Putin's choice face in Belarus are all fraught with risk

Putin's choice face in Belarus are all fraught with risk

Putin's choice face in Belarus are all fraught with risk

The Russian President Vladimir Putin has weathered oligarchs, dissidents and sanctions, and neighboring Ukraine has seen two revolutions and a civil war. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been an extraordinary outlier in the monumental change that has swept through the former Soviet Union -for 26 years, he's remained the pre-eminent figure in his impoverished country. 

Meanwhile, aging central Asian dictators have died or stepped aside. But this weekend's two phone calls with Putin the first sought by Lukashenko after days of unprecedented protest following a highly contested presidential election and police violence  mark a turning point. 

And it is one fraught with a geopolitical risk significantly bigger than the attention the crisis is currently getting in European capitals and inside the Beltway. Reminiscent of the violent protests in 2014 in Kiev, it is a moment when a relatively localized moment of dissent could plunge Europe into crisis.

In their Saturday call, the two autocrats agreed to "regular contacts at various levels and the disposition to strengthen allied relations." But however much Lukashenko insisted on Belarus's autonomy afterwards, this was the moment he stopped his erratic courtship of the European Union, and directly turned to his harsher eastern neighbor to bail him out. 

The next move is Putin's. But it is not obvious, or easy. Here are some of his options.
  • A full-scale Russian military intervention into Belarus
The nuclear option and pretty unlikely. Putin could decide the insertion of little green men seen in Ukraine, or even Russian uniformed troops or police, would settle finally his control of the vital neighbor. Belarus is essential to Putin's sense of regional security. In defense, it is a territorial buffer between NATO in Poland. In offense, it provides access to the Suwalki Gap  the stretch of flat land from Belarus to Russian-controlled Kaliningrad that NATO planners often fret Russia could swarm with tanks, cutting off the military alliance's Baltic members from the rest of the European western mainland. Pro-government supporters gather in Minsk on August 16, 2020 ahead of the arrival of President Alexander Lukashenko at a rally.

Military manoeuvers is something Putin has shown himself instinctively comfortable with, if the likely cost is limited. He may calculate perhaps incorrectly that Belarusians feel enough proximity to their overbearing neighbor, that Moscow's men can "liberate" Belarus of Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator." But that would bring two huge risks. The first being that Russian troops could simply inflame the anti-government protests, and be left with a blunt military hammer to flatten the delicate wave of female-only protests and tractor-factory strikes. That's not a good look domestically for the superannuated Russian regime, wary of its own unpopularity and periodic protests in major cities.

The second is the risk of sanctions and a Western response, where the Russian march towards the Suwalki Gap would ring huge NATO alarm bells. US President Donald Trump may be seen as suspiciously pro-Putin in much of what he does. But Putin may also assess, rightly, that the Kremlin shouldn't risk making retaliatory Russia-bashing a central plank of the November presidential race. 

The Russian economy wouldn't handle further pressure well. In short, there's probably more to lose from the coarse march of Russian armor on Minsk than there is to gain.

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