“Eastern Europe Geopolitical Watch – From January 15 to January 21, 2022”

The Eastern Europe Geopolitical Watch team: Clelia Frouté, Khava Doudoucheva

01/15-16/2022: Belarusian intelligence services accused by Serhiy Demedyuk, Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, of causing a cyber-attack in Ukraine. (Clelia Frouté)

On January 15, Serhiy Demedyuk, Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, said that the cyber-attack that occurred on Friday, January 14, that paralyzed dozens of official sites in Ukraine would be linked to the Belarusian secret services. Indeed, the hacker group «UNC 1151», to which the cyber-attack using malware would be attributed, would be linked to the Belarusian secret services and would have already been involved in attacks in Poland and the Baltic countries. The use of malware has already been attributed to similar groups linked to the Russian secret services. According to Serhiy Demedyuk, the blocking of sites is only a «cover» tactic to allow the piracy of «behind-the-scenes» interfaces with more serious consequences, which can be observed in the «near future». These statements followed a first which called into question a probable Russian involvement.

01/19/2022: Petro Poroshenko prosecuted by Ukrainian courts for high treason (Khava Doudoucheva)

On January 19, the Ukrainian justice announced its decision on the case of former president Petro Poroshenko: he will be kept free with a ban on leaving the country. He is accused of high treason for having helped supply Ukraine with coal in 2014-2015, coming from the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, which are pro-Russian separatist areas of Ukraine, at war with Kiev.

He had fled the country, following a summons he received to answer the charge of high treason, in December 2021. On January 17, he finally returned to Kiev and attended the hearing of the court in Pertcheski which was to decide on his sentence. The decision announced by Judge Oleksiï Sokolov is far from the prosecutor’s request, who wanted Petro Poroshenko to be sent to prison for two months with the possibility of bail, in the amount of one billion Hryvnia (31 million euros), with the obligation to wear an electronic bracelet as well as a ban on leaving the country.

20/01/2022: Antony Blinken visits Berlin to discuss Ukraine (Khava Doudoucheva)

After visiting Kiev, the US Secretary of State travelled to Berlin on January 20, to secure European support and discuss diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. The deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border raises fears of an invasion. Antony Blinken says that opposition to these Russian actions is all the more important because they would derogate from Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, and would “take us back to a far more dangerous and unstable time, when this continent was divided in two, (…) with the threat of all-out war hanging over everyone’s head”. If Russia crossed the Ukrainian border, Blinken warned that there would be a “swift and severe” response. But he said that, for the moment, the only way forward was through dialogue and he still hoped to find a diplomatic way out of the tensions. His German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, said that any aggression by Russia towards Ukraine would have “economic, political and strategic consequences”.

01/20/2022: After further investigation, the United States accuses Belarusian officials of piracy for having forced the Boeing 737-800, on which dissident Roman Protasevich was on board, to land. (Clelia Frouté)

On January 20, 2022, US prosecutors charged four Belarusian officials with conspiracy to commit plane hijacking, following sanctions imposed in Belarus since May 2021 after the hijacking of the Ryanair Boeing 737-800, in which political dissident Roman Protasevich was on board, and forced him to land under the pretext of a bomb threat. The accused are Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Director General of the Air Navigation Authority of the State of Belarus, his deputy, Oleg Kazyuchits, and security service agents Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu. They are accused of conspiring to simulate a bomb threat to justify the landing of Ryanair flight 4978 in order to arrest Belarusian journalist and political dissident Roman Protasevich. According to the prosecutors in the case, Churo is alleged to have communicated the false bomb threat to the personnel of the Minsk air traffic control centre, that before take-off-even of the flight, and Fnu Lnu allegedly participated in the effort and communicated updates to Andrey Anatolievich Lnu. Oleg Kazyuchits reportedly ordered the air traffic authorities to falsify evidence that the bomb threat was a hoax, which was described as an “effort to cover up the incident”.

This hijacking had provoked unprecedented reactions in the West, particularly in Poland where Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called it an “unprecedented act of state terrorism”. Following his arrest, Protasevitch and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega had made a public mea culpa, confessing their guilt in the opposition demonstrations, apparently under duress from the authorities.

