Russian-Ukrainian war: “Peacekeeper” Lukashenko and Another Nuclear Blackmail From the “Civilization State”

The situation at the front

The Bakhmut and Avdiivka sectors of the front are by far one of the most difficult. At present, about 65% of the territory of Bakhmut is occupied by Russians. There’s fighting in urban areas. However, the city’s supply lines are working, so the Ukrainian units operating there have the opportunity to continue the defense. The Russians are trying to squeeze in from the north, south, and west, but their advance is very slow and is accompanied by significant losses. In recent days, Ukrainian units have repulsed several Russian attempts to advance into the city center, as well as attacks on Khromove and Ivanivske. Ukrainian counterattacks in Ivanivske could push the Russians away from the Konstantynivka-Bakhmut highway.

It is worth mentioning that during the battles for Bakhmut, the Russians continue to disperse their forces, which reduces their offensive potential. This may indicate either that they are counting on reserves, or a low level of planning for operations. It should also be noted that due to the inability to timely compensate for losses and restore the combat capability of the Wagner Group, units of the Russian Airborne Forces began to appear more often in the battles for Bakhmut. This once again confirms the fact of Wagner’s critical losses, as well as the lack of a real opportunity for this PMC to replenish its human resource without involving prisoners.

As for Avdiivka, the Russians are trying to encircle it in the same way they tried to do it near Bakhmut. The Russians, on the one hand, are advancing from Opytne and Vodyane in the direction of Orlivka, and on the other hand, they are trying to move further from Krasnohorivka. At the same time, despite their activity, Russians are exhausting their offensive potential in this area. And even if they bring up reserves, this will not change the situation much, because the scenario that took place near Bakhmut, where Russian attacks were stopped by Ukrainian artillery strikes, may be repeated.

Another important sector is Vuhledar. The fighting there does not stop but has become less intense. After the failure of massive attacks involving armored vehicles, when the Russians suffered significant losses in manpower and equipment, they switched to the tactics of attacking separate Ukrainian positions in and around the city. However, they are less ambitious when compared with the previous ones. One of the reasons for the failure of the Russians near Vuhledar is that they do not have enough mine cleaning capacity. The well-organized system of the Ukrainian defense of Vuhledar leads to the fact that a significant part of the Russian equipment is lost in the minefields.

However, Ukrainian forces expect the Russians to activate in the area of Vuhledar. The plans of the Russians remain unchanged: to regroup and again try to push Ukrainian units deep into Ukrainian territory as far as possible from the transport routes that cross the occupied southern regions. In turn, for the Ukrainian forces, the retention of Vuhledar is also important, in particular, because one of the shortest directions to the coast of the Sea of Azov goes from it.

“Peacemaker” Lukashenko

The news: On March 31, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko proposed to declare a truce in Ukraine and called the planned Ukrainian counter-offensive extremely dangerous under these conditions. “We must stop now before an escalation begins. I’ll take the risk of suggesting an end of hostilities … a declaration of a truce. Yes, many now, especially in Russia, can tell me: “Well, we already stopped in Donbas then.” But now the situation is different. We need to stop hostilities,” Lukashenko said.

He proposed declaring a truce “without the right to move, regroup troops, without the right to transfer weapons, ammunition, manpower, and equipment.”

At the same time, he noted that “if the West once again tries to use the pause in hostilities to strengthen its actions by deception, Russia is obliged to use all the power of the military industry and the army to prevent the escalation of the conflict: and phosphorous ammunition, and depleted uranium, and enriched uranium, if there is deception again.”

Lukashenko also stressed that it would not be possible to defeat Russia. “It is impossible to defeat a nuclear state. If the Russian leadership feels that the situation threatens the disintegration of Russia, the most terrible weapons will be used. This cannot be allowed,” Lukashenko said.

What they said: Moscow immediately reacted to Minsk’s proposals. Press Secretary of Russian President Dmitry Peskov promised that Lukashenko would be able to discuss his proposals with President Putin next week before a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State.

In turn, Kyiv noted that the end of the war is impossible without the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine. According to Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, proposals for a “ceasefire” during the Russian aggression suggest that Russia will try to stay in the occupied part of Ukraine. “Any ceasefire will mean (Russia’s) right to stay in the occupied territories. This is inadmissible. Ukraine has the right to move troops and equipment on its territory as it deems necessary. Weird “peacekeepers” look ridiculous,” Podolyak wrote to his Twitter.

Why it’s important: It is unlikely that Lukashenko came up with his “peace” initiatives on his own without prior approval from the Kremlin.

His words about the need for negotiations, on the one hand, show that things are going very badly for Putin’s “SMO”, and on the other hand, they reveal the Kremlin’s plans: to prevent a Ukrainian counter-offensive operation by any means. In essence, the Kremlin’s message, conveyed by Lukashenko, sounds like this: a cessation of hostilities with Russia fixing its gains, or nuclear escalation.

