Will Russia intervene in Belarus?
Russian intervention is possible, but at this point very unlikely. Much depends on the next steps of the protesters, the Belarusian regime, and major Western states.
Throughout August, scores of Belarusians have protested against their autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko. This is seemingly the biggest challenge the Russia-aligned regime has ever faced.
Amidst these events, some analysts, including a former US Ambassador to Belarus, warned that Russia might use forces to intervene in Belarus. Frequent comparisons are made to Ukraine in 2014, where Russia annexed Crimea and abetted separatist fighters in the country’s east after strongman and Kremlin-ally Yanukovych got swept away by a popular revolution.
Indeed, one commentator suggested that Russia might not just stop at quelling the protests in Belarus, but would also attempt to conquer parts of adjacent Lithuania, a NATO and EU member.
Recent developments seem to confirm these concerns. Protests and repression are not subsiding, and Lukashenko has already asked Russia to offer assistance with police forces, which Russia is now ready to do.
What, then, does research on Russian foreign policy and the workings of international politics tell us? Will Russia intervene in Belarus?
The short answer is this: Russia could indeed intervene, but this is very unlikely at the moment. Much will depend on how exactly the protesters, the regime, and major Western states will proceed.
Why would Russia intervene?
Russia’s actions in the past suggest that the Kremlin would use force in Belarus if it saw this as the best way to ensure either of two goals: the stability of the Russian regime, and Russia’s military-strategic position vis-à-vis the United States and NATO.
First, Russia under Putin counts in many ways as a prime example of how the politics of leadership survival affect a state’s foreign policy. Russian policy prioritises regime stability, be it in the informal structures of how Russia is actually ruled, its parliamentary politics, its macroeconomics, or its military doctrine. Foreign policy is no exception.
Second, among the Russian elite, there has long been genuine fear of the United States and NATO, which are both seen as seeking military domination over Russia and the undermining of its domestic stability.
For example, even in the supposedly Western-friendly period of Putin’s early reign, Russia reacted strongly to US- and NATO-internal plans for stationing Ballistic Missile Defense systems in Europe, upgrading its own missile arsenals and adjusting its military doctrine to preserve its ability to strike the United States and Europe with nuclear weapons.
Recent history reminds us of these two basic interests. When using force against Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin mainly sought to safeguard the Russian regime and keep NATO and the EU at bay. With the Maidan movement swelling, it first tried to prop up its autocratic ally Yanukovych. Repression proved unsuccessful, the protests only increased, and prominent Western leaders sided with them. When the Revolution of Dignity formed a new government and announced a radical pro-Western course, the circles around Putin moved swiftly, occupying and annexing Crimea and aiding and abetting separatists in Ukraine’s East.
How likely is an intervention?
Currently, the Russian regime is unlikely to use force in or against Belarus, as its core interests are arguably better served with less drastic means.
To be sure, recent Russian policy indicates that the Kremlin is watching closely how events unfold and might well use force to safeguard Russia’s regime and geopolitical assets. Russia has just seen anti-Putin protests in the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk. On 19 August, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that ‘foreign powers‘ were meddling in Belarus. At the request of Lukashenko, Russia then set up a ‘reserve police force‘ to support the Belarusian regime if the need arose.
However, with Lukashenko still in charge, Russia can afford to wait. Keeping Lukashenko on a string will ensure further Belarusian compliance, as would a managed power transition with a new elite willing to heed the Kremlin’s wishes.
Both options seem far more likely than the rapid shift seen in Ukraine in 2014. While events are still unfolding, there are currently no signs of major anti-Kremlin sentiments or of a precipitous push towards revolution and a major geopolitical reorientation of Belarus.
Recent Russian actions seem to confirm this sentiment. Moscow has not made any overt military moves, no overt threats have been made, and the stand-by police force is designated simply to aid Belarusian authorities in order to prevent chaos.
Indeed, while warning of foreign meddling, Lavrov had encouraged the Belarusian opposition to enter into talks with the government.
While its actions against Ukraine are much better known, Russia has tolerated and even actively mediated power transitions in the past, even when they led to former allied autocrats being retired. This included revolutions in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010, as well as in Armenia in 2018. In all these cases, however, the opposition did not push for geopolitical reorientation and there was a somewhat orderly transition-process in which Russia was included.
Furthermore, the Russian elite has long displayed sensitivity to the risks of military intervention and nationalist backlash – even in Ukraine. The initial stages of the Crimean annexation were designed to be deniable and abortable in the face of violent Ukrainian resistance. Russia had originally threatened all-out military invasion should loyalist Ukrainian forces take on separatists in Donbas head-on. When they did, Russia backed down. The Russian elite does not want to overcommit.
What can be done?
Currently, Western states walk a thin line by condemning election fraud and violence by the government and imposing minor sanctions while deliberately trying to avoid a repetition of what happened in Ukraine in 2014. There does not seem to be much appetite in Brussels or Washington to promise Belarusians EU and NATO membership anytime soon, and the Belarusians do not seem to crave it.
Both the West and the Belarusians are arguably on the right track, as these approaches maximise the possibility of a peaceful power transition while minimising the risk of repression and Russian intervention.
Much depends on how all parties move ahead. Unlike in Ukraine, large-scale deliberate killings of protestors have fortunately not occurred. Arguably, Russia has the strongest leverage to ensure that this remains the case. Paranoia or greed might shift the course to further bloodshed, but history and theory suggest a more benign development.
Jonas J. Driedger is a Research Associate and Ph.D. Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His work focuses on military conflict, deterrence, and international security policy in Europe and Eurasia, with a particular focus on Russia.