KYIV, Ukraine — A groundswell of popular unrest in Belarus over the weekend spurred the country’s embattled president, Alexander Lukashenko, to make a last-ditch request for Russian intervention to avert his ouster.
However, Lukashenko’s gambit to curry Moscow’s favor has sparked rows with neighboring Ukraine, as well as with the NATO military alliance, potentially foreshadowing how a Russian intervention into Belarus could have far-reaching and potentially destabilizing consequences in a region that has been on edge ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.
Nationwide protests erupted in Belarus after Sunday’s presidential election in which the 65-year-old Lukashenko claims to have taken more than 80% of the vote. Protesters say the election was rigged. The leading opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has fled to neighboring Lithuania, citing concerns for her children’s safety.
Belarus and Russia are part of a joint defense pact that guarantees Russian intervention in the event of a common threat. After a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, Lukashenko underscored the Russian president’s willingess to intervene on his behalf.
“And we agreed. At our very first request, comprehensive assistance will be provided to ensure the security of the Republic of Belarus,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarusian media reports.
Belarus Freedom march is the largest gathering in Belarus history! pic.twitter.com/2SwS59qfLS
— Franak Viačorka (@franakviacorka) August 16, 2020
Apparently undeterred by Putin’s pledged support, Tikhonovskaya, the exiled opposition leader, said during a Sunday video address that she was ready to return to Belarus to assume the role of “national leader” in an interim administration following Lukashenko’s ouster.
A protest gathering in Minsk on Sunday drew some 200,000 people, with many chanting “step down,” according to news reports. A nationwide strike began on Monday.
While speaking at a tractor factory on Monday, Lukashenko dug in his heels, proclaiming his willingness to consider constitutional changes to “share power” but not due to pressure from “the streets.”
“You speak about unfair elections and want fair ones? I have an answer for you. We had the elections. Unless you kill me, there will be no other elections,” Lukashenko reportedly said at the rally.
Luksahenko has also conjured up the threat of NATO forces massing on Belarus’ borders as a mutual threat to Russia — an assertion that NATO officials immediately rejected.
“NATO troops are at our gates,” Lukashenko reportedly said over the weekend according to multiple agencies.
For their part, NATO officials deny that the Western alliance is massing military forces near Belarus.
“There is no NATO buildup in the region,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in a statement. “NATO’s multinational presence in the eastern part of the alliance is not a threat to any country. It is strictly defensive, proportionate, and designed to prevent conflict and preserve peace.”
As part of a larger, eastward repositioning of US forces in Europe to deter Russian aggression, US F-16 fighters arrived for a temporary deployment at Łask Air Base in Poland over the weekend. Łask Air Base is about 250 miles from Poland’s border with Belarus.
On Monday, a Russian Su-27 fighter scrambled to intercept a US Air Force RC-135 surveillance aircraft flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile that day, Russia kicked off air combat exercises from its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad — a territory that borders the NATO countries of Poland and Lithuania and is separated from Belarus by a 60-mile-wide land corridor known as the Suwalki Gap.
Lithuanian government officials have sent diplomatic warning shots to Moscow about a potential intervention in Belarus.
“There are no reasons for military support from Russia, and no legal or other grounds for it. It would constitute an invasion into [Belarus] and would destroy the last traces of its independence,” Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius told reporters in Vilnius on Monday, multiple news agencies reported.
“Russia would risk a lot if it did it, in the face of what is going on in Belarus, in the face of the popular support. It should figure out that an invasion would not be justified, neither legally, nor morally, nor politically,” Linkevičius added.
Should Russia permanently base troops in Belarus, it would add to the roughly 80,000 Russia troops already forward positioned within Russian territory near Ukraine’s border.
Ukrainian FM @DmytroKuleba summoned Ukraine’s Ambassador to Belarus for consultations on the latest developments in Minsk-Kyiv relations after a number of unacceptable actions from Belarus towards Ukraine.https://t.co/ob7Yl7ZXiR pic.twitter.com/dnJWXwWsAh
— UKR Embassy in USA (@UKRintheUSA) August 17, 2020
Ukraine recalled its ambassador from Belarus on Monday, citing “Minsk’s unacceptable actions” regarding the arrest of Russian mercenaries. On July 29, in advance of the presidential election, Belarusian authorities detained 33 members of the Russian mercenary group known as Wagner. All of those militants except for one have since been sent back to Russia against Ukrainian protests.
Ukrainian officials had claimed 28 of the captured mercenaries, including nine Ukrainians, were guilty of terrorism under Ukrainian law for their role in conducting combat operations on Russia’s behalf inside Ukrainian territory.
In 2014, in retaliation for Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution, Russia invaded Ukraine’s eastern Donbas territory. Moscow has continued to wage a low-intensity land war on Ukrainian soil ever since. Today, Ukrainian troops remain mired in a stalemated trench war against a combined force of Russian regulars, pro-Russian separatists, and mercenaries — including those from the Wagner group. So far, the conflict has killed some 14,000 people.
“God help the Belarusian authorities not to have another burning, blood-shedding Donbas on their territory, that all those Wagner troops are able to create,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote in a social media post Saturday.
Ukraine’s 2014 revolution began as a statement by everyday Ukrainians in favor of an economic pact with the European Union rather than one with Russia. Due to violent missteps by Ukraine’s pro-Russian president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, those street protests evolved into a full-blown revolution that ushered a national cultural, economic, and political divorce from Russia.
#Minsk. Happening right now. A protest not far from the prison on Valadarskaha street, where #Tsikhanouski is being held. People are holding white-red-white flags literally everywere in the city. Cars are honking. It doesn’t end. #Belarus pic.twitter.com/l4IPSzgNau
— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) August 17, 2020
The protests in Belarus are not, however, expressly anti-Russian in their nature, as were the anti-Yanukovych protests in Ukraine in 2014. The current unrest in Belarus is, for now, narrowly focused on bringing about Lukashenko’s ouster in order to clear the way for a new era of genuine democracy.
Moreover, Lukashenko has long resisted a Russian proposal to unify the two countries as a supranational state. Therefore, some Ukrainian experts doubt Russia’s interest in military intervention since a post-Lukashenko Belarus may not pivot away from Russia in favor of the West to the degree that Ukraine did in 2014.
On Sunday in Moscow, around 300 protesters demonstrated in front of the Belarusian embassy, claiming the results of the Aug. 9 election were illegitimate. No one was detained, the Russian news agency TASS reported. And in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, a massive Belarusian flag was unveiled at the Maidan — the city’s central square and epicenter of the 2014 pro-democratic revolution.
Speaking at the tractor factory Monday, Lukashenko warned workers: “No offense, but you won’t bring me to my knees. Don’t do anything that will, first and foremost, harm you and your families.”