The threat of a nuclear strike as part of Lukashenko’s peace initiatives indicates that the Kremlin is panicky about the consequences of a future Ukrainian counter-offensive and the next liberation of the territories occupied by the Russians. Putin understands that he cannot prevent this with his army, so he uses his last trump card – nuclear blackmail and manipulation of “peaceful” initiatives. At the same time, in order not to demonstrate his weakness, he uses his closest allies as “peacekeepers”.

Nuclear weapons in Belarus

The news: On March 25, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and that the construction of a storage facility for them would be completed by July 1.

According to the Russian president, the decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus was finally taken after the UK announced its intention to provide Ukraine with depleted uranium munition. The Russian president also referred to the fact that the United States is deploying its nuclear weapons in several European countries.

Why it’s important: The Russian President’s statement says that a permanent Russian military base will be located on the territory of Belarus. The Kremlin’s promises to teach the local military to operate and use these weapons are nothing more than a propaganda maneuver designed for the domestic Belarusian audience. In fact, no one will transfer nuclear weapons to Belarusians. It will be under the control of the Russian military.

Understanding the weakness of Lukashenko’s position, Putin is trying to tie Belarus more strongly to Russia, making it even more difficult for the Belarusian regime to maneuver between the West and China.

The deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is a deliberate violation by the Kremlin of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to raise the stakes yet again. But this is being done not so much in the war with Ukraine but in the confrontation with the EU and the USA. By and large, with this step, the Kremlin invites them to consultations, which, according to Putin’s plan, based on the date he announced for the commissioning of a nuclear facility in Belarus, should take place before July 1. Otherwise, Putin hints, after July 1, uncertainty will follow.

De facto, Putin is staking everything. This is perhaps his last desperate attempt to intimidate the West and force it to the “exchange”: the non-use of nuclear weapons for freezing the war. Such an exchange is seen by him as the only way for Russia to avoid a military defeat and all subsequent negative consequences for his regime.

However, by raising the stakes with his nuclear blackmail, Putin, who has the status of a war criminal, consciously or not, makes himself even more incapable of negotiating and resigns his negotiating powers to his “big brother” Xi Jinping. In other words, by deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus, Putin is pushing the West not so much to talk to him as to talk to Beijing.

A new concept of Russia’s foreign policy

The news: On March 31, Vladimir Putin announced at a meeting of the Security Council that he had signed a decree on a new concept of foreign policy. He called it a “balanced document” that will form the basis of Russia’s practical actions in the medium and longer term.

Details: The concept, in particular, says that “Russia defines itself as a stronghold of the Russian world and an original civilization state that maintains global balance.” Russia is defined as an original civilization state, whose place in the world is determined, among other things, by the presence of significant resources, the status of a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the fact that it is one of the two largest nuclear powers, etc.

Other provisions of the concept:

– strategic security is undermined, and the risks of clashes between major states (including nuclear powers) are increasing. Western countries unleashed a new type of hybrid war against Russia. At the same time, Russia does not consider itself an enemy of the West and does not isolate itself from it;

– Russia is counting on the West’s realization of the futility of confrontation and a return to equal interaction;

– Russia considers the US course as the main source of risks to its security and international peace;

– Russia considers Islamic civilization friendly and will strengthen comprehensive mutually beneficial cooperation with it, as well as with China, India, and Latin American countries;

 – Threats to Russia’s security from “unfriendly” countries are “existential”;

– in the case when unfriendly actions of foreign states threaten the sovereignty of Russia, it can take symmetric and asymmetric measures to suppress such unfriendly actions, as well as to prevent their recurrence. Also, Russia can use the armed forces to repel and prevent an armed attack on itself and its allies.

Why it’s important: The new concept of Russia’s foreign policy is a document designed only for the domestic Russian consumer. Russia has big problems both within the country, in the war against Ukraine, and international relations. And to divert the Russians’ attention from these problems, the Kremlin resorts to the old and tested method: giving them a sweet “pill of greatness”. That is, it inspires them that they are citizens of a state that is still a global force and can determine the fate of the world.

The mention in the concept that the confrontation with the West is existential, but at the same time that the West, except for the United States and Great Britain, is not an enemy, suggests that the Kremlin does not hide the fact that the key task of Russian foreign policy towards the collective West is to drive a wedge in relations between Europe and the USA.

The high-flown talk that Russia will repel attacks not only on Russia but also on its allies is nothing more than empty words, given the realities of the war in Ukraine and the experience of the last hot phases of the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation when the Kremlin was unable to do anything to support its CSTO ally.

In general, there is nothing new in the concept that could surprise or frighten either the West or even Russia’s partners, India and China. And their mention in the concept is nothing more than an attempt to involve stronger players in a global confrontation with the West, which is unbearable for technologically backward Russia.

Igor Fedyk

Head of the South Eastern Europe Section

Igor coordinates the South Eastern Europe Section of the New Geopolitics Research Network. He previously worked as the Head of the Balkan section of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, as well as the Deputy Editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Defense Review.

His current research interests are focused on the political, economic and social aspects of the development of the South Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, their interstate and inter-ethnic relations, as well as the relations with third parties (countries not from the region, international organizations), which have an important impact on the situation in the region and in Europe.

He is the author of a number of articles and analyses in various Ukrainian and foreign Media.

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April 2023
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