If you think it’s hard to tell what’s happening in Ukraine despite all the reporting that’s being done there, imagine trying to figure out what’s happening in a Russia-aligned police state like Belarus based on a few tweets.
But this one from a Belarusian journalist has gotten some attention within the past hour.
Massive explosions in a number of cities in #Belarus. Residents of Baranavichy, Luninets, Stolin, Hantsavichy, Slutsk, Kletsk and other cities reported sounds similar to explosions. We are trying to understand what happened
— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) March 16, 2022
Some are wondering whether the “explosions” are actually just sonic booms being made by Russian jets en route to Belarusian bases. These don’t sounds like explosions to me…
No updates yet. These are the sounds people reported. The video is from Stolin.
They also say that aviation is “active” at the moment pic.twitter.com/os2pfNxgf9
— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) March 16, 2022
…but a Belarusian politician — an enemy of the state’s Putin-crony president, Alexander Lukachenko — claims something is up:
❗️❗️❗️Over the past 3️⃣ hours, about 3️⃣0️⃣ fighter jets, transport planes & helicopters lifted into the sky from #Belarusian airfields in Baranovichi, Gomel, Lida, Luninets❗️
6️⃣ missiles launched near the city of Kalinkovichi. Explosions are heard in various cities of #Belarus. pic.twitter.com/4OagAmYMN6
— Pavel Latushka (@PavelLatushka) March 16, 2022
Is this the long-awaited Russian false-flag operation to bring Belarus formally into the war while pinning their entry on a “Ukrainian attack”? Is it a coup attempt against Lukashenko organized by the military, which is understandably reluctant to be dragged into what’s become a debacle for Russian forces? Or is it just a misunderstanding?
— Newsfeed Ukraine 🇺🇦 (@NewsfeedUkraine) March 16, 2022
Artillery exercises near a war zone, when tensions about Belarus’s involvement are already sky high? Hmmm. The situation is fluid so stand by for updates.
Belarus is one of only three real Russian allies at this point. The second is Syria, where the Kremlin is sniffing around for mercenaries willing to do their dirty work in Ukraine. And we all know who the third is. Surely Russia can count on China’s support to the bitter end here, no?
Well, hold on:
There couldn’t be a more powerful sign of which way the wind is blowing in Ukraine. China meeting with Ukraine officials in Lviv. “We have seen how great the unity of the Ukrainian people is” the Chinese ambassador is quoted as saying https://t.co/buwanatiLx
— Liz Sly (@LizSly) March 16, 2022
Newsweek has a few details of that meeting:
“China is a friendly country for the Ukrainian people. As an ambassador, I can responsibly say that China will forever be a good force for Ukraine, both economically and politically,” said [Chinese ambassador] Fan [Xianrong], who relocated with his diplomatic staff from Kyiv toward the country’s western border with Poland.
“We will always respect your state, we will develop relations on the basis of equality and mutual benefit. We will respect the path chosen by Ukrainians because this is the sovereign right of every nation,” Fan told Maksym Kozytskyi, a Lviv military official, according to Ukraine’s state news service Ukrinform.
“China will never attack Ukraine, we will help, in particular in the economic direction. In one year, our country imports goods from around the world worth more than $3 trillion. We are ready to help you develop. In this situation, which you have now, we will act responsibly. We have seen how great the unity of the Ukrainian people is, and that means its strength,” the ambassador said.
That’s less likely to signal an about-face on Russia is coming from China than China simply wanting to play both sides in an uncertain moment when almost the entire world is unified against their friend Putin. They can pledge economic help for Ukraine in the war’s aftermath while also quietly supplying Russia with weapons and economic aid to keep that war going. In fact, Newsweek notes that “Fan’s meeting in Lviv wasn’t disclosed by the Chinese Embassy and is yet to be reported by Chinese media outlets or appear on the country’s social media platforms in any official capacity.”
Why won’t China cut Russia loose? According to one expert writing in Foreign Affairs today, it may be because … Xi Jinping isn’t very good at foreign policy. Worse, his regime suffers from the same autocratic pathologies that led to Putin’s gross miscalculation about Ukraine. He’s replaced more competent bureaucrats with yes-men who simply react to his whims as they manifest, fearful of telling him things that might challenge his worldview. In Putin’s case that meant advisors suppressing the truth about the state of Russia’s military, Ukraine’s willingness and ability to resist, and the west’s stomach for punitive sanctions. Russia has been brought to the brink of ruin as a result. Xi’s government seems to have been no better at forecasting Russia’s troubles in Ukraine, though, or else they wouldn’t have chosen to enter into a “no limits” partnership with a soon-to-be pariah state whose military was on the brink of being exposed as considerably overrated. Jude Blanchette calls Xi’s recent alliance with Putin “the single biggest foreign policy blunder of his nearly ten years in power”:
Consider a pattern that has emerged across authoritarian political systems in which leaders remain in office far longer than their democratic and term-limited counterparts. The longer a leader stays in power, the more state institutions lose their administrative competence and independence as they evolve to fit that leader’s personal preferences. Successive rounds of purges and promotions shape the character of the bureaucracy, moving it incrementally in the same direction as the leader’s grand vision. What might begin as formal punishment for explicit opposition to the leadership eventually becomes a climate of informal self-censorship as members of the bureaucracy come to understand the pointlessness of dissent and grow better attuned to unspoken expectations of compliance. The leader also becomes more distant and isolated, relying on a smaller and smaller group of trusted advisers to make decisions. Most of those individuals remain at the table because they display absolute loyalty.
This small circle, in turn, acts as the leader’s window to the world, leaving much dependent on how accurate a depiction of external reality its members choose to provide. Such an opaque decision-making process makes it difficult for external observers to interpret signals from the central leadership. But even more crucially, it makes it hard for actors within these autocratic systems to anticipate and interpret their leaders’ actions. The result is an increasingly unpredictable foreign policy, with the leader formulating snap decisions in secret and the rest of the bureaucracy racing to adapt and respond.
There’s still time for China to cut bait on Russia but Xi would probably view that as a grand concession to the west’s show of power this past month. The best we’re going to get from him is playing both sides.
Besides, look at it from his perspective: There’s every reason to believe Russia will become a Chinese client state over the course of this century. It’s depopulating, its weak economy is collapsing, and it has little to its name besides fossil fuels and nuclear weapons. It’ll need a wealthy and powerful patron. That’s Beijing, provided China maintains reasonably good relations with Moscow. Declining to abandon Putin now while he rides out this storm will help with that.