During the days of massive protests, brutal police crackdowns, and a general strike against his disputed re-election, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has called on Russia for support.
On Saturday, Lukashenko indicated that he and Putin “agreed that at the first request there will be comprehensive assistance provided to ensure the security of the Republic of Belarus.”
Russia has, in fact, been reacting in an uncharacteristically measured manner as the events in Belarus have unfolded.
When upheavals struck other former Soviet states — notably Georgia and Ukraine — Russia pounced on opportunities to increase its influence.
Moscow portrayed those protests as Western-backed efforts that roped-in both naive young people and extremist forces, using those arguments in support of its actions.
But if Russia has a strategy for Belarus, it’s obscure.
What do the media say?
According to the Institute for the Study of War, Belarusian state media had to insert the comment that Lukashenko “would only invite Russian forces “in the event of external military threats” – an aspect the president hadn’t specified.
Usually, state media are a tool for governments to craft their political messaging and a good indicator of government policies. However, in Belarus, one of the major state media tv channels went on strike in support of the demands of the protesters.
Nevertheless, Lukashenko made sure to drive home the message of an external threat at the borders in a speech at a pro-government rally on Saturday. There, he accused NATO of deploying tanks and planes to the country’s western border.
NATO quickly rejected the claim and said it was closely monitoring the events in Belarus. In a statement the military alliance added its presence in the East “is not a threat to any country” but “strictly defensive” in nature.
In the meantime, Russian pro-Kremlin media have been painting a picture that indicates that Moscow is still on the fence whether to come to the aid of Lukashenko.
Professor Vera Tolz, Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Manchester, told Euronews that state or state-affiliated Russian media have been “careful” in covering Belarus.
“The most important media is state TV. The news coverage does reveal the scale of protest, its peaceful nature and the fact that some demonstrators have been arrested and badly beaten. At the same time, the coverage claims that ‘the West is trying to destabilise Belarus according to the scenario of Ukraine.”
However, Tolz notes that Russian state TV also calls out the West for its hypocrisy by pointing a finger at French President Emmanuel Macron, who had called on Europe to support the anti-Lukashenko protesters in Belarus, yet did not do the same for the yellow-vest protests in his own country.
Moreover, she says Russian state media is highlighting how proactive the West’s position is in Belarus, yet it warns Russia not to interfere.
Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated there were “clear attempts of external interference in the affairs of a sovereign state to split society” in Belarus. But she didn’t elaborate any further.
Russian media sympathetic towards protesters
Russian media appear to have taken a somewhat sympathetic tone toward protesters and those siding with them.
Tolz says she noticed a change in tone last weekend, when she observed an increasing number of reports in the Russian state media that were very critical of Lukashenko.
“I noted on Sunday an article on RT International,” which quoted Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a prominent Russian politician, offering a “devastating critique of Lukashenko.”
In the article, Zhirinovsky cheers for the protesters, saying “Finally, you plucked up courage and said no to the dictatorship”. According to Tolz, a similar position was articulated in the main talk shows on Russian state TV over the weekend.
Tolz thinks the “Russian government’s position can be ascertained from an article on the situation in Belarus by RIA” [one of the main Russian state news agencies] published August 18.
The article is based on an interview with a member of the State Council for International Relations at the office of the President of Russia.
“While starting by alleging that the West is keen to fan the flames in Belarus, this official admits that the protests have started spontaneously and are as large as they are without any Western actions. He predicts that, unless Lukashenko resigns, the protests can go on and on. Most importantly, he says that, when you have hundreds of thousands of people protesting, you cannot initiate a crackdown. Using the army or police appears to be inconceivable,” Tolz notes.
She says the statement suggests “a growing realisation in the Kremlin that Lukashenko and his regime cannot be saved. Russia is probably hoping that it could help with or orchestrate the election of Lukashenko’s successor who would be more pro-Russia than pro-Western.”
A few highlights from pro-Kremlin media:
As opposed to state TV, some news media in Russia have been mildly critical of the protests in Belarus.
Argumenty I Fakty has been reporting on the events. The tone of their reporting has been relatively neutral, but it does show its colours in its selection of expert voices.
In an article featuring several expert opinions about the situation in Belarus, published August 18, a majority of them are highlighting the different ways in which foreign powers may be involved.
One of the experts raises questions about a Telegram channel, which protesters had used to organise themselves. Alexander Malkevich, president of the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, wonders who finances the channel and notes that “instructions for the riots appeared” on it a few days before the election.
Izvestia, another online news source, is sticking to news updates on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s phone calls with European leaders to discuss the situation in Belarus. It also published an article on the statements of the General Secretary of the Communist Party in Russia, Gennady Zyuganov, focusing on him calling the situation in Belarus a kind of coup attempt, which “will spread to Russia.”
Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article looking at the composition of the opposition movement in Belarus, calling it an “alternative state apparatus”. The author focuses on participants’ anti-Russian sentiments and nationalists and raises questions about their finances.
Moskovsky Komsomolets updates its readers on the events in Belarus with a ticker and gives a decent amount of space to voices critical of the protesters. In an article today (18 August), it cited Zyuganov, who warned that the prospect of the fall of Lukashenko would be detrimental to Russian interests.
Zyuganov added the protests would lead to the destruction of the state and called out opposition leader Svietlana Tikhanovskaya for having “no programme.”
“She does not know what to do, neither in the economy nor in politics.
However, the paper also looks into what could happen if Lukashenko were to be overthrown.
Most of the political scientists interviewed for the article agree that Lukashenko will likely hold on to power until the very last moment, but they are open to the option that new elections may take place. Yet, they’re sceptical whether the opposition will be willing to be patient enough and put in the amount of work necessary to change the system.
Moscow has been tight-lipped about the protests that began after the August 9 election in which official results showed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recorded an unlikely 80% landslide to win a sixth term.
The diversity of the crowds and their huge size — more than 200,000 in Minsk on Sunday by some estimates — undercuts the ability of both the Belarusian establishment and Russia to argue that the protests aren’t representative of the country as a whole.
Before the vote, Belarusian authorities arrested 33 Russian security contractors on charges of planning to foment unrest ahead of the election. They let them go last week in an apparent bid to mend the rift with Moscow.
But unlike during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 and 2014 mass protests in Ukraine, there has been little anti-Russia sentiment expressed in Belarus.
Russia and Belarus have an unusually close official relationship, but one in which serious spats often emerge. The two countries signed a union agreement in 1997 calling for close political, economic and military ties, but that stops short of a full merger.
Still, Lukashenko has frequently accused Russia of trying to deprive Belarus of its independence, and he has made sporadic feints at improving relations with the West.
“There is one important line in the Russian state TV coverage: Lukashenko has never been a true friend or even a good partner of Russia. He has always been duplicitous,” Tolz told Euronews.
On Saturday, Lukashenko called Putin to consult on the crisis and announced that the Russian leader had agreed to provide security assistance if asked. However, a terse Kremlin readout of the call only emphasised the importance of preserving the union agreement but didn’t mention the possibility of security assistance or give any other clues about Russia’s stance.
The presence of the Russian mercenaries and the close Russia ties of an opposition aspirant who was denied a place on the ballot and jailed — Viktor Babariko, former head of a Russia-owned bank — hint that Russia may have been laying a long-game strategy to undermine Lukashenko.
Russia has not indicated how much or what kind of security help it would be willing to send to Belarus if asked. Separately, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a six-country alliance including Russia and Belarus, said a Belarusian request for assistance would have to be examined by all members, a possible indication of hesitance to rush to Lukashenko’s aid.