelligence services believe that Putin intends to overthrow the democratic government of Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, replacing it with a pro-Moscow puppet regime. Although he will have to fight hard for Ukraine, he may well win a military victory. Yet victory on the battlefield will only be the beginning, if the plan is to conquer and hold the whole land. Next will come the delicate task of governing a hostile population of more than 40 million people.

Any Russian-backed Ukrainian client state would face immense popular resistance across the country, from the Russian-speaking east to the Ukrainian-speaking west. At least initially, it would take significant support from Moscow to maintain its grip on power and contain a partisan anti-Russian movement. The solution can be found in the methods pioneered in Lukashenko’s Belarus.

Since protests over the results of a 2020 election that Lukashenko is widely believed to have rigged, Belarus has become a quasi-totalitarian regime. The anti-government protest is harshly repressed; dissidents are kidnapped abroad; opposition politicians are imprisoned. Civil society organizations and political freedoms are virtually non-existent.

“Belarus today shows that it is possible to control a country only through harsh repression,” said Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarusian journalist who has been a strong critic of Lukashenko’s government. “If anything, Belarus over the past year and a half has shown Putin that something similar can be done with Ukraine.”

Russia will be required to maintain a military occupation of the territories it chooses to conquer for months or years until it has purged and restructured the Ukrainian government. If he ever hopes to lift his occupation, which will prove costly in both blood and money, he will need to be sure that the new collaborationist authorities can contain the inevitable popular anti-Russian sentiment and likely partisan movement. This will involve a massive crackdown and purges of officials loyal to Ukraine at all levels, as well as a harsh crackdown on dissent.

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Ukraine will probably not be fully sovereign as long as it remains a puppet state. The Russian regime could consider being directly involved in the management of the country for years to come. And even though Ukraine is ruled by collaborationist authorities rather than Russia itself, the precedent set by today’s invasion is unequivocal: stepping out of line will result in Russian tanks in the streets of Kyiv.

As historian Serhii Plokhy told me this month, Ukraine cannot be both a democracy and pro-Russian. The Ukrainian population is so hostile to Moscow that any government leaning towards friendly relations with Russia could not long survive in power if it relied on popular consent. This was true before the war, but it will be even more so after Russia’s unprovoked invasion, which is unlikely to win the popular support of the Ukrainian people.

The Ukraine that Russia may be planning to create will then not resemble modern Russia, or even the Ukraine before the 2014 Maidan revolution, both of which retained vestiges of opposition politics. and certain political freedoms. Rather, it might look more like Belarus – at home a government without popular support that maintains power with authoritarian methods, abroad a regime totally subservient to Russia in geopolitical and economic terms.

[See also: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything]

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