Russia has created a reserve police force for use in neighbouring Belarus on the request of its embattled strongman leader, President Vladimir Putin said, warning that he would deploy it across the border if protests in the country turn violent.
The show of support for President Alexander Lukashenko came with a reiterated warning from Mr Putin that western countries should refrain from attempting to influence the situation in Belarus. It is almost three weeks since mass protests against Mr Lukashenko’s 26-year regime erupted after he was declared the winner of his sixth consecutive presidential election this month with 80 per cent of the vote.
Moscow has long propped up Mr Lukashenko and treated its western neighbour as a client state. But the Kremlin initially offered lukewarm support for its ally, amid widespread international condemnation of a brutal crackdown on the protests.
“[Mr Lukashenko] asked me to form a dedicated reserve of law