Senior State Department Official on Belarus

SPECIAL BRIEFING

OFFICE OF THE SPOKESPERSON

VIA TELECONFERENCE

JANUARY 18, 2022

MODERATOR:  Thank you operator, and I’d like to welcome everyone to this afternoon’s on-background briefing.  I especially appreciate the fact that everyone’s joining us on fairly short notice today.

The focus of today’s call will be on information we’ve seen that indicates Belarus could play a role in Russia’s planned invasion of Ukraine, as well as some of our longstanding issues regarding Belarus’s increasing destabilizing actions in the region.

As a reminder, this call is on background today, and you can attribute what you hear to a senior State Department official.

Now, for your knowledge only and not for reporting purposes, I’m happy to let you know that we have on the line with us today as our senior State Department official [Senior State Department Official].  Again, you can refer to what our briefer gives us and attribute it to a senior State Department official.

One final reminder before we get started:  This call is embargoed until its conclusion, all right.  And I’ll let folks know when that is.  And with that, I will turn it over to our senior State Department official, [Senior State Department Official].  Please go ahead, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, [Moderator].  And if you don’t mind, I will just slightly correct one thing, which is to say that I am [title], just as a point of clarification.

So good afternoon to everyone.  It’s a pleasure for me to join you for this discussion, and it is an important time to have it.  There are many troubling things happening in Belarus right now, and there can be no doubt about Belarus’s role as an increasingly destabilizing actor in the region.  And all you have to do is look at the events of the past few months to understand the story.

In order to deflect attention from a domestic political crisis and in an effort to garner international attention, Lukashenka and the region manufactured a migrant crisis.  And it was only eight months ago that the regime forced the diversion of an EU passenger jet in order to arrest an opposition activist who was on board.  And as of today, January 18th, Belarus is holding more than 990 political prisoners, and we are sadly watching this number increase daily.

So right now and for the purposes of this call, what I’d like to focus on primarily is the situation with Russia and Ukraine and Belarus’s role.

We’ve seen warning signs that the dynamics inside Belarus are enabling Russia to further prey on Lukashenka’s self-inflicted vulnerability.  The reports of Russian troop movements towards Belarus, which these movements are supposedly under the auspices of regularly scheduled joint military exercises, are concerning.  The timing is notable, and of course raises concerns that Russia could intend to station troops in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises in order, potentially, to attack Ukraine from the north.

I believe Belarus’s complicity in such an attack would be completely unacceptable to Belarusians and to many inside the regime, as well as to us and our allies and partners.  And we’ve made our concerns known to the Belarusian authorities privately.

I also want to touch on Belarus’s upcoming constitutional referendum, which is possibly expected in February, because I believe these issues are directly related.  The proposed changes to the constitution include language that could be interpreted as paving the way for Russia to garrison forces on Belarusian territory.  This would be a significant change for Belarus, and such a step would present a challenge to European security that may require a response.  These draft constitutional changes may indicate Belarus plans to allow both Russian conventional and nuclear forces to be stationed on its territory.

So all of this shows us that Lukashenka’s position has weakened, possibly beyond recovery.  The dynamics around the referendum have an effect on the domestic situation, and the developments recently in Kazakhstan are also reverberating in Minsk.  Over time, Lukashenka has relied more and more on Russia for all kinds of support, and we know that Putin doesn’t give that support for free.  It’s clear Russia is preying on Lukashenka’s vulnerability and calling in some of those accumulated IOUs.  There is no escaping that having dedicated his 27 years in office to claiming to be the guarantor of Belarus’s sovereignty and independence, Lukashenka has increasingly shown that he will trade it all in order to stay in power.

So – which raises, I think for us and for many other observers, a key question, which is:  What levers of control does Lukashenka still hold, and how much of that control has he passed to Russia?  Is he even a part of the decision making about how Belarusian territory is used?  So these are the kinds of questions that are on our minds as we look at these exercises that are underway and as we observe the political dynamics inside Belarus.

[Moderator], that’s my opening, and I’m back over to you.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you so much, [Senior State Department Official].  Operator, would you please give the instructions for getting into the question queue one more time, please?