01/20-21/2022: Details on the forthcoming referendum in the Republic of Belarus, finally scheduled for 27 February 2022 (Clelia Frouté)

On January 20, 2022, Aleksandr Lukashenko signed the Presidential Decree No. 14 “On the convocation of a national referendum”, according to the press service of the Head of State of Belarus. Thus, the national referendum on amendments and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus will be held on February 27, 2022. The referendum question that will be asked on the ballot was written in the decree, “Do you accept the amendments and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus?”. The decision adopted by national referendum will enter into force 10 days after the official publication, in accordance with the Belarusian Electoral Code. The referendum is organised by the Central Electoral Commission, which will summarise the results and ensure that it runs smoothly.

One of the amendments concerns presidential terms, which would be limited to two five-year terms, but which would only come into effect once a new president is elected. This new constitutional measure would allow Lukachenko to run for two more terms after the current one expires in 2025, which would keep him in power until 2035. He would also gain immunity from prosecution. Amendments concern the powers of the Belarusian People’s Assembly, a body supposed to represent a large part of Belarusian society, but which, until now, was taking form into a gathering of government supporters and that does not have a proper status to govern under the law in force. The bill would provide for a law to revise the method of electing delegates to the Assembly, and the Assembly would be empowered to implement policy directives, draft laws, suggest constitutional changes, to elect members of the Central Electoral Commission and judges of the highest Belarusian courts, but also to deploy troops abroad under presidential decision. The President of the Republic of Belarus would automatically become a delegate of the Assembly and be authorised to preside over it. This review would therefore strengthen the powers of the Assembly by extending its powers to include foreign, security and economic policies, while weakening those of the Parliament which should operate in parallel with this new body. The amendments remove the “neutrality clauses” and the “non-nuclear status” of Belarus. Approval of the amendments requires 50% support from the vote and 50% national voter turnout.

The referendum in question is being proposed in a context of high military tension and in response to the «colour revolution» which has shaken the country, which is the subject of strong repression and led to a wave of exile from the opposition. Alexander Lukashenko has decided to implement all his deterrent forces jointly with Russia.  The Belarusian president declared himself ready to host Russian nuclear weapons if NATO were to decide to move American atomic bombs from Germany to Eastern Europe, which does not end up making the West react when already plagued by anguish with the Ukrainian affair. Sviatlana Tsikhanouvskaia, leader of the opposition in exile and former presidential candidate against Alexander Lukashenko in the last elections, told the Associated Press that any supporter of the opposition should make his ballot invalid by annotations. One of the amendments would directly target her with the prohibition of running as a candidate in a Belarusian presidential election if a departure, even temporary, of the country was to be observed in the last 20 years. Alexander Lukashenko told the press on January 21, that only war could prevent this referendum on constitutional amendments.

01/21-23/2022: Start of operations in the framework of the joint exercise “Union Resolve 2022” of the States of the Union of Russia and Belarus (Clelia Frouté)

On January 22, 2022, the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation announced the start of the deployment of the Russian SU-35 fighters to the Republic of Belarus as part of their participation in the joint exercise “Union Resolve 2022”. It is specified that the manoeuvre aims to verify the reaction forces of the States of the Union (Union of Russia and Belarus). The SU-35 fighter crews left the Eastern Military District on January, 23 2022 in the direction of the Belarusian territory.

According to the ministry, in the framework of these joint exercises, the fighters will have to practice flights at maximum distance, practice landing on Belarusian airfields and take off repeatedly. Tests of the military reaction forces of the Union States are planned in two stages. The first is expected to last until February 9, and should result in a grouping of troops on Belarusian territory. The tests also aim at the protection of official infrastructures, of strategic military bases, to air defence on the Belarusian borders by checking the capabilities of the air forces. The second phase, called “Union Resolve 2022”, will take place from February 10 to 20, and will consist of a joint exercise of the forces of the Union States in demonstrating the capabilities to repel external aggression. The objectives of counter-terrorism were also cited.

On January 21, Russia also sent two battalions of S-400 Trimf surface-to-air missile systems from the Eastern Military District to the Republic of Belarus, to test the state of readiness of the air defence system of the Member States of the Union through simulations. These simulations will take place during the second phase of the joint training called “Union Resolve 2022”.

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