Russell “Texas” Bentley returned to The Grayzone alongside regular Toward Freedom contributor Fergie Chambers to detail their experiences documenting the war in the Donbass region. Chambers discussed his recent visit to a dungeon of the Ukrainian state-backed Aidar Battalion, and his interviews with Donetsk-based communists, while Texas described being on the front lines with the Donetsk People’s Republic militia.
The arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich after his flight was diverted May 23 to the Belarusian capital of Minsk has generated more negative publicity for Belarus’ government and has raised questions about the extent of the new Cold War.
Protasevich, 26, is editor of outlawed Telegram channels that had stirred opposition to President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994. Telegram is a messaging application used on smartphones. High-profile individuals, media outlets and organizations also use it to broadcast one-way communications to their followers.
After the arrest, the Biden administration announced it would re-impose economic sanctions on state-owned companies in Belarus, and that it would add names to the list of sanctioned officials associated with “ongoing abuses of human rights and corruption.”
Dismissing Lukashenko’s claim that Protasevich’s flight contained a bomb threat, the New York Times editorialized that Lukashenko had “gone too far” in “hijacking a commercial airliner to kidnap an opposition journalist.” Aside from urging the U.S. response be “swift,” the Times referred to Lukashenko’s attempt as a “Jason Bourne plot.”
However, when former Bolivian President Evo Morales’ flight was forced to land in Vienna in 2013 because U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden was thought to be on board, the incident was dismissed as a mistake.
Belarus is one of the last remaining socialist countries in the world and a close ally of Russia, a country the United States has targeted for decades via the first “Cold War”—when it was the former Soviet Union—and thereafter with neoliberal policies and NATO troops at its border. This puts Belarus particularly at risk for U.S. subversion.
The U.S. government has funded opposition movements against Lukashenko, who has been caricatured as a brutal dictator and a “throwback to the regional bosses of the Soviet era,” as the Times depicted him.
While some aspects of the criticism are accurate, Lukashenko has a considerable degree of popular support in Belarus because he resisted Western-imposed privatization programs in the 1990s and preserved a social safety net, resulting in low poverty and inequality levels.
The opposition movement has been depicted heroically even though it was photographed during anti-regime protests in August flying the pre-revolutionary flag, implying its goal was to reverse socialist-type economic programs.
Some of its members have ties to far right-wing networks in Europe that went unreported in the media.
A May 26 profile in the Times depicted Protasevich as a precocious young man who had bravely “resisted his country’s tyranny since he was 16” when he “first witnessed what he described as the ‘disgusting brutality’ of Mr. Lukashenko’s rule.”
His first arrest came when he watched a “clapping protest”—considered an offensive gesture in Belarus—against Lukashenko, causing him to be expelled from high school and his mother to resign as an army academy teacher.
After being forced to abandon his university studies, Protasevich became an opposition journalist in Poland, helped establish a Telegram channel to resist Lukashenko and joined forces with opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania.
Left out of the fawning portrait was Belarusian courts had determined the Telegram channels he had worked for, Belamova and Nexta, were “extremist” and first set up by people such as Igor Losik, who had served as consultants with the U.S. propaganda organ, Radio Free Europe.
Protasevich furthermore enlisted in a militia that fought alongside the neo-Nazi Azov battalion in eastern Ukraine against Russian backed separatists, was wounded in battle and reportedly worked for the Azov battalion’s press service.
Protasevich’s selfie in an explicitly neo-Nazi brand Sva Stone. It’s extremely unlikely that one can wear these T-shirts without being “in”. pic.twitter.com/brpsUgEpPw
— Volodymyr Ishchenko (@Volod_Ishchenko) May 26, 2021
Photographed in a T-shirt featuring far-right iconography, Protasevich is even suspected of being the young man featured with an assault rifle and military uniform on the front of Azov’s propaganda magazine, which is emblazoned with a large neo-Nazi symbol.
Media’s Anti-Russia Bias
Fitting a century-long pattern of Russophobia, the Times has led the charge for a new Cold War against Russia and has supported regime change in Belarus.
When protests broke out over a contested election last summer, the Times erroneously predicted Lukashenko’s downfall many times, and in April chose not to report on a coup as well as an assassination plot led by an opposition politician holding a U.S. passport.
The biased coverage of Belarus has extended to alternative media like Counterpunch.
On May 31, it ran an article by an anti-Lukashenko playwright, Andrei Kureichik, titled “The Taking of Roman Protasevich,” which used hyperbolic language in characterizing Belarus as a “terrorist and criminal state.” In another exaggeration, Kureichik claimed Lukashenko had established “open air concentration camps” by “employing military weapons and special equipment against peaceful civilians without restrictions or liability.”
No mention was made of Protasevich’s ties to the Azov battalion in the article, nor about foreign backing of the anti-Lukashenko movement. The latter was confirmed by Russian pranksters Vovan and Lexus, who tricked Nina Ognianova, a National Endowment for Democracy (NED) senior European program officer, into admitting the NED had trained and funded the leaders of the protest movement that was working to overthrow Lukashenko.