OPERATOR:  Sure.  As a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1 and then 0.  That command again: 1 then 0.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Thank you.  Now, let’s go to the line of Andrea Mitchell to start us off.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  And I guess the question that I would have is:  What leverage do we have over Belarus?  Lukashenka has ignored everything that we’ve done.  Isn’t he so much under Russia’s sway that we have very little ability to prevent Russia from either deploying troops, or conventional forces, or nuclear forces in Belarus as a direct threat to Ukraine?  Thank you very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Sorry.  I sort of was garbled on the end of their question, but I think the question was mostly about what leverage do we have over Belarus.  And I would say the question of the impact and how the United States will react, should Belarus take these decisions, is one that we will probably work to address later.  But for now, Belarus has a longstanding position.  It has been committed to neutrality; it has committed to not being a place that would attack its neighbors.  And I think this departure, and I think this increasing willingness that Lukashenka is showing to depart from this, really is one more way in which he steps away from where the Belarusian people are.  And we have watched him take some big steps away from where the people of Belarus are, but this is truly another significant moment.

So he has a decision to make.  Those who enable him to stay in power have a decision to make.

MODERATOR:  Now let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION:  Hi, [Senior State Department Official].  Thanks very much for doing the call.  I have a couple of questions.  One is just to pick up on something you said.  You noted that you thought the changes to the constitution would be rejected by ordinary Belarusians and also people inside the regime.  So are you tracking dissent within the Belarusian Government and the higher echelons of power in Belarus against what Alexander Lukashenka is up to?  And then second, could you give us a little more information about what details you have about the types and size of troop levels that Russia is putting into Belarus?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Nick.  The – your question about changes to the constitution specifically and where are the people versus – where are the people and where are the elite – I’m sorry, was your question how are we gauging where those people are?  I sort of missed a piece of that.  Sorry.

MODERATOR:  Operator, would you please —

QUESTION:  Maybe there were some elements of the regime – what you said suggested to me that you thought maybe there were some elements of the regime that would also oppose those changes, so I was just trying to understand if you’re detecting any dissent within the regime itself to what Lukashenka is up to.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  Thanks for clarifying that.  Look, I think that the breadth, the commitment to the neutrality concept, I think is well understood amongst the elite.  And I think that starting – well, at many points since the elections of 2020 but increasingly since, we saw Lukashenka’s rhetoric on military posture really ramp up as it coincided with the migrant crisis last November that increasingly members of the elite are uncomfortable with where Lukashenka is heading and the speed at which he is taking Belarus closer and closer to Russia.  That is not a concept that I believe has widespread support in Belarus’s elite.

The question of clarifying numbers in terms of who is – which Russian troops have entered into Belarus, I think this is one that we will have to come back to you on.  I’m not sure that I have numbers that I feel confident to share at this point.

MODERATOR:  Okay, let’s next go to the line of Daphne Psaledakis.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing this.  Earlier today, a senior State Department official said that the Russian troops being sent into Belarus are neither an exercise nor normal troop movements.  What evidence is there that this deployment is not for the exercises that Russia and Belarus say they are?  And are there units being sent that give you reason to believe the deployment is for a possible invasion?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I apologize that I seem to be losing folks at the end of their question.  I understood that you’re asking what evidence is there that this is not a normal exercise, and then the second part of that is something I missed.

QUESTION:  I’m not sure if you can still hear me, but are there units being sent that give you reason to believe the deployment is for a possible invasion?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So sorry, I apologize.  I’m having a great deal of trouble, and I don’t know if it’s because people are on speakerphones or it’s the distance.

But what we – what concerns us is the total picture, right?  And I would point to the briefing that was provided this morning, right?  It is the amassing of 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders combined with moving forces into Belarus over the weekend, it is – it is – these numbers are beyond, of course, what we would expect with regard to a normal exercise, right?  A normal exercise requires notification 42 days in advance if you’re talking about 9,000 troops, right?  Normal – and 13,000 requires international observers.  That’s what normal looks like.  What this is is something entirely different.

MODERATOR:  And we’ll go to the line of Nick Schifrin.

QUESTION:  Thanks, [Senior State Department Official].  If I could actually kind of re-ask that same question just to make sure you can hear it.  So if you’re —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Okay, thank you.

