German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Moscow has nurtured hopes that Russia might ultimately choose diplomacy over war with Ukraine.
His visit was accompanied by Russian government announcements that some of the military maneuvers in Belarus and Crimea were approaching their end and that there would be a partial withdrawal of troops. So far, there has been troop movement, but no verified and significant troop withdrawal.
On the same day as the press conference by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Scholz, U.S. President Joe Biden issued a strongly worded message, followed by a similar NATO statement, that the risk of war on the Russian-Ukrainian border remains a real possibility.
At this point, Putin is simply expanding his range of options, thereby moving the conflict into a new phase. Pressure on Ukraine and, by extension, the West, can easily be turned up or down. Most importantly, Putin has reinforced the uncertainty about what he may or may not do next, which has been part of his strategy all along.
While the focus has been on the likelihood of a large-scale invasion into Ukraine, other developments in and around Russia have not attracted as much international attention as they should.
Among them is the new trial of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny that started on Tuesday, February 16—the day of the German chancellor’s visit to Moscow. If found guilty, Navalny could face an additional ten years in prison. The case signals Putin’s resolve to use Navalny as an example to deter opposition.
Also on the day of Scholz’s visit, the Russian Duma passed a resolution asking Putin to recognize the independence of the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two territories Russia has militarily and financially supported since the beginning of the war in Donbas, which followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
This call had occasionally come up in the Russian political discourse, but has now been formalized into a resolution tabled by the Communist Party.
In Russia’s political system, the parliament is a weak institution as compared to the president, and the systemic opposition parties have no space for independent initiatives. This resolution, which is not binding and therefore best understood as a publicly visible appeal to the president, is bound to have been orchestrated by the Kremlin in order to add to the uncertainty about Russia’s next steps in a highly volatile situation and plant an idea that can be acted upon later.
The recognition of the independence of the two entities would mark the beginning of their formal or informal integration into the Russian Federation. Putin is unlikely to act on this resolution at this point, as this would completely derail the Minsk process, which Putin himself emphasized as one important avenue for further negotiations during his press conference with Scholz.
In the shadow of recent events, Belarus has all but disappeared from European news.
Despite long-lasting mass mobilization in the second half of 2020, Alexander Lukashenko has clung to power thanks to a loyal security elite and Russia’s economic and political support.
The political opposition remains, for the most part, in prison or in exile. An online survey conducted by the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) asked the same people in December 2020 and June 2021 and found persistent low trust in Lukashenko and all political institutions and organizations.
Among the perceived ways out of the domestic crisis, constitutional reforms ranked high on the list (after a rerun of the presidential election). The only concession Lukashenko has been willing to make beyond accepting a much larger role by Russia in Belarus, is a tightly controlled constitutional reform.
For a long time, it was unclear whether a new constitution would actually emerge and whether the previously announced referendum on the new constitution would take place.
On February 22–27, Belarusian citizens will be asked to vote on the amended constitution. Staging a referendum of this type is a typical tool employed by authoritarian rulers intent on prolonging their term in office.
Similar to the Russian constitutional reform in 2020, the new Belarusian constitution strengthens presidential powers, allows Lukashenko to run for office for two new terms, elevates the status of the amorphous All-Belarusian People’s Assembly and thereby further downgrades parliament. It also drops the commitment to Belarusian neutrality and thereby enables further integration with Russia.
The referendum will be carefully managed to produce the right result, even if turnout is low or voters spoil their ballot, as opposition leader in exile, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has called for.
The constitutional reform might temporarily paper over the cracks in state-societal relations but is unlikely to generate genuine popular support. The critical questions in the short-term are whether—or rather how many—Russian troops will be stationed in Belarus after the end of the current maneuvers, and how quickly Belarus might integrate with Russia.
A lot is happening at the moment that slips under the radar, while Putin continues to focus on the preservation of his system by means of Russian domestic and foreign policy. For the time being, he has successfully expanded his range of options, and leaves Ukraine and the West guessing, all while drawing attention away from other critical developments.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.