5:00 pm EDT: Russia deployed a battalion tactical group (BTG) from the 217th Airborne Regiment of the Ivanovo-based 98th Guards Airborne Division to Belarus likely on September 21. It is unclear where the elements of the 98th are operating as of this writing.
4:30 pm EDT: The NEXTA Telegram channel is actively encouraging Belarusian security service defections. Large scale defections would likely precipitate an overt Russian intervention into Belarus. NEXTA published personal information for 1000 security service personnel it claims are complicit in protester detentions on September 19. NEXTA published security services personnel’s full names, birthdays, cities of operation, departmental affiliations, and commanding officers. NEXTA is expunging personnel from the list who confirm their resignation from security services, implying that those individuals have contacted it. NEXTA has expunged five such individuals as of this writing. ISW cannot independently verify NEXTA’s information, which it claims it obtained from a third-party hack.
7:00 pm EDT: The Kremlin is conducting multiple preplanned and apparently snap exercises concurrently in multiple theaters and Russian military districts. Russian military activity in the Western Military District (WMD) is unexpectedly high despite the Kavkaz-2020 exercises underway in the Southern Military District (SMD). The Russian Defense Ministry holds annual strategic exercises to test the readiness of Russia’s four main military districts. Each such annual exercise occurs in a different Russian military district in a rotating order and usually precipitates a decrease in military exercises in the other military districts not undertaking the strategic exercise. This year’s “Kavkaz-2020” exercises began on September 15 in the SMD.
7:15 pm EDT: The Kremlin will likely deploy Russian conventional military forces into Belarus on a long-term basis under the pretext of expanding bilateral exercises. Multiple indicators ISW had identified as presaging the stationing of Russian troops in Belarus have now tripped, including the presence of Russian troops during extended exercises and specific changes in Belarusian rhetoric.
5:45 pm EDT: The Kremlin qualified Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim he requested Russian weapons from Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 16. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Lukashenko in Minsk on September 16, likely to implement military cooperation concessions Lukashenko made to Putin during their September 14 meeting in Sochi. Lukashenko said he asked Putin for weapons to "strengthen the Union State plan" on September 16. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov qualified Lukashenko’s statement in a response to a reporter, saying Lukashenko did not ask Putin for a “weapons delivery” “in the way you [the reporter] phrased.” The Kremlin rarely qualifies its denials of claims by other actors based on the language used by individual reporters. Peskov’s attention to avoiding a full denial but disputing the reporters’ question if Lukashenko requested a “weapons delivery” indicates the Kremlin is attempting to shift Lukashenko’s framing.
5:00 pm EDT: Moscow has modified the prescheduled Slavic Brotherhood military exercises in Belarus to demonstrate its ability to deploy forces to Belarus on short notice. Elements of Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division arrived in Belarus for the Slavic Brotherhood 2020 exercises on September 15. Russia has not deployed significant conventional forces to Belarus since the start of protests on August 9. The number of Russian troops in the exercises is unclear.
Lukashenko’s campaign to expel and detain opposition leaders is failing to disrupt increasingly adaptable and sustained protests. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in the fourth weekly women’s march in Minsk on September 12, and over 100,000 marched in Minsk and around the country on September 13. Telegram channel NEXTA intentionally refrained for the first time from publishing instructions for the Sunday march on Saturday night, to prevent security forces from pre-deploying to protest sites. NEXTA did not issue protest instructions until nearly noon on Sunday, directing protests to begin at 2:00 pm local time. NEXTA issued detailed instructions and maps – which tens of thousands of protesters followed – asking protesters to gather in several separate areas around Minsk before converging on key locations, including Lukashenko’s residence and large plazas, from several directions. NEXTA’s flexible control of the protests forced Belarusian security forces to redeploy throughout the day to follow protesters. ISW previously forecasted Lukashenko’s efforts to disrupt protests through the arrest and expulsion of the remaining opposition leaders in Belarus would not impede protests, which remain effective without on-the-ground leadership.
6:00pm EDT: Belarusian authorities formally imprisoned opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova – the last prominent opposition leader active in Belarus – and charged her with calls to incite a coup d’etat on September 9. Belarusian law stipulates imprisonment for two to five years for this charge. Belarusian authorities abducted Kolesnikova in Minsk on September 7 and failed to expel her to Ukraine on September 8. Kolesnikova previously stated her openness to working with the Kremlin and expressed support for constitutional reforms. Lukashenko may have detained Kolesnikova in order to disrupt Kremlin efforts to undermine Belarus’ sovereignty via constitutional amendments. Lukashenko additionally began balancing against Kremlin pressure in the information space on September 8 to push back on Kremlin efforts to absorb Belarus.
7:20 pm EDT: Belarusian authorities are holding Belarusian opposition leader Kolesnikova after a failed attempt to expel her to Ukraine following her abduction on September 7. Ukrainian officials confirmed Belarusian authorities “forcibly expelled” Ivan Kravtsov and Anton Rodnenkov – two of Kolesnikova’s staffers – to Ukraine on September 8. Belarusian security personnel in civilian clothes abducted Kolesnikova, Rodnenkov, and Kravtsov in downtown Minsk on September 7. Rodnenkov claimed Belarusian authorities decided to expel him and Kravtsov to Ukraine, rather than Poland or Lithuania, because they did not have passports with EU visas. Kravtsov and Rodnenkov confirmed at a press conference in Kyiv on September 8 that they witnessed Kolesnikova destroy her passport while in Belarusian detention to avoid expulsion.
Unidentified men abducted opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova and two of her staffers in Minsk on September 7. An unidentified group of masked men in civilian clothes abducted Kolesnikova and two of her staffers, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, using an unmarked van in downtown Minsk the morning of September 7. The whereabouts of Kolesnikova and her staffers is currently unknown. Kolesnikova is a key member of the opposition Coordination Council and the last remaining Belarusian opposition leader active in-country.