QUESTION:  Just to make sure, are you saying that the evidence that you have is only just part of the big picture of the concerns on Ukraine’s border and the fact that these troops are moving in over the weekend with little notice, or are you saying there’s a certain number that you’re concerned about?  Are you saying there’s a certain capacity that is going into Belarus that is concerning, or are you saying you have – even if you can’t speak specifically, are you saying you have intelligence that these troops could be used specifically to invade Ukraine?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  I can hear you better, so I appreciate that.  But I’m not sure that I’m going to have too much to give to you in terms of the question of the nature of these concerns.  I’m going to look to [Moderator] to enunciate exactly where we have – where we have spelled this out.

What I would say is that it is the aggregate picture very much.  I am not going to point to the specific capabilities, the specific units, because that’s not something I am prepared to brief you on.  [Moderator], you are welcome to jump in and correct me if you – if there’s further information that we can share on this point.  But it is the aggregate picture, and our concern is this is a moment of decision making, right?  This is a moment of decision making in Belarus and a question for Lukashenka and for those who enable him to stay in power about the future sovereignty of their country.

MODERATOR:  So I would just add that that’s exactly right.  I think you hit the nail on the head with that.  This is a – as you said, an aggregate situation, or as our briefer said, this is an aggregate situation.  All these factors taken together, she already outlined the procedures that are in place with regard to notification of exercises and so forth, and in aggregate what we’re seeing now does not line up with those requirements.

Okay.  For our next question, let’s go ahead and go to the line of David Sanger.

QUESTION:  Thanks very much.  And at the risk of asking a parallel but somewhat different question, we’re all in search here of some evidence along the way, apart from the fact that there are a very large number of troops that we’re all watching video of and so forth.

But you made a specific – you raised a specific concern that Russia might move to base nuclear weapons in Belarus, and obviously that would put them much closer to European capitals and sort of respond to the Putin complaint that he believes nuclear weapons are being moved closer to Moscow.

Again, do we have any evidence that that is under consideration?  Have we seen Iskander missiles being moved in as part of this exercise or some other point, anything that would suggest that, in fact, Moscow is moving toward a basing of nuclear weapons there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  I think this is a really important question.  And let me be – let me speak, right, from my perspective in this role as [Senior State Department Official] and tell you that the discussion about nuclear weapons in Belarus is one that was started by Lukashenka in November, right?  He is the one who has talked about it.  And Lukashenka routinely says incredibly hyperbolic, unfounded thoughts as they happen to cross his mind, but when a leader like Lukashenka starts talking about nuclear weapons, we should all pay attention.

So this is – again, potentially, should this constitutional referendum take place, should some of the changes that have been proposed be the ones that are actually in the constitutional changes that actually go to the people, those are not – it’s not clear how that process is going to proceed.  But the question of whether they will even change their fundamental approach to hosting nuclear weapons is one that is important to keep an eye on.

MODERATOR:  Very good.  Let’s next go to the line of Kylie Atwood.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing the call.  I’m wondering, given the Russian troop presence in Belarus, in the view of the U.S. Government, does that increase the threat of Russia seeking to invade Ukraine with the intent of toppling Kyiv?  And then bouncing off of your last comment talking about there’s a need to look at if there’s a fundamental change around how Russia is thinking about nuclear weapons, do you think there has been a fundamental change about where they’re thinking about placing nuclear weapons, or not yet?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Kylie.  I think it is very difficult.  I have seen many smart colleagues in Washington say that they will not try to read the minds of the Kremlin, and I’m not going to either.  I think what we should be concerned about is not whether it increases the intent, but whether or not it increases their capability and their ability to launch that invasion of Ukraine with an intent to topple the government.

And in my experience in various countries that border Russia, what I know about the Kremlin and what I know about President Putin is that he is an opportunist and he creates opportunities.  And so it is incredibly important that we focus on when we see these kinds of movements and when there is a concrete change in capability that we acknowledge it and we see – we call it for what it is in terms of his ability to create that opportunity when they have told us, when he has told us, what it is he intends to do.

The question of has there been a change in Moscow is one that I am going to leave to my colleagues who work on Russia and who are engaging with Moscow on the question – the important questions of strategic stability.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Laura Kelly.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for taking my question.  You mentioned that the so-called war games are beyond normal, and I wonder, like, how surprised are you about these latest developments?  And was the situation in Belarus and its relations with Moscow discussed at all last week during the three meetings in Europe?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I’m sorry, the last part of that question?

QUESTION:  Was the situation in Belarus discussed at all in the three meetings in Europe last week?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So when it comes to these exercises – I’m going to refer to them as exercises – again, I’m going to go back to the point that what we have to recognize is what it changes isn’t – what it represents is an increased capability for Russia to launch this attack, increased opportunity, increased avenues, increased routes.  And that, I think, is what is particularly important in an exercise that appears to be with particularly short notice and unnotified or insufficiently notified, as these are.

The question of characterizing all of the various meetings last week – I am not sure.  I think that we’re going to have to come back to you to be quite specific as to the ways in which Belarus was raised.  In a general way, I can tell you that yes, of course, those questions came up, but there were an awful lot of talks last week that were taking place and a lot of regional dynamics were discussed.

MODERATOR:  I think we have time for just a couple more questions.  Let’s go to the line of Conor Finnegan, please.

QUESTION:  Hey, can you hear me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Hey, sorry.  Just to push back a little bit on the timing here, there were reports late last year that Putin and Lukashenka had announced they would hold exercises, so if you could just explain a bit more why you see these as coming on sort of short notice or without sufficient notification.

And then, hearing what you’re saying about Belarus and the question of its future sovereignty here, are – I’m just trying to nail a little bit down as well:  Are you casting doubt on the stability of Lukashenka’s position within the government or his regime itself?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Conor.  I – with regards to Lukashenka, I think it’s important to sort of take a look at where he stands after a year and a half of trying to ignore, turn away from a political crisis that was largely of his own making, right.  And so it is important to recognize that Lukashenka himself has created this real fragility to his tenure because he was first and foremost unwilling to have dissenting views as a part of the campaign, that he was unwilling to accept criticism on issues from COVID to sort of basic governance questions, right, and then you look at something like the enormously fraudulent, the comically fraudulent conduct of the election and then the tragic violence that followed, the deaths, right?

So it is important to recognize that Lukashenka has been losing credibility in the eyes of the people of Belarus at a pretty dramatic rate since that time, and as he has understood how increasingly isolated he is as his popularity has waned, he has increasingly turned towards Moscow.  Now, that in and of itself is not new; that’s not new for Lukashenka.  Again, he has been making tradeoffs with the Kremlin for the better part of his 27 years.  At various points he has leaned east and on a few occasions he has leaned west, but he has been making these tradeoffs pretty consistently.  And so the question of – the question is one in my mind that is: How relevant is he to decision making when he is in such a weakened political position and when that is so deeply understood in Moscow.

MODERATOR:  And we have time for one last question.  Let’s go to the line of Anton La Guardia, please.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much for doing this, [Senior State Department Official].  I wanted to pick up that point – you say it’s a moment of decision for Belarus.  Is it not already too late for Belarus to take a decision?  In other words, has the decision to allow Russian troops in not already been taken and – that’s kind of a gone question.  And you raised the question of who is in charge, whether Lukashenka is.  If it’s not Lukashenka, who is in charge, in your view?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So, the question of is it too late, I’m going to say it’s an incredibly important question.  And it’s one that we have been asking sort of over any number of crises over the last year, right – last spring, was it too late after Ryanair for Lukashenka to correct course?  Is it too late after members of – who were – opposition-affiliated political prisoners were killed in jail?  Was it too late after the migrant crisis, right?  Like, this question is constantly one, I think, we are asking.   It is one that is incredibly difficult to answer in the context of Belarus.  They have worked so hard on the ground and – Lukashenka’s worked so hard to keep the West at bay.  He has kicked out so many diplomats.  He has kicked out many Western ambassadors.  He has – right?  He is doing everything he can to make it very difficult for us to understand the dynamics inside Belarus.  So it’s a complex question.

The question of who is in charge, I do believe that Lukashenka is largely – outside of the Kremlin being in charge, Lukashenka is largely in control of the levers of his government.  The question is:  Where do their authorities at this point end and where do the Kremlin’s begin?  And that is very uncertain.

MODERATOR:  And ladies and gentlemen, that’s all we have time for today.  I do want to once again thank everyone for dialing in and participating in our briefing.  I’d especially like to thank our briefer today, [Senior State Department Official].  Thank you so much, [Senior State Department Official].  We really appreciate it.

And with that, just a quick reminder that we were on background today to a senior State Department official for the purposes of your reporting.  And with that, the briefing has ended and the embargo is lifted.  Have a good afternoon.