Russian Prime Minister Visits Belarus as Crisis Deepens
The meeting takes place against the backdrop of the growing threat of a Russian intervention.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian prime minister travels to Belarus amid political crisis, U.S. slaps sanctions on International Criminal Court officials over war crimes probe, and Trump suspends aid to Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam project.
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Russia Underlines Its Support for Belarus’s Embattled President
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin travels to Belarus today amid the country’s still worsening political crisis. Mass protests have gripped Belarus since longtime President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in the presidential election on Aug. 9, despite facing massive opposition to his 26-year presidency. The security forces have since launched a brutal crackdown on protesters, and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania.
Leaning on Russia. After previously dismissing reports that he had offered Lukashenko military support, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently confirmed that a reserve police force was established and that he was prepared to send it to Belarus if Lukashenko requested it. Russian troops later joined Belarusian forces in a series of military exercises in Brest along the border with Poland.
As Tomasz Grzywaczewski wrote in Foreign Policy, Belarusian society has undergone immense social and economic change over the previous few decades, making it ripe for the sweeping political demands being made in the streets right now. Lukashenko is consequently finding himself in an increasingly untenable position, and it appears that he has come to the realization that he can only stay in power with the backing of Russian force.
Foreign interference. The crackdown on the opposition has been criticized from across the international community, and EU foreign ministers met late last month to approve a list of Belarusian government officials to be sanctioned over their involvement in election fraud. But Brussels has been reluctant to act, in part due to the looming threat of a Russian intervention.
Before offering Lukashenko military aid, Putin warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel against foreign countries “meddling” in Belarus’s internal affairs. On Wednesday, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said that Russia’s strong show of support was helping to keep outside influence out. Today’s meeting will underline the Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko.
Future meetings. Talks are expected to intensify in the coming days and weeks. Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin will travel to Moscow on Friday, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Putin would host Lukashenko “in the next couple of weeks.”
What We’re Following Today
Navalny poisoned by Novichok. On Wednesday, the German government announced that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, the same chemical used in other poisonings that have been blamed on the Kremlin. The announcement seems to confirm the suspicion that Navalny was targeted for assassination due to his opposition work.
Navalny, a prominent critic of President Putin, fell ill after campaigning in favor of opposition figures in the Siberian city of Tomsk. Blame quickly fell on the Kremlin, but Russian officials have denied all involvement in the suspected attack. Last month, Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon wrote that while the poisoning was likely the work of local politicians, Putin is not blameless because he has presided over a system in which the silencing of critics is commonplace.
U.S. sanctions ICC officials. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Wednesday that the United States is imposing sanctions on senior officials in the International Criminal Court (ICC), including its chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. The move comes amid an ICC probe into the United States over possible war crimes and crimes against humanity it committed in Afghanistan. Pompeo accused the court of “illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction.”
The ICC is charged with prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and cases of genocide. One hundred and twenty-three countries have ratified its founding statute and therefore recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction, though the United States is a notable exception and has long been critical of the body.
Intra-Afghan talks imminent. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Wednesday that his government has met all pre-conditions for the start of talks with the Taliban, namely, the release of the last of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners required by the peace deal signed between the militant group and the United States in February.
Talks were due to begin last month, but progress was stalled after the Afghan government chose to withhold the remaining 320 “hardcore” prisoners. According to an anonymous government official speaking to AFP, the government has released 200 of those prisoners, and will continue to release the remaining 120 in the coming days.
Keep an Eye On
U.S. suspends aid to Ethiopia. The United States announced on Wednesday that it is cutting $100 million in aid to Ethiopia over its decision to begin filling the controversial Renaissance Dam on one of the main tributaries of the Nile River. The move comes as Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan have been in sharp disagreement over how to manage the dam, and talks led by the African Union have so far been fruitless. The Nile supplies fresh water to both Egypt and Sudan, but the Ethiopian government has argued that damming the river is vital for its own long-term economic development.
As Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer reported last week, a decision by Washington to cut aid could negatively impact its relations with Ethiopia, one of its key security partners in the region, and for that reason the move will likely face stiff opposition in Congress.
Qatar committed to Palestinian statehood. Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani told White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner during his visit to the country that his government continues to endorse the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an implicit rebuke of both the recent Israeli-UAE peace deal and the Trump administration’s support for Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Kushner’s current Middle East tour is in part an effort to promote moves toward diplomatic normalization with Israel, following the country’s historic deal with the United Arab Emirates last month. But Tamim’s remarks suggest there is still much support for Palestinian statehood among some Arab countries.
Odds and Ends
An especially uncomfortable episode seems to have taken place behind-the-scenes of the United States’ historic summit with North Korea in Singapore in 2018. In a new book describing her tenure in the Trump administration, former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote that during a meeting between U.S. and North Korean leaders, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared to nod and wink at her.
“Kim winked at you?” Trump said when Sanders shared the incident with him. “Are you telling me Kim Jong-un hit on you!?!?” Trump, she said, then joked that “you’re going to North Korea and taking one for the team!”
That’s it for today.