Vladimir Putin discusses possibility of third world war
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The Russian President has never hidden his regret for the the disintegration of the Soviet empire. In a state of nation address to the Russian parliament in April 2008, the former KGB officer described the Soviet Union’s demise as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and a “genuine tragedy”. Recent years have seen a more belligerent and aggressive Russia seek to stamp its authority over its former Soviet dominions.
This most notably led to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Now Russia’s strongman appears to have his eyes firmly fixed on Belarus, as he seeks to turn last year’s political unrest to Moscow’s advantage.
The Kremlin’s strategic goals are being put into place stealthily, through a combination of economic, military and political manoeuvres.
In an article for the Atlantic Council, Brain Whitmore pointed to the arrival in March of the veteran diplomat Yevgeny Lukyanov as Moscow’s new ambassador to Minsk.
The Russian diplomat has wide experience in banking and finance, having worked as an executive at Dresdner Bank and VTB.
He is also alleged to be a former foreign intelligence officer in the Soviet KGB.
Mr Whitmore, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, argued that Mr Lukyanov’s appointment will most likely help facilitate the take over of key industries of the Belarus economy by Russian companies.
These include the giant Belarusian potash producer Belaruskali and the fertiliser company Hrodna Azot – targets for the Kremlin connected oligarch Suleiman Kerimov and Dmitri Mazepin respectively.
At the same time, Moscow has stepped up discussions with Belarus about building a terminal in the north-western Russia port of Ust-Luga for the export of Belarusian fertiliser products.
This coincides with Minsk agreeing to export its refined petroleum products through the ports at Ust-Luga and Saint Petersburg.
Mr Whitmore, who hosts the podcast The Power Vertical, notes that Belarus’ economy is dependent on imports of heavily subsidised Russian oil, along with its exports of refined petroleum products and potash fertilisers.
He writes: “In an effort to maintain a degree of control over his country’s economy, Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka had been resisting Russian demands for years that he export these products via Russia.
“Instead, he has routed them through ports in Latvia and Lithuania.
“Lukashenka’s acquiescence now is a signal that Russia is tightening its grip on the Belarusian economy.”
Russia has also increased its military footprint in Belarus and has carried out a continuous cycle of exercises this year, which will culminate with the Zapad-2021 war-games in September.
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RIA Novosti said that some 12,800 troops, including 2,500 from Russia, are due to join the military drills between September 10 and 16.
Michael Kofman, a military analyst and senior research scientist at the CNA Corporation, told the Power Vertical Podcast that Moscow was seeking to demonstrate its ability to maintain a de facto “permanent presence” in Belarus through its ongoing military exercises.
“What we are seeing in the last year is not just a difference of degree,” he said.
“We are actually seeing a real qualitative difference in terms of the presence of Russian military forces in Belarus.”
The final piece in the jigsaw is the Kremlin’s attempts to secure control of the Belarusian political system through pro-Kremlin parties in the country’s parliament.
To that effect, Mr Putin has been pressing Mr Lukashenka to alter the country’s Constitution, so as to increase parliament’s power over the President.
Mr Whitmore is in no doubt that this all indicates a carefully calibrated plan to re-absorb Belarus into Russia.
“Protestations by senior Russian officials that there are no plans to unify Russia and Belarus are a mirage and a deliberate diversion,” he concludes.
“An official merger or annexation is not necessary. The Kremlin is achieving its strategic goals in Belarus stealthily, steadily, and methodically.
“And the strategic implications of this “soft annexation” for the United States and its NATO allies are enormous.”
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