MOSCOW – As Belarus experiences spasms of mass protests and a brutal police crackdown, its giant neighbor Russia has been uncharacteristically low key in its response.
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, including neo-Nazis, and quickly capitalized on Ukraine's 2014 chaos to annex Crimea and back separatist rebels in the east.
But if Russia has a strategy for Belarus, it's obscure.
Moscow has been tight-lipped about the protests that began after the Aug. 9 election in which official results showed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recorded an unlikely 80% landslide to win a sixth term. The first publicly known contact between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin since the election came Saturday.
It's possible that the sustained unrest caught the Kremlin flatfooted, expecting the trouble would be short-lived. Or it could be that Russia is struggling to see a clear path forward given that relations between Moscow and Minsk are a shape-shifting mix of cooperation and suspicion.
Previous presidential elections that gave similarly outsized victories to Lukashenko were met with protests, but they were smaller, lasted only a short time, drew largely young crowds and centered in the capital.
This year's outburst has been larger, affected many parts of the country, and, significantly, includes factory hands and other working-class people. 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.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova last week complained of “clear attempts of external interference in the affairs of a sovereign state to split society” in Belarus, without elaborating. But the brevity of the comment from a woman known for lengthy hectoring made it seem almost cursory; she used more words to discuss Russian journalists detained in the protests.
Lukashenko, too, on Friday claimed that foreign actors from several Western countries, as well as the Russian opposition, were driving the protests. 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.
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 emphasized 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.
Given Lukashenko's concerns about Russia and his monumental ego, he would have to swallow hard to effectively admit weakness and turn to Russia for help. Russia in turn could exploit his supplicant position to try to marginalize him or even ease him out of power in favor of a less-mercurial leader.
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 Organization, 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.
In the view of analyst Maxim Samorukov, the belief that Russia wants to push out Lukashenko is far-fetched.
“Russia's overriding priority in Belarus is to forestall the country's integration with the West, and the toxic figure of Lukashenko is the best possible obstacle to that process,” he wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“His instincts and luck have kept him afloat, as both Russia and the West believe the risks from his downfall would outweigh the benefits,” Samorukov said.
But Timothy Ash, an analyst at BlueBay Asset Management, suggests that the geopolitical timing might be right for Putin to be aggressive about Belarus in light of the looming U.S. presidential election in which President Donald Trump faces presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“Putin might see all this in the light of U.S. elections — if he is going to move against Belarus, then the timing is great, while Trump is still in power, weak, lacking focus and leadership and before the Russia hawks around Biden come back in,” he wrote in a commentary.