But this weekend’s two phone calls with Putin – the first sought by Lukashenko after days of unprecedented protests following a hotly contested presidential election and police violence – mark a turning point. And this is a far greater geopolitical risk than the attention the crisis is currently attracting in European capitals and within the Beltway. Recalling the violent protests of 2014 in Kiev, this is a time when a relatively localized moment of dissent could plunge Europe into crisis.
In their call on Saturday, the two autocrats agreed “to regular contacts at different levels and a readiness to strengthen allied relations”. But even though Lukashenko insisted on Belarusian autonomy afterwards, that was when he ended his erratic association with the European Union and turned directly to his eastern neighbor. harder to bail him out. The next step is Putin’s. But it is neither obvious nor easy. Here are some of its options.
1. A large-scale Russian military intervention in Belarus
The nuclear option is quite improbable. Putin could decide that the insertion of little green men seen in Ukraine, or even Russian troops or uniformed policemen, would finally settle his control over the vital neighbor. Belarus is central to Putin’s sense of regional security. In defense, it is a territorial buffer between NATO in Poland. On the offensive, it gives access to the Suwalki Gap – the flat expanse of land stretching from Belarus to Russian-controlled Kaliningrad – which NATO planners often worry Russia could scold from tanks, cutting off Baltic members of the alliance military from the rest of Europe. the west of the continent.
Military maneuvers are something Putin has instinctively been comfortable with, if the likely cost is limited. He can calculate – perhaps wrongly – that Belarusians feel close enough to their domineering neighbor that Moscow’s men can “liberate” Belarus from Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.” But that would entail two huge risks. The first being that Russian troops could simply ignite anti-government protests and end up with a blunt military hammer to flatten the delicate wave of women-only protests and tractor factory strikes. This is not a good look at the national level for the old-fashioned Russian regime, wary of its own unpopularity and periodic protests in big cities.
The second is the risk of sanctions and a Western response, where the Russian march to the Suwalki Gap would ring huge alarm bells for NATO. US President Donald Trump can be seen as suspiciously pro-Putin in much of what he does. But Putin can also rightly assess that the Kremlin should not risk making retaliation against Russia a central part of the November presidential race. The Russian economy would not take many more pressures. In short, there is probably more to be lost from the crass Russian armor march on Minsk than there is to be gained.
2. Be a little smarter than tanks
The Kremlin is the master of slow play and unexpected sly movement. The release of more than 30 Russian prisoners by Belarus, accused of being mercenaries, came with the Kremlin’s comment that the “relevant departments” of both countries – read intelligence services – were now working closely together. Putin could send his ghosts, practiced as they are to shut down social media, pick the right person rather than hit a crowd and crush dissent. Over the next few months, this silent brutality, coupled with a slow decline in enthusiasm for protest, could prevail.
3. Tell Lukashenko it’s time to go and try to make the consequences your own.
It is extremely risky. The Kremlin would essentially empower the opposition led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya here, and might hope that lasting ties with Russia, to which Belarus is intimately linked economically and socially, would mean any future government would seek warm relations with Moscow. But the biggest crisis at stake would be for another dictator to fall at Russia’s borders. Putin cannot afford this popular force message at the moment. Any new Belarusian government would likely also look west to the EU for immediate assistance and ratification. The last time a Russian neighbor looked so quickly west was Ukraine, and the Kremlin invaded. There are too many downsides and likely risks to make Lukashenko’s downfall, without a carefully planned alternative, attractive.
4. Call for new elections and insert Russia’s new candidate
Over a decade ago, it was perhaps Putin’s favorite option. Moscow was master of creating and forcing a local election victory for its preferred option, often a technocrat seemingly brought up out of nowhere.
New elections would calm the protests, and a third-choice presidential candidate could appease the Belarusian security services and elite so they can still keep a grip on the levers of power. Yet Moscow can also be wary that giving concessions such as a new vote to a crowd of protesters may encourage them to make broader demands. Another, new vote that protesters could also conclude could be rigged, would bring the crisis back to square one.
5. Do nothing for a week or two
Let the pressure build on Lukashenko and the dysfunction escalates, as the protests begin to affect ordinary life. Other protest movements waned over time, once riot police violence subsided, protesters’ bruises faded and ordinary concerns became more important. Practical concerns dominate ideology when a population has faced a corrupt and repressive government for decades. The importance of jobs and wages will emerge when the euphoria of free speech and revolt begins to wear off. The leader of the protesters is currently in Lithuania and, over time, crowds may lack focus and motivation. Given how flawed the other four options above are, this may be Putin’s first choice.