Will support for Ukraine go the way of Belarus?

Will support for Ukraine go the way of Belarus?
Belarus’ most famous babushka, Nina Baginskaya, was protesting against Lukashenko's regime for years before the mass protests broke out in 2020, but became an iconic figure then "going for walk" with her banned red and white flag. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin January 6, 2024

Last week was the 77th birthday of Belarus’ most famous babushka, Nina Baginskaya. As the doyen of the 2020 mass protests that nearly toppled Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Baginskaya had been solitarily protesting against Lukashenko’s regime for years before the mass protests broke out. She was famously caught on film standing defiantly in front of a phalanx of Belarusian policemen in the centre of Minsk holding her banned red and white flag long before some 10% of the population joined her on the streets of the Belarusian capital.

After the mass protests broke out, she would march around the centre of Minsk perennially with her banned flag. When challenged by local law enforcement, who asked her what she was doing, she answered: Ya gulyaio (I'm going for a walk), a phrase that has become the unofficial slogan of the countrywide protest movement.

Feisty and irrepressible when a huge special forces officer, who towered over her, tried to arrest her during the peak of the protests, unable to reach his head, Baginskaya resorted to kicking him in the shins as he tried to bundle her into a Black Maria in one of the most famous videos from the protests.

A headline celebrity two and half years ago, Baginskaya’s birthday on December 30 passed off without comment in the international press. She spent the day quietly at home and not on the streets. International correspondents who were falling over themselves to interview her during the protests neither paid her a visit nor wrote up the story of what her life is like now. She still owes the government a reported $20,000 in unpaid administrative fines for her protest activities and the marches have disappeared. Lukashenko’s security services are currently implementing a new repression campaign, singling out potential protest leaders ahead of February's parliamentary elections.

The bravery of the Belarusian population – symbolised by Baginskaya's diminutive stature but indomitable nature – inspired support across the EU, which rained down sanctions on Lukashenko. The equally inspiring Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who stood for president in lieu of her husband, who was jailed just before the vote, and by many accounts actually won the election, was welcomed by prime ministers and presidents across Western Europe.

Tikhanovskaya, who now lives in exile in Lithuania with her children, continues to campaign and press for the Belarusian cause. She makes the press occasionally, but the interest in the Belarusian opposition story has faded away to next to nothing after international attention was diverted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just under two years ago, and more recently by the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7.

Lukashenko’s regime was teetering on the edge of collapse in August 2020, when he was loudly heckled by workers during a speech at military truck MZKT factory, the same blue collar workers that make up his core supporter base, in what was seen as his “Ceausescu moment”.

But the next day Russian President Vladimir Putin finally came out and openly backed Lukashenko and promised to provide “whatever support” Lukashenko needed, “if necessary.” The promise was clearly a threat to send in Russian special services to prop the Belarusian strongman and shored up his support amongst Lukashenko’s own security services, preventing his fall. Over the next few months Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown and, as the cold weather that autumn set in, after clearing the streets of protesters, he consolidated his grip on power and now remains firmly in control.

The Belarusian protest movement has become a frozen conflict. The EU has retained sanctions on Minsk, despite Likashenko's recent attempts to repair relations with the EU, and added more after he allowed Putin to use his country as a platform to launch the invasion of Ukraine across Belarus southern border. In the early days of the war Russian forces based in Belarus threatened Kyiv, only 400 km away from the border, and rained down rockets on northern Ukraine from bases in Belarus. Since then, Putin has moved nuclear missiles into Belarus.

But the Tikhanovskaya campaign has largely run out of steam, apart from the occasional comment, usually framed in the context of linking Belarus’ cause to that of Ukraine.

The two stories have a lot in common as citizens in both countries heroically stand up to corrupt dictatorial leaders. The main difference is that Ukraine’s story is a classic David and Goliath conflict, where Ukrainians are defending themselves against an unprovoked act of aggression by the much larger Russia.

But the Belarusian story has more in common with Gandhi’s peaceful resistance to the British in his quest for Indian emancipation. Specifically, the leaderless hivemind that led the mass protests via the Nexta Telegram channel made a point of avoiding violence and not attacking the government buildings. That may have been a mistake. In a similar popular uprising against the dictatorial leadership of the Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov in October 2020, protesters stormed Parliament, taking over the building in a few days of violence, forcing the president to resign within a week and flee the country. Indeed, as bne IntelliNews reported, it appears that storming the parliament buildings and accepting casualties is the best way to overthrow an Eastern European dictator.

The failure of the Minsk protests to topple Lukashenko has left the Belarusian cause in limbo. But that doesn’t mean Tikhanovskaya is anywhere near close to giving up. Another unreported story is that Tikhanovskaya’s YouTube New Year Eve’s speech this year was unavailable to Belarusians after Lukashenko shut down the platform for 20 mins around midnight on December 31 – something that would have been front page news in 2020. The blocking ended about 5 minutes after her broadcast, which was only reachable in Belarus by using VPN services. This was the third time in a row her New Year’s Eve speech was blocked by the authorities.

The failure of Ukraine’s summer’s counter-offensive to make any progress and the stalemate that has emerged put Kyiv in a similar position to Belarus after the protests petered out. Ukraine’s failure to make a spectacular breakthrough similar to the Kharkiv offensive in September 2022 is fuelling rapidly growing Ukraine fatigue, which suggests that Ukraine’s war is in danger of becoming a similar frozen conflict.

The red and white flag of the Belarus opposition that graced the windows of houses in the EU have long since given way to Ukraine’s yellow and blue flag. And in just the last few months those Ukrainian flags have been replaced again with the keffiyeh and the black, white and green of the Palestinian flag.

A recent informal poll on social media reported that the Ukrainian war story is falling down the news agenda in Western countries, where it has been the top story for almost two years. It seems that Western public opinion is fickle and has a short attention span, although support for both Belarus and Ukraine remains strong in principle among the general population. It’s just the public is paying less attention as they move on to protest against the new atrocities in the Middle East.

The EU is determined to maintain its support for Ukraine, but in the US it appears that the Biden administration would like to see the war brought to an end before the November presidential elections, or at least wind down US involvement in the conflict so as to reduce its importance as an election issue.

Like Tikhanovskaya, Ukrainians will not give up even if their cause becomes forgotten by the West. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba made this point explicitly in an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Independent last week.

"If the aid doesn't come, Ukraine will not give up fighting, but Russia will be in a much better position to fight. And it means that Russia will be in a better position to break through our lines, occupy more territories, kill more Ukrainians and inflict more damage on our economy and infrastructure," he said.

Ukraine is already preparing to go it alone. Facing a $29bn shortfall in international financial aid in 2024, the Ministry of Finance has already worked out a Plan B, which involves spending cuts and turning on the printing presses to pay the running costs of the country. The EU has promised to scrape together at least €20bn to fund Ukraine, despite Hungary’s veto of a bigger €50bn package, which will allow Ukraine to muddle through.

And while Kyiv calls for more weapons and ammo, the Zelenskiy administration has begun the process of making Ukraine a military production hub so that it can supply itself with materiel. The Ukrainian high command is also talking about conscripting another 450,000 men into the army, including issuing draft orders to the 650,000 Ukrainian men of military age living in the rest of Europe as refugees, and threatening them with sanctions if they fail to return home.

The war in Ukraine could go on for years under these conditions, but with little hope of a decisive victory.