As protests continue to grow in Belarus, Russia has offered its support for embattled Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Moscow already has a military base in the neighboring state, which would enable it to provide rapid military support.
Moscow Could Lend a Hand
Doing so could tip the scales in Lukashenko’s favor as western powers increasingly call for new and fair elections.
Russia’s offer for help came during discussions between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bloomberg reported. The Belarus leader requested the help as the number of protestors swells. In response, Putin said he could help militarily, which would recall memories of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Putin has longed to rebuild the Soviet Union, but couldn’t exactly seize states as he pleased without international pushback. Instead, he has had to wait for opportunities to present themselves, as they did in the case of Crimea and Ukraine. Using 2014 Ukrainian revolution as justification, Putin successfully managed to carve off a piece of Ukraine while instigating a still ongoing battle for the rest.
Putin’s Potential Rationale for Intervention
Now, Belarus’ time might be up. The election fiasco and protests that have followed present a chance for Putin to mobilize the Russian military in order to reclaim former Soviet land. Lukashenko might have already offered a rationale for summoning Moscow troops, as CNBC reported.
“NATO troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and our native Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections,” Lukashenko said. “If we kowtow to them, we will go into a tailspin,” he told supporters at a rally on Sunday. “We will perish as a state, as a people, as a nation.”
However, there are no NATO forces to be seen and the alliance denied that it was preparing to attack Belarus, Deutsche Welle reported.
“There is no NATO buildup in the region. NATO’s multinational presence in the eastern part of the Alliance is not a threat to any country. It is strictly defensive, proportionate, and designed to prevent conflict and preserve peace,” NATO said in a statement.
Putin Has Options
A lack of evidence notwithstanding, Putin could capitalize on Lukashenko’s fear-mongering and appears to be heading down that path. The Kremlin said external pressure is the source behind Belarus’ troubles. Although he didn’t mention where that pressure comes from, it is obvious that Putin was putting blame on the West.
Putin could act to strong arm protestors into submission by supporting Lukashenko militarily. Another option would allow him to reuse a successful tactic, Russian expert Julia loffe wrote for The Washington Post.
“Now Putin has a choice,” loffe wrote. “Does he repeat his 2014 maneuver [in Ukraine]—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.”
She noted the difference between Ukraine and Belarus — the former expressed support for rejoining Russia while Belarusians prefer their independence. However, that is likely a trivial detail to Putin as he marches toward his goal of rebuilding the Russian empire.
Planting the Seeds for Annexation
Lukashenko himself has avoided forging closer ties with Putin out of fear the Kremlin would try to instigate a takeover. At this point, however, Putin may be his only chance to retain any semblance of power.
There’s evidence Moscow was already preparing for a seizure of Belarus. Last month, 33 Russian mercenaries were detained near Minsk. Although the Kremlin asserted they were making their way to Venezuela, the mercenaries were part of The Wagner Group — the same outfit that has a hand in Russia’s operations in Ukraine and Syria.
It would not be above Putin to dispatch a small force to lay the groundwork for a possible takeover in Minsk.
The West Refuses to Act
The West may be unable to stop Putin from pursuing his designs on Belarus. Although the Russian military may not come to Lukashenko’s aid and the protestors may win this time, the successor would be prone to Putin’s plots. And if the Kremlin decides to harness its military to restore order, western powers are not in a position to act.
“Military interference in other states is not acceptable at all and breaks all the rules we have set ourselves under international law,” said German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz.
The problem is that Putin doesn’t mind breaking international rules, as in the case of Ukraine. China has recently proved that these actions of this sort can be taken without consequence, as it did with Hong Kong. How did the West respond? It took not substantial retaliatory action against Beijing for the Hong Kong takeover, just like Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.
The West, for all its military buildups and pacts simply won’t aid Belarus if it comes down to a Russia takeover. Putin understands this and the Kremlin will be the deciding factor in Belarus’ future.