European leaders have urged Russia not to intervene in neighboring Belarus as growing protests pose an unprecedented challenge to President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
As pressure from protesters mounted over the weekend, Lukashenko said he had received assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia was ready to provide “comprehensive assistance to ensure the security of Belarus.” He also claimed that NATO was amassing troops along the Belarus border—allegations that the trans-Atlantic alliance has denied. A Kremlin readout of a call between the two leaders said that Russia “reaffirmed its readiness to render the necessary assistance to resolve the challenges facing Belarus.”
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said he doubts that Russia would launch an invasion or incursion into Belarus—as happened in Ukraine in 2014 after the Maidan Revolution ousted pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych—but did not rule out the possibility of Russian interference.
“I hope it’s not realistic, but at the same time I think you cannot deny it because it’s a possibility,” Linkevicius said.
While the element of surprise has been the cornerstone of Russia’s modus operandi under Putin, experts say Russian military intervention would prove to be expensive, bloody, and unpopular with Russian voters at a time when opinion polls show trust in Putin is at an all-time low.
Still, the Kremlin has plenty of other points of leverage beyond intervention. Belarus’s anemic economy is highly dependent on Moscow’s energy exports, and the country’s media is also closely intertwined with Russia’s, making it vulnerable to disinformation operations.
Sitting on the fault lines of NATO and Russia, Belarus has historically been a reliable ally for Moscow—even as Lukashenko tried at times to play Russia and the West off one another for his own political gain. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Lukashenko to rethink his dependence on Moscow, and his relationship with Putin has frayed in recent years—another reason to doubt Putin’s willingness to prop up the Belarusian leader as his grip on power loosens.
Lithuania, a NATO and European Union member state that borders Belarus and has deep historical ties to the country, has played an outsized role in Europe’s response to the surge in protests against Lukashenko. The protests began a week ago, after the president’s disputed reelection. His regime is widely believed to have falsified the results.
The opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who posed a serious challenge to Lukashenko ahead of the vote, fled to Lithuania last week after receiving apparent threats against her family.
The Belarusian leader’s grip on power is looking increasingly shaky as around 100,000 people gathered in Minsk on Sunday for the largest protest in the country’s modern history.
Lukashenko initially dug in his heels, unleashing his security forces to violently quell protests and dismissing calls for another election. Speaking to a counter-rally of stalwart supporters on Sunday, Lukashenko castigated his political opponents as traitors and puppets. “Even if they calm down now, they will again crawl out of their holes like rats after a while,” he said.
But he appeared to offer small concessions after it became clear that key elements of his political support among the country’s state-owned enterprises were crumbling.
On Monday, workers at a state-run tractor factory in Minsk chanted “leave” as Lukashenko tried to give a speech. At the end of his talk, a visibly rattled Lukashenko said, “Thank you, I have said everything. You can shout ‘Leave.’”
Blue-collar workers who once formed a core part of Lukashenko’s support base have gone on strike at several large factories over the past week as frustration mounts over the election and the police brutality against peaceful protesters. On Monday hundreds of journalists working for state television, usually a reliable source of pro-regime propaganda, went on strike.
In a video posted on social media on Monday, Lukashenko chided a crowd of protesting workers: “Don’t worry, I won’t beat you, it’s not in my interests,” he said. “But if one of you provokes me, I’ll deal with it cruelly. Be a man. There’s a whole crowd of you here and I’m only all alone. Put your phone down!” he added, according to a video taken of the event.
In a little over a week almost 7,000 people have been arrested and hundreds have been injured in clashes with the security forces. Protesters released from prison on Thursday shared gruesome accounts of their detention, including beatings and overcrowded conditions. Some of the detainees were forced to lie face-down in puddles of blood.
With his back to the wall, Lukashenko on Monday offered changes to the country’s constitution and raised the possibility of new elections. “We need to adopt a new constitution. You must adopt it in a referendum, and under the new constitution, you could hold if you like both parliamentary elections and a presidential one, as well as elections of local authorities,” he said, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
But Belarusian opposition figures and other Western officials appeared to view the proposals as too little, too late.
Linkevicius, who referred to Lukashenko as “the former head of state” in his interview, said the Belarusian leader has “lost all his credibility” in the eyes of the Belarusian people. “I see no prospective for him to stay, because it is very difficult after what he did to his own people.”
Linkevicius said the EU was preparing targeted sanctions against Belarusian government officials involved in electoral fraud and the ensuing crackdown on protesters. “We’re talking about individual targeted sanctions—those who committed electoral fraud, used excessive force in the streets, the leadership, riot police leadership, KGB, leadership like that,” he said. “It’s very important to politically isolate these de facto leaders so they can understand that there is no future for them after what they did.” The KGB is the name of Belarus’s national intelligence agency.
Lithuania has proposed creating an EU fund to help victims of the crackdown and offer financial lifelines to Belarusian civil society pushing for democratic reforms in the country. EU leaders are expected to hold an emergency video conference meeting on Wednesday to address the crisis in Belarus.