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Putin Has No Good Options As Belarus Crisis Surges

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Few analysts expect the Kremlin to sanction a military intervention of the kind seen in Ukraine in 2014. (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Few analysts expect the Kremlin to sanction a military intervention of the kind seen in Ukraine in 2014. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- On the evening of August 16, as hundreds of thousands rallied across Belarus calling for the ouster of its authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian investigative outfit, posted an alarming report.

“Don't make too much of it (yet),” the group wrote on Twitter. “But two convoys of unmarked trucks identical to Russian riot police/National Guard vehicles were filmed 400km from the Belarusian border, driving south from St Petersburg.”

The investigative group cited eyewitness accounts in a follow-up Facebook post, but did not give any evidence of troop movements or clarify whether any convoy crossed the border.

Nevertheless,the online reaction to claims of possible Russian military intervention in a western neighbor appeared to bolster a widespread fear driven by memories of earlier regional crises: that Moscow was willing to use force to shore up support for an embattled pro-Russian leader.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

Amid the speculation, many drew parallels to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014, where a disputed Moscow-backed referendum paved the way for its forcible annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and military support for the ongoing pro-Russia insurgency in parts of Ukraine’s east. Now, images of alleged Russian Army convoys trundling across Belarus’s eastern border triggered memories of similar scenes in Ukraine.

But despite Russia’s importance as a traditional ally to Belarus, whose economy Moscow has been instrumental in propping up, few analysts in Russia expect the Kremlin to repeat the Ukraine scenario. With tens of thousands joining peaceful protests across Belarus and popular support for Lukashenka plummeting, Russia has little to gain from sweeping in to help him suppress the unrest.

“To invest in using force against a friendly population that doesn’t want it may be too risky, even for Putin,” Aleksandr Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL.

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The protests in Belarus, unlike those in Ukraine, are not fueled by anti-Russia sentiment. Russia risks changing that if it seeks to forcibly stamp them out.

“It would change the mind of the population,” Baunov said of a Russian attack. “It would mean to be worse than Lukashenka -- because at least Lukashenka is a local.”

But neither can Moscow sit back and watch from the sidelines. On August 15, as events spiraled out of his control, Lukashenka announced to officials that he would call Putin, saying the protest movement -- which he claims is orchestrated by foreign governments -- was “a threat not only to Belarus” but to Russia, too.

For Moscow to back a losing side, it would need too many forces. That would include a huge occupying army.... I don’t think that’s something the Kremlin is ready for.”
-- Analyst Artsyom Shraybman

The leaders held two phone calls over the weekend, according to readouts issued by the Kremlin and Lukashenka’s government. But it was the second conversation, on August 16, that apparently coaxed Moscow into citing the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a defense bloc comprising six former Soviet states pledging to defend each other in case of foreign attack.

Couched in diplomatic language, the statement issued by the Kremlin on August 16 promised only a “readiness to render the necessary assistance to resolve the challenges facing Belarus,” and never mentioned the Belarusian president by name.

Artsyom Shraybman, a Minsk-based political analyst, said Russia has made clear in all its statements that it will only intervene under the framework of the CSTO in the event of “foreign aggression” – despite Lukashenka’s claim that Moscow would send help at Belarus’s “first call.” And Moscow’s lack of references to Lukashenka specifically suggest it’s aware of the extent to which his popularity has plunged.

“For Moscow to back a losing side, it would need too many forces,” Shraybman said in an interview with the Russian independent television channel Dozhd. “That would include a huge occupying army that would come to deal with partisan warfare. I don’t think that’s something the Kremlin is ready for.”

In the end, most analysts agree, the Kremlin’s official statements fell well short of any concrete pledges of military assistance to shore up Lukashenka’s beleaguered government.

“They just acknowledged that there are some troubles and that Russia is aware of what is happening and that it’s committed to dialogue,” Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist, said in a phone interview. “Which is all very nice, but it can apply to any political regime and certainly to any president of Belarus.”

Faced with an unpalatable military intervention as the only way of ensuring Lukashenka remains president -- amid continuing protests and a steady trickle of defections from his government -- Moscow seems to be leaving room for various outcomes, including his replacement by an opposition-backed candidate.

With the likelihood increasing of a power transition in Belarus, Moscow is likely to engage behind the scenes in dialogue with the West over the country’s future -- playing a role in overseeing a political transition along with EU member states and ensuring that its core interests are protected in the process.

“I do think that Russia will feel itself entitled to be one of the mediators, or the main one,” Schulmann said of possible international discussions. “But I don’t think it’s so invested in Lukashenka personally.”

In the end, pragmatism is likely to win the day -- in the corridors of the Kremlin and those of international bodies. But for Putin, who has stamped out many protest movements throughout his 20 years in power and railed repeatedly against Western-backed revolutions, footage from Belarus of a stumbling strongman heckled from all sides is anathema.

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Lukashenka is holding on for now -- and Moscow is watching closely to see how he handles the crucial days to come, ready to draw appropriate lessons from whatever outcome they bring.

“It’s not true that Russia supports every autocrat that needs to be supported,” Schulmann said. “But what Russia wouldn’t like to see is the direct overthrow of an existing power by riotous masses. This would make for a bad picture.”

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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.