The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s an old KGB hand. In Belarus, he’ll do what he thinks is best for Russia.

Does he ditch a fellow autocrat or risk backlash from the West?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, is followed by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in St. Petersburg on Dec. 20, 2019. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend in Belarus, demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko, and his dubious reelection earlier this month, showed no signs of slowing down. They gathered momentum as his challenger, 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had been forced to leave the country, issued a video message calling for continued protests. She also formed a coordinating council, whose goal is a peaceful transfer of power.

After cracking down on the protests with savage violence and reports of systematic torture of arrested protesters, the police began to stand aside and let the peaceful protests continue. Lukashenko, in the meantime, was reported to be on the phone with longtime ally — and foil — Russian President Vladimir Putin, discussing his options, including potentially fleeing to Russia. This would be a repeat of 2014, when Putin helped then-President Viktor Yanukovych flee Ukraine after months of energetic protests. We know what followed: Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, which sparked a slow-moving war that continues to this day.

Now Putin has a choice: Does he repeat his 2014 maneuver — letting Lukashenko flee while gobbling up Belarus, risking a backlash from the West — or does he allow the situation to play out and modulate his interference? The fate of Belarus depends on what he decides.

Putin is in a strange spot, with protests on at least two sides: To the west, the people of Belarus — a former Soviet republic closely linked to Russia by the countries’ shared history and culture, and tethered by a still-vague integration agreement — have taken to the streets. The protests have spread, from the country’s intelligentsia to its miners, public transportation workers and even soldiers and police, who’ve begun balking at their role in keeping fellow Belarusians at bay. To the east, Khabarovsk — a major city near Russia’s Pacific coast and seven time zones from Moscow — has been in revolt for weeks after Putin removed a popularly elected governor and replaced him with a hand-selected loyalist.

If he hasn’t made it abundantly clear by now, Putin hates protests. Ever since he was a KGB officer based in Dresden, in East Germany, and watched as protests eroded the Soviet empire, he has viewed popular protests as harbingers of instability, violence and, worse, the collapse of the state. It was the reason that, in 2005, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe.” Two years ago, he reprised the sentiment, saying he would undo the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. if he could.

When George W. Bush became U.S. president, Putin saw American promotion of democracy turn into a pursuit of regime change. He’s seen dissenters topple Moscow-friendly leaders in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine — former Soviet republics that Putin considered his, at least in terms of Russia’s sphere of influence. After Washington’s vocal support for these “color revolutions,” he saw the United States acting as the bellows in the Middle East, where initially peaceful protests of the Arab Spring became violent confrontation. By the time Ukrainians forced out Yanukovych, Putin decided he’d seen enough. He seized Crimea, backed an armed revolt in eastern Ukraine and intervened in Syria’s civil war to help its president, Bashar al-Assad, claw back lost territory at any cost. Last year, he sent reinforcements to Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, who was facing unprecedented popular protests and a challenge from opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who was briefly backed by the Trump administration.

Bombing humanitarian aid convoys in Syria and shelling civilians in eastern Ukraine was, for Putin, a small price to pay to reestablish what is, for him, the most important norm: that of national sovereignty. But Putin means something very different by the term. For him, national sovereignty means that no foreign country can tell someone like him — or Assad or Yanukovych or Maduro — what to do inside his country, even if what is done is the violent suppression of citizens’ dissent. In Putin’s view, the leader of a state is by definition legitimate, even if he (and it’s always a he) was elected through fraud, and a popular uprising to topple him is, as Putin called protests that unseated Yanukovych, an “unconstitutional coup.”

In Moscow, at least some Putin allies have floated the idea of applying force in Belarus. “You know, it’s about time for polite people to restore order as only they know how,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT, the Kremlin-owned propaganda channel. She was referring to the “little green men” — otherwise known in Russia as “polite people” — the Russian soldiers who appeared in Crimea without identifying insignia to lay the groundwork for Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula. And it is possible Putin may have been planning something of the sort as a contingency: On July 29, 33 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group were reportedly arrested outside Minsk, the capital of Belarus. (Others apparently disappeared into the woods.) Wagner is controlled by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef,” and who according to a now-dropped 2018 U.S. indictment also operates the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm implicated in Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Vladimir Putin has his own version of reality. And President Trump believes it.

Wagner sends mercenaries to do Russia’s unofficial fighting in places including eastern Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Venezuela and the Central African Republic — so what were they doing in Belarus? Were they there to create chaos, or prevent it? Or were they, as Russian officials reportedly said, bound for Venezuela, using Minsk as a transit hub that remained open during the pandemic? It remains unclear but should raise eyebrows, given Wagner’s involvement in covertly enforcing Russia’s will abroad and its presence in Belarus so close to what was already bound to be a contentious election.

Intervening in Belarus to help Lukashenko put down the protests would reinforce Putin’s red line on toppling friendly dictators. Lukashenko already is playing on Putin’s fears of a color revolution in Russia, saying publicly that if these protests are not stopped, “this wave will roll over there” — to Moscow. And even though Putin and Lukashenko have a love-hate relationship at best, Putin’s propping up of Lukashenko also would send an unmistakable message to Europe, which is busy crafting sanctions against Belarus, that Belarus is still firmly in the Russian sphere of influence — and is Russia’s buffer with NATO.

The United States is too busy with its own troubles and led by a president who is almost comically enamored of Putin, so Putin’s actions carry little risk on that front. In the era of President Trump, Putin knows he can be bolder and brasher with little consequence. But putting his thumb on the scale in Belarus carries other risks.

Putin needs America more than we need him. Trump doesn’t act like it.

Unlike in parts of Ukraine, where pro-Russian and genuine separatist sentiment could be found in 2014, Belarusians, increasingly, are against joining Russia, a topic that has been openly debated in Russia and Belarus for years. Moreover, by invading Ukraine, Russia lost its closest ally, and Russians and Ukrainians grieved the split between the two “brotherly” (Slavic) nations. Ukraine was always pulled in different directions by Europe and Russia, but the Russian invasion embittered Ukrainians to a degree that will be inordinately difficult to repair. Is Putin willing to lose Belarusians for a generation, too? And though American sanctions are unlikely, new European sanctions would certainly sting. Russia has far more trade ties with Europe than with the United States, and the coronavirus pandemic has not been kind to Russia’s economy.

Putin’s path of least resistance may be to let the situation play out, without Russian intervention, and to make a deal with whoever is Belarus’s president when the dust settles. And since no kind of cooperation offer is on the table from Europe — the lifeline thrown to Ukraine by the European Union that sparked the 2014 anti-Moscow revolution — Putin can afford to let things shake out in Belarus without getting his hands dirtier than absolutely necessary.

What Putin does will help explain how he sees his present relationship with Europe and the United States. If he opts for the more restrained course, it would indicate that he thinks that he’s in a position of strength, and that he no longer sees the West as the threat it once was. Some of the recent chirping in Russian media suggests that this approach is being considered.

If he opts to openly, aggressively intervene in the affairs of another neighboring, formerly Soviet, state, this would be a reminder that as much as Putin has adapted and transformed himself to hold on to power for two decades, an old KGB officer staring down a protest rarely changes his stripes.