Ukraine is the main show; Belarus is a side show.
Russia has deployed around 100,000 ground troops on the border with Ukraine. Tanks, artillery, and other support elements are in place. Kiyv expects a multi-pronged invasion. U.S. intelligence believes it to be imminent.
Admittedly, however, the Western media’s attention so far has been focused on the Polish-Belarusian border.
It plays itself out on several levels. Each has a distinct narrative which feeds into and reinforces perceptions, mostly as managed by Minsk and Moscow.
First, there is the frontier drama. Polish border guards and troops are attacked daily: with stones, branches, lasers, and stun grenades. The Poles won’t let the migrants cross. A few do force their way through but most of them are promptly apprehended and escorted back to Belarus.
Second, on the spot Western (including Polish) legacy and social media circus depicts the defending Polish forces as heartless thugs and the storming migrants as helpless victims. Crying children and desperate mothers make for a great sob story to manipulate emotions. A few days ago, for example, a citizen journalist successfully peddled a fake story of an Iraqi border crosser who allegedly floated in an icy river for six days before saving himself.
Third, the bottom-up media narrative strains reinforce the editorial messages by both Western and eastern, Belarusian and Russian, legacy news outlets. They sound virtually the same. And so do pundits and politicians who comment on the border crisis.
For example, a few days ago a Russian politician showed up at the border, beamed for the cameras, and yelled at the Polish soldiers: “You are not Christians. You will be refused Holy Communion. Your priest will not let you into the church.”
Of course, by this telling, the Polish government and its supporters are, likewise, not Christians. This is because the Poles refuse to let the illegals in.
Belarusian and Russian leaders milk this topic consistently. And so does the liberal opposition in Poland. They sing the same song in unison.
Moscow, in particular, excels in shedding crocodile tears over the alleged “brutality” of Polish forces in repelling with tear gas of the surging migrants. “It is unacceptable,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sternly preached.
But the Polish detractors of the Law and Justice government sound just the same.
Fourth, the bottom up narrative boosted by comments of Russian, Belarusian, and Polish politicians and other talking heads slowly reaches the world public opinion level. There, any conservative voices of reason are usually drowned out by the usual choir of liberal platitudes.
It goes something like this: We have a serious humanitarian crisis in Poland. We (“the West”) should take the migrants in. Brussels sympathizes with the “refugees” and their plight. It is embarrassed by the brutality of the Polish forces. The European Union only objects to the methods of Belarus, which facilitates the migrant invasion. Let’s solve the problem by negotiating with Russia – above the Polish heads.
And everyone makes a lot of noise about that. Yet, it seems that for the Russian Federation the Polish-Belarussian border side show is just maskirovka – camouflage, Russian military deception.
The ongoing migrant crisis should not divert our attention from the Russian-Ukrainian border. But it does. Why? This is because Poland is a NATO and an EU member. Ukraine is unaffiliated.
It would be difficult to pretend that there was no problem in Poland. It is easy to wish away a serious threat to Ukraine.
So what’s going to happen? The most innocuous case scenario is that Putin may be just swaggering. The Kremlin puts on a show of force to make a splash and remind everyone who the boss of the region is.
A medium threat assessment is that Moscow has been patiently testing the waters and will not invade just yet. The massive Russian troop concentration is intended as psychological warfare against the Ukrainians. It is testing their will. Should they budge, the Ukrainian state will implode and it will submit to Russia by the force of inertia. There will be no need for a conventional invasion; it will be a cakewalk, like the capturing of Crimea in 2014.
A clear and present danger panic button blares a message of an imminent invasion in full force, which is perhaps the least likely scenario.
Putin covets Ukraine. However, I bet he likes option two the most. Yet, nothing can be excluded; nothing should be ignored, including the Belarusian side show.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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