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As Belarus protests grow, Putin shows no sign of propping up embattled ruler

Analysis: Alexander Lukashenko is signaling for help to his last standing ally: Russia. But will Vladimir Putin step in?
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After being booed, jeered and laughed at Monday by workers at a state-run factory during the biggest show of discontent Belarus has ever seen, President Alexander Lukashenko is desperately holding on to power.

Thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets every day since his contested victory in the Aug. 9 election as calls for Lukashenko's departure grow after a violent crackdown on protesters.

Lukashenko is now signaling for help to his last standing ally: Russia. But despite fears that Russia could support him, perhaps even with a military intervention, it appears that President Vladimir Putin is in no rush to throw him a lifeline.

"There is certainly no love lost between Putin and Lukashenko," said Emily Ferris, a Russia research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a think tank in London.

Image: Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in December.Mikhail Klimentyev / AFP - Getty Images file

Although Putin has not publicly commented on the unrest in Belarus, he spoke to Lukashenko on the phone twice over the weekend.

According to the Kremlin's official transcripts, he promised "assistance" under a 1994 security agreement, which mandates that both countries offer assistance — including military help if necessary — if one faces an external threat.

Linas Linkevicius, foreign minister of neighboring Lithuania, said Monday that should Russia respond with military force, it would confirm its reputation as a "lawless state."

But experts say that is far from becoming reality.

"At the moment, there is no evident need for Russia to take military action," said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank.

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Giles said the security treaty allows for member countries to help one another in more situations than just external aggression, although Lukashenko has maintained that the opposition is being manipulated by foreign powers, stoking fears about NATO's presence on the country's western borders over the weekend.

Giles said the treaty also stipulates "menace to safety, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty" of members as situations when action can be taken.

But the assistance need not be only military.

Image: Former Belarusian flag
A woman waves an old Belarusian national flag as protesters gather during an opposition rally in front of the government building in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday.Sergei Grits / AP

Giles said Russia could step in with a range of other initiatives before the situation got that far, such as setting itself up as a mediator for a transition of power already suggested by Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader and runner-up in the election, who said Monday that she was ready to step in as national leader after disputing the election result.

There are plenty of other forms of "assistance" that could Moscow dress up as something acceptable, Giles said, including reinforcing Belarusian security forces with Russia's heavily militarized national guard.

"Russia will be ready, no doubt," he said. "But for the time being, there is no threat of Moscow's biggest concern, which is a new government in Minsk looking to cut economic and security ties with Russia and turn to the West."

Tsikhanouskaya had previously voiced her opposition to deeper integration with Moscow at the expense of her country's sovereignty, but she has nonetheless said she would embrace good, friendly relations with all of Belarus' neighbors, including Russia.

Rendering any military assistance for Lukashenko would also be an extremely unpopular move domestically for Putin, said Ferris, of RUSI.

Belarus and Russia share deep economic, historic and cultural ties, but Putin's relationship with Lukashenko became frosty after the failure of talks last year to deepen the integration between the two countries, with Lukashenko rejecting what he saw as an assault on his country's sovereignty.

Image: Alexander Lukashenko
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, center, surrounded by his bodyguards, listens to an employee of the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday.Andrei Stasevich / AP

Those ties were further strained just before the election after Belarus detained a group of suspected Russian mercenaries, whom Belarusian authorities accused of being in the country to destabilize it. Russia denies employing mercenaries for that purpose.

Ferris added that unlike in Ukraine, where Russia backed anti-government separatists in eastern Ukraine during the political turmoil in 2014, resulting in a military conflict that has yet to be resolved, there are fewer divides along ethnic or linguistic lines in Belarus, making it hard to draw parallels.

Moreover, Russia has been trying to extricate itself from responsibility for the situation in eastern Ukraine while saving face without losing control for years, she said, making Putin likely highly unwilling to risk going down that path again.

Instead, Ferris said, the situation that occurred in Armenia in 2018 could be an option — although a Moscow-friendly government was no longer in power, she said, Russia decided to forge links with the new leader to ensure that Armenia remained relatively onside.

Image: Alexander Lukashenko
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko delivers a speech during a rally near the Government House in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday.Reuters

"Even though Moscow would ultimately prefer to see Lukashenko remain in power, should another, perhaps more 'pro-Western,' leader come to power, Russia would be able to broker a decent relationship with that incumbent, even if it is not ideal," she said.

What Lukashenko's appeals to Putin really show is that he might not be able to deal with the protests without Putin's help, said Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, a political think tank.

"This very political crisis, no matter who is going to prevail in the end, has already undermined Belarusian sovereignty to an extent never seen before," Preiherman said. "And that is Russia's ideal scenario no matter what happens next."