Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to continue supporting the regime of Belarus’s authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, which is facing increasing international pressure over its brutal crackdown on dissent in the wake of last year’s disputed election.
"We will continue to provide comprehensive assistance to the brotherly Belarusian people in the current political situation,” Putin told the eighth Forum of Regions of Russia via video conference on July 1. "Belarus is not just a good neighbor for us -- first and foremost, it is our closest ally.”
The European Union, the United States, and other countries have slapped sanctions on Belarusian entities and Lukashenka's inner circle over the brutal crackdown on the opposition and the media by authorities in Minsk following the August 2020 election.
The opposition says that election was rigged, and the West has refused to recognize the official results of the vote and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader.
The crisis hit a new level last month when Belarusian authorities scrambled a military jet to escort an Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair flight to land in Minsk in what many countries regarded as a "state hijacking." After the plane landed, law enforcement immediately arrested opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
In response, the EU last week sanctioned key sectors of the Belarusian economy and major revenue sources for Lukashenka’s regime.
In turn, Belarus recalled its representative to the EU for consultations, announced a travel ban on unspecified EU officials, and said it was suspending its participation in the bloc’s Eastern Partnership program.
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.
Putin said on July 1 that Moscow “will continue to support our Belarusian friends in their resistance against restrictions through sanctions that have been imposed by the European Union just recently.”
Lukashenka also addressed the forum, saying that Belarus and Russia “will withstand the attacks launched against our countries.”
“We will make use of this moment to reinforce our economic cooperation and make our countries fully independent, and not just from the economic point of view," he said.
Russia has also been hit by Western economic sanctions over its seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, among other things.
Putin has been pushing Lukashenka in recent years to take steps toward the integration of their economies in order to cement a 20-year-old agreement to form a union state.
Lukashenka has rebuffed the pressure, but unprecedented street protests over the presidential election and subsequent Western sanctions have weakened his negotiating position with the Russian leader.