Lukashenko’s plans in China, and why Russia peddles ‘biochemical threats’ from Ukraine

1 March, 02:09 PM
Lukashenko arrived in Beijing on February 28, 2023 (Photo:BelTA/Maxim Guchek/Handout via REUTERS)

Lukashenko arrived in Beijing on February 28, 2023 (Photo:BelTA/Maxim Guchek/Handout via REUTERS)

The Russian authorities seem to be intensifying false-flag information operations to divert attention from the lack of tangible Russian success on the battlefield, reads the Feb. 28 report released by the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War.

The aim also appears to be to slow down the provision of Western tanks and other aid to Ukraine amid an expected counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army, ISW analysts said.

ISW highlighted the following examples of such information rhetoric:

  • On Feb. 28, the Russian Ministry of Defense falsely accused "the United States and its accomplices" of planning a "provocation with the use of toxic chemicals" in Ukraine;
  • Similarly, on Feb. 19, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Ukraine was allegedly planning "false flag attacks" on radiation-hazardous facilities in Ukraine, ostensibly to later accuse Russian forces of striking such facilities;
  • Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has also noticeably resumed nuclear rhetoric in the Russian information space.

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The ISW believes that the apparent surge in such false biochemical and nuclear threats accompanies Russia's information operation, which is trying to falsely accuse Ukraine of preparing to invade the Kremlin-created sham republic of Transnistria in Moldova.

The Institute notes that it has previously observed a correlation between similar Russian campaigns and the realities of the battlefield — especially when Russian forces were unable to achieve significant results in offensive operations in Ukraine.

ISW analysts predict that Russia will intensify such information operations as its offensive in Luhansk Oblast "nears culmination" and more opportunities for Ukrainian counter-offensives arise.

A senior Pentagon official, Deputy Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl, supported ISW's continued assessment that Russia's use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine is highly unlikely.

The United States does not believe that Russia will use nuclear weapons, Kahl said during a hearing at the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 28. According to the Institute, Russia's constant references to the nuclear doctrine and its corresponding nuclear threats are part of an information operation aimed at intimidating Ukraine and the West, but do not reflect any real intentions to use such weapons.

The Kremlin is likely trying to revive another information operation — the false portrayal of Russia as a country open to negotiations, in contrast to the alleged refusal of the "collective West" to negotiate.

On Feb. 28, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Moscow was open to negotiations, but that Kyiv and the West must recognize the new "territorial realities," i.e., Russia's false claim to have annexed the territories of Ukraine it has occupied. To the list of these "preconditions" he also added Russia's goals in the war against Ukraine, including a change of government in Ukraine (called "denazification" in Moscow) and the elimination of Ukraine's ability to defend itself against future Russian attacks ("demilitarization").

In this narrative, Moscow appears to be using Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko as a proxy or conduit to negotiate with the West on terms favorable to Russia and to further delay the delivery of critical Western weapons systems to Ukraine.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko's visit to China from Feb. 28 to March 2 may also be used to try to set up schemes to circumvent sanctions blocking trade between Russia and China, ISW said.

During his official trip to China, Lukashenko said that Russia was supposedly ready to take steps toward a peaceful settlement and that it was possible to end the war in Ukraine before Russia switched its economy to a war footing. Lukashenko also falsely accused the West and the United States of forcing Ukrainian officials to abandon negotiations with Russia.

ISW analysts believe that the Kremlin and Lukashenko are likely using China's publication of a 12-point "peace plan" to revive an earlier Russian information operation that Moscow promoted in December 2022.

At that time, the campaign, which created the illusion of Russia's openness to negotiations, was aimed at encouraging the West to make preemptive concessions and force Ukraine to negotiate on Russia's terms. This likely contributed to the delay in providing Kyiv with Western tanks and other equipment needed to continue Ukraine's mechanized counteroffensives.

In addition, during his official visit to Beijing (Feb. 28 to March 2), Lukashenko may help build schemes to circumvent sanctions blocking trade between Russia and China. Earlier, Deutsche Welle reported that Lukashenko will sign a large package of agreements on the development of joint projects, trade, economic, investment, humanitarian and political cooperation with Beijing.

Lukashenko previously stated that the Belarusian defense industry can produce weapons, as Belarus has access to microelectronics, optics, and other imported components, unlike Russia. ISW suggests that China may be secretly transferring equipment to Russia through Belarus.

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Other conclusions of ISW analysts over the past day:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized the role of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in supporting the war in Ukraine during an address to the FSB board;
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks near Svatove and Kreminna, and likely made limited advances north of Kreminna;
  • Russian forces made tactical gains in northern Bakhmut and continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and in the Avdiyivka-Donetsk City area;
  • Ukrainian officials continue to report potential Russian preparations for renewed offensive operations in Zaporizhzhya and Kherson oblasts, though ISW has not observed indicators that Russian forces plan to renew offensive operations in these areas;
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky enacted a Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council decision to sanction 109 Russian citizens involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children.

Map of hostilities: battle for Bakhmut, fighting in Donbas and Zaporizhzhya Oblast, in the south and northeast of Ukraine

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