These words apply very well to corporate media outlets—and sometimes even to the alternative press—when it comes to their coverage of Belarus, where it is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine and author of four books on U.S. foreign policy including, Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again (Monthly Review Press, 2018), with John Marciano.
Armenia, a landlocked Caucasus nation-state of around 3 million people appears in a hopeless position. Following defeat in the 44-day war against Azerbaijan last autumn, the country remains stuck in the Russian geopolitical orbit, and has been forced to make painful concessions to its arch enemy, Azerbaijan.
On June 20, Armenia held parliamentary elections that led to the victory of the Civil Contract Party, whose leader is Acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Although he is seen by many Armenians as a traitor, given he failed to preserve Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh—a mountainous territory in Azerbaijan that ethnic Armenians have controlled since 1994—Pashinyan’s party won 54 percent of the vote. The opposition Armenia Alliance, led by former President Robert Kocharyan, garnered a distant second with 21 percent. Why did Armenians vote for the person who signed the de facto capitulation to Azerbaijan on November 10?
Choosing Between Traitor and Old Guard
From the perspective of an average Armenian voter, the choice they had was either “traitor” Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018 following the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” or Kocharyan, who represents the overthrown corrupted old guard.
According to Armenian analyst David Arutyunov, the opposition did not offer any practical alternative for resolving the issues of demarcation, a burning question in the country. Indeed, in May, Armenian authorities accused Azerbaijan’s army of advancing more than 3 kilometres (2 miles) into southern Armenia. They claimed the Azeri state was trying to lay siege on Lake Sev Lich (Black Lake), shared by the two countries. In other words, Armenia had lost control not only over most of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also over certain parts of the Republic of Armenia.
As Arutyunov points out, Azerbaijan likely will keep pressuring Armenia until the end in order to get as many concessions as possible in the process of resolving the border demarcation.
Some Armenian officials have announced Russian border guards will be deployed to those areas where Azerbaijani units allegedly advanced. At this point, however, it is highly uncertain how the border will be protected after demarcation—will the Russian troops permanently stay there, or will Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to guard borders on their own? As a result of the 44-day war, some 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to protect the region’s capital, Stepanakert, and the surrounding area, which is the only portion of the territory that is still de facto under Armenian control. From the Armenian perspective, Russian peacekeepers are seen as the only guardian of the remaining Armenian population in the region. Moreover, Armenia has become so dependent on Moscow, it expects the Kremlin to protect not just ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the borders of the Republic of Armenia, too.
Russia, on the other hand, is obligated to defend Armenia. The Caucasus country is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is often described as a Russian version of NATO, having come into being after the former Soviet Union came apart. Other CSTO members include Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. However, during the war, Russia refused to provide help to its nominal ally, Armenia. According to Key Article 4 of the Treaty, “If one of the State Parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, this will be considered aggression against all States Parties to this Treaty.” The problem for Armenia is that in 2020, Azerbaijan did not attack Armenia itself, but Armenian-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. That is why Moscow hesitated to directly intervene. But in May 2021, following the border incidents, Pashinyan wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking for military assistance. To this day, however, no such aid has been provided.
Meanwhile, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have signed a protocol of alliance in a bid to further strengthen their ties. “In the event of a third state’s threat to the independence or territorial integrity of any of the parties, the parties will provide necessary assistance to each other,” the protocol stipulates.
Even before the two countries became formal allies, Turkey supplied Azerbaijan with modern, sophisticated weapons, including the Turkish-made Bayraktar drones that proved to be a game changer in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Russia promises to arm Armenia, although it remains unclear what prevented the Kremlin from selling modern weapons to its ally before the war broke out. Over the years, Russia aimed to preserve good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and at the same time to keep playing the role of the regional arbiter. However, indications suggest the Kremlin prioritized lucrative business and energy ties with Azerbaijan than its nominal alliance with Armenia.
Although the Armenian leadership may have felt because of Moscow’s unwillingness, it hardly has a choice but to keep playing the Russian card. The country depends on Russia economically, politically and militarily.
According to the Moscow-brokered peace deal, signed in November between Pashinyan and Aliyev, Azerbaijan will be able to cross to its exclave Nakhchivan—bordering Armenia, Turkey and Iran—through Armenian territory, and the Russian Federal Security Service will secure roads. Such an action could undermine remnants of Armenia’s sovereignty in the south, primarily in the area bordering Iran.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has insisted on the construction of the Nakhchivan corridor, also known as Zangezur Corridor, which would effectively connect the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with mainland Azerbaijan. Given that Azerbaijan, as the clear victor, has an upper hand to the defeated Armenia, sooner or later Armenia will have to agree to the Azeri terms and conditions regarding this transregional project. Thus, it is not surprising that Pashinyan, celebrating his election victory, said, “All agreements will be fulfilled.” His room for political maneuvers vis-à-vis Azerbaijan is rather limited.
In the short term—at least until 2025, when the 5-year mandate of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh expires—Russia will remain the dominant regional actor. In the mid and long term, Turkey is expected to improve its positions in the Caucasus, and possibly build a military base not far from the Russian border. Azerbaijan already benefited from its military ties with Turkey, while Armenia proved to be collateral damage in a wider geopolitical game played by Russia and Turkey.
And the game is far from over.
Nikola Mikovic is a Serbia-based contributor to CGTN, Global Comment, Byline Times, Informed Comment, and World Geostrategic Insights, among other publications. He is a geopolitical analyst for KJ Reports and Global Wonks.
In an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting held on August 16, following the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul, Nebenzia Vassily Alekseevich—the Russian representative—said the main players and wider international community must pool their efforts to help Afghanistan achieve national reconciliation. He pointed to the important role played by his own country, and by China and Pakistan, as well as the potential contribution of Iran.
Alekseevich’s stress on regional cooperation is important. It echoes past attempts to solve the Afghan problem in a peaceful manner. From 1996 to 2000, Central Asia had witnessed the fomentation of Islamic radicalism in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with the Taliban taking full control of Afghanistan. The free flow of weapons and drug trafficking worsened this murky state of affairs. Russia remained concerned about the formation of inter-jihadist linkages between the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), which aimed to topple the regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. China experienced internal turmoil in the Xinjiang region—bordering Afghanistan—which witnessed ethnic extremism and anti-government violence; Islamic separatists were using arms smuggled from abroad.
Closer Eurasian Ties
In the turbulent context Asia faced in the late 1990s, regional states formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). SCO is the largest grouping in the world in terms of geographical coverage and population, with its territory spanning three-fifths of the Eurasian landmass and nearly half of the human population, encompassing China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia subsequently participated as observer states.
In July 2001, the SCO stated that the “cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism is the instability in Afghanistan.” Member nations agreed to work together to contain the Taliban and the various political Islamists in the area. The process would be protracted, but potentially effective. None of the countries wished the consolidation and expansion of the Taliban; their national interests hung in the balance. Further, they commanded sway over a country whose only benefactor was a Pakistan deeply wedded to China.
The U.S. Invasion’s Impact
The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan shifted the needle of the regional compass toward the United States; China, Russia, and the SCO were pushed aside. All of the Central Asian states—except Turkmenistan—signed military cooperation and base access agreements with the United States; the Central Asian states saw the security and economic benefits of the sudden U.S. engagement with the region as a bonanza.
While both Moscow and Beijing endorsed the U.S.-led invasion in Afghanistan, an important precondition for the support was the understanding that U.S. and NATO bases in Central Asia would be short-term. With the prolonged stay, the countries developed an increasingly mutual irritation toward Washington. To neutralize Western influence, they attempted to revive the SCO process.
At the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Beijing on January 7, 2002, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers put forward proposals to improve the organization’s anti-terrorism and security capabilities, maintaining the group should assume responsibility for regional security. These plans fell on deaf ears as Central Asian states were busy welcoming the U.S. empire.
In 2005, however, the SCO called for the United States to withdraw from bases in Central Asia. The statement read:
“Considering that the active phase of the military anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan has finished, member states… consider it essential that the relevant participants in the anti-terrorist coalition set deadlines for the temporary use [of military bases in the region].”
This was the first indication that the military directives of Western powers would not unilaterally dictate the regional Afghan strategy. Afghanistan soon signed a protocol establishing the SCO-Afghanistan contact group. In 2012, Afghanistan became an observer in the SCO. Three years later, Kabul endorsed the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RAT) of the SCO, later applying for full membership in the group. These arrangements have continued to this day, providing an alternative to belligerent tactics. On July 14, 2021, the Contact Group met in Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe where, inter alia, it was demanded that Taliban pledge a clean break with terrorist outfits.
What’s at Stake for China and Russia?
Regional agendas for Afghanistan will likely be sustained because the SCO heavyweights—China and Russia—continue to have a stake in the happenings of Kabul. Moscow is worried about a) the emboldenment effect that Taliban’s battlefield victory would have for its historically explosive Muslim regions; and b) the possible relocation of U.S. troops to the countries neighboring Afghanistan, which would weaken the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Central Asia.
Beijing is anxious that religious militancy in Afghanistan will fuel a domestic Islamist insurgency by invigorating the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)—an ethnic Uighur extremist group responsible for past terror attacks in China and which seeks to transform Xinjiang region into an independent Islamic state. This could negatively affect China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a project to build a network of overland road and rail routes, oil and gas pipelines, and other infrastructure projects from West China through Central Asia to Europe.
As the Taliban retakes control of Afghanistan, China and Russia won’t make timid pleas to Washington to place forces on the ground in the country. The militarist path has been deemed a flawed move by both sides. In the coming days, the Sino-Russian bloc will likely prioritize political solutions, thereby promoting a more proactive position for the SCO and emphasizing the importance of regional frameworks.