Russian leader Vladimir Putin said on Thursday the Kremlin had created a special reserve police force to intervene in Belarus and support Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, if needed. In an interview with state-run Russia 1 TV channel, reported by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Putin stated the Kremlin is prepared to deploy those forces, but only if the situation “gets out of control.”
“We have of course certain obligations towards Belarus, and the question Lukashenko raised was whether we would provide the necessary help. I told him Russia would fulfill all its obligations. Alexander Grigorivich (Lukashenko) asked me to create a reserve police force and I have done that. But we agreed this would not be used unless the situation got out of control,” Putin said, according to Reuters.
ISW notes that “the Kremlin has supported Lukashenko with RT [Russia Today] technical personnel, information support, and potentially covert security coordination since August 19.” I earlier wrote about Russia’s possible already ongoing covert security reinforcement in Belarus. ISW has previously assessed the Kremlin is prepared to openly intervene in Belarus to support Lukashenko if he is unable to control protests.
However, writes ISW, this is the first Kremlin acknowledgment of actual preparations to intervene.
Cynically flipping the information war narrative, Lukashenko has reiterated claims that NATO is backing the protests, notes ISW, adding that “Lukashenko claimed Belarus’ neighbors are conducting a ‘hybrid war’ to overthrow him….”
Moscow has been falsely claiming foreign intervention has been ongoing in Belarus since August 19. The Kremlin previously pledged it would intervene in Belarus in response to foreign intervention.
But Putin’s remarks were the strongest signal yet that Russia is prepared to use force in Belarus, writes Reuters. Mass anti-regime demonstrations have taken place in Belarus since an August 9 election that the opposition says was rigged to prolong Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
Belarus is Russia’s closest ally among its former Soviet colonies. Moscow and Minsk have even proclaimed a “union state,” which includes a Soviet-style red flag. With its fortified borders with NATO members, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, Belarus is critical to Russia’s defense – serving as the only non-Russian buffer between NATO and Moscow. Putin is not ready to lose that vital strategic buffer.
ISW assesses that – “Putin is likely issuing this statement as a dual warning – both to protesters and to Lukashenko – to stabilize the situation to avoid a Russian intervention.”
Reuters notes that the West has so far acted cautiously, wary of provoking a Russian military intervention like that in neighboring Ukraine in 2014. EU foreign ministers are discussing possible sanctions against a list of 20 Belarusians blamed for electoral fraud or the abuse of protesters. But the Belarus opposition has said the EU should hold back on sanctions for now to avoid the impression of foreign intervention.
Poland, however, has taken a stronger stance and has demanded Russia drop any plans to intervene. Poland “urges Russia to immediately withdraw from plans of a military intervention in Belarus, under (the) false excuse of ‘restoring control’ – a hostile act, in breach of international law and human rights of Belarusian people, who should be free to decide their own fate,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a tweet, reported by Reuters.