But Russia’s promise of intervention appears to be limited to an external military threat, and after months of Lukashenko turning down closer ties with Russia, Putin’s backing isn’t a certainty.
“Moscow should no longer regard Lukashenko as a useful partner,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter. “Time to look beyond him.”
Cracks in the typically close relations between Belarus and Russia started late last year, after Lukashenko resisted the Kremlin’s push for the two countries to form a unified state — something they agreed to in 1999. Moscow attempted to use its longtime deal to sell Minsk discounted oil as leverage, so when the two countries failed in December to agree on a new price, Russia temporarily cut the supply.
Lukashenko’s negative rhetoric toward Russia increased after that — for example, he lashed out at a Russian state television journalist’s criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Then in the weeks leading up to the elections, Lukashenko hinted at a Russian plot to oust him, even arresting more than 30 Russian men who the Belarusan government said were mercenaries from the shadowy Russian paramilitary Wagner outfit.
Lukashenko alleged that the men had been sent to Belarus to destabilize the country, but security analysts have said it’s likely they were using Minsk as a transit hub to Africa — a common practice that would have been cleared with authorities in Belarus. In what appeared to be a gesture to Moscow, the alleged mercenaries were released on Friday.
Valery Tsepkalo, a prominent opposition figure who left Belarus after he was barred from running in the election, said Lukashenko was “bluffing” about the mercenaries and is doing the same now with suggestions of Russia potentially intervening militarily on his behalf.
With Lukashenko denouncing the recent protests as being driven by foreign actors and adding in comments Sunday that “NATO troops are crawling near our gates,” there’s been speculation that he could attempt to spin that as the external threat that would justify support from Russia.
“There is no military intervention from the side of anyone,” Tsepkalo said. “There is no reason [for Russia] to intervene. I don’t think it will happen.”
Artyom Shraibman of Sense Analytics, a Minsk-based political consultancy, said fear of Russian action has been one thing uniting both the regime and the opposition over the past week. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, after all, came in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which ousted the country’s pro-Russian then-president.
Russia supported Lukashenko’s reelection, but “it didn’t signal what it would do in the case of a large-scale political crisis and revolutionary-like events,” Shraibman said.
“It’s unclear how Russia would behave, but I would say true military-style occupation would be overwhelmingly costly in these circumstances because Belarus isn’t Crimea,” he added. “Belarusans do not want to be part of Russia or occupied by Russia, so there would be a lot of blood. And trying to reinforce authorities that are domestically weak is also a tough sell.”
Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russian propaganda outlet RT, wrote on Twitter on Friday that, “You know, it’s about time for polite people to restore order as only they know how,” with “polite people” a reference to the Russian soldiers dispatched to Crimea six years ago.
But Moscow doesn’t automatically act in response to all revolutions along its border; it stayed out of Armenia’s in 2018 and Kyrgyzstan’s in 2010 in part because, like this movement in Belarus, there were no signs of anti-Kremlin sentiment among the protesters or the opposition’s leaders.
Lukashenko, who at 65 is two years younger than Putin, described his Russian counterpart as like “an older brother” just three days before the elections, perhaps anticipating that the greatest challenge to his 26-year reign was ahead.
“An older brother’s role is to help, support and advise — not to make you stumble, but to provide support,” he said then.
David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.