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Amid A Disinformation Cacophony From Minsk, Analysts Say 'Putin Benefits'

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

MOSCOW -- When Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced in April that he had been the target of a failed assassination plot allegedly backed by the CIA, few outside the country batted an eyelid. That's because the outspoken former collective farm boss who has ruled the ex-Soviet state since 1994 has peddled various outlandish theories since protests erupted over his widely disputed reelection in August.

But Russia took note. State TV channels there quickly picked up Lukashenka's claim, devoting studio discussions to the alleged plot and featuring a lengthy report on it during a flagship Sunday night news show.

Then, three days after Lukashenka made the claim, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the West's alleged actions in an official speech.

"You can have your own opinion of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's policy," Putin said in his annual address on April 21. "But the practice of staging coups d'état and planning political assassinations, including those of high-ranking officials -- well, this goes too far."

Putin's comments provided evidence of the interplay between the narratives advanced by the two allied governments, which have drawn closer since Russia threw its lot behind Lukashenka as he fought for his political survival in recent months. This fusion has not been coincidental: After a swath of journalists quit government-controlled television channels in Belarus in protest against Lukashenka, Russian state TV reporters flew in to fill the posts and keep the channels on message.

And Lukashenka has at times sought to repay the favor. In September 2020, a month after his claim of a landslide victory in an election widely seen as rigged, he met with Mikhail Mishustin to present the Russian prime minister with what he said was the recording of a phone call between two unidentified Western officials discussing the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

"We have intercepted this conversation," Lukashenka told Mishustin during their meeting on September 3. "It clearly proves that this was a falsification: Navalny was never poisoned."

Lukashenka 'Ready For Anything'

The English-language call, which was badly dubbed into Russian and described Lukashenka as "a hard nut to crack," was immediately mocked online as a shoddy disinformation effort. But not long after the two officials met, the Russian state news agency RIA published the transcript and quotes from it. And it was soon aired on Russian state TV, helping bolster the Kremlin's argument that President Vladimir Putin's biggest political foe in Russia, who at the time was fighting for his life in Germany, had never been targeted.

"These things signal to Moscow that Lukashenka is ready for anything, including reputational damage, to defend Moscow's interests on the international arena," Artyom Shraybman, a Belarusian political analyst, told RFE/RL. "But I wouldn't exaggerate the extent to which these fakes are jointly pushed by the two sides."

Fact Check Reveals False Claims In Lukashenka's Speech On Ryanair Interception
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That caveat was instructive this week, when Belarus sought to contain the fallout after it was accused of fabricating a bomb scare on May 23 to force a commercial airliner flying between two EU capitals to land in Minsk instead.

Governments across the West denounced what they called a brazen special operation to seize dissident Belarusian blogger Raman Pratasevich, who was on board. Belarus claimed it was unaware that Pratasevich was a passenger on the Ryanair flight until the plane landed, and pushed the line that it had responded to a nefarious foreign threat.

Some Russian officials defended Lukashenka, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accusing Western leaders of hypocrisy in a Facebook post and saying they had "reacted differently to similar events" in the past, citing among others the July 2013 rerouting of a government plane carrying Bolivian then-President Evo Morales.

Belarusian Journalist Seized After Ryanair Jet 'Forcibly' Diverted To Minsk
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But Minsk's effort to seize the narrative seemed entirely homegrown. A Belarusian transport official read out what he said was an e-mail from Palestinian militant group Hamas to Minsk airport, warning of a bomb on the Athens-Riga flight. Lukashenka backtracked. "Hamas or not Hamas, it doesn't matter," he told legislators on May 26, insisting the signal about a bomb had originated in Switzerland.

Making Putin Look Good By Comparison?

Dossier Center, a research group funded by self-exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, published what it said was a screenshot of the e-mail cited by Belarus. The e-mail, the source of which Dossier Center did not reveal, was sent only after air controllers in Minsk had already warned the Ryanair crew of a bomb threat and called for Israel to cease fire in the Gaza Strip, despite the fact that a cease-fire had taken effect two days before the flight departed Athens.

In an interview with RFE/RL, one U.S. aviation expert said the alleged flight transcript has "holes in it so big that you could drive an airplane through it."

Amid this flurry of unsubstantiated information from Minsk, Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter, suggested that Lukashenka's claims just as often catch Kremlin off-guard. But when the two sides fail to coordinate their stories, according to Gallyamov, even Belarus's most brazen exploits rarely elicit condemnation in Moscow.

"Putin benefits. As the world watches Lukashenka lose his marbles, the Russian president looks like a completely adequate and upstanding leader," Gallyamov told RFE/RL. "In fact it so benefits Putin that I wouldn't be surprised if he encourages it."

The cacophony of leaks and claims has also helped muddy the waters around the events of May 23, making it increasingly difficult to untangle fact from fiction. Whether backed or encouraged by Moscow, analysts say, the end result is usually the same.

"These fabrications are little more than a campaign to justify himself. There is no bigger strategic motive," Shraybman said of Lukashenka, adding that on occasions when the Kremlin stands to gain from the disinformation Minsk puts out, Lukashenka is demonstrating loyalty to Moscow in a "tactic to win support."

"Because the more anti-Western he is," said Shraybman. "The more irreplaceable he becomes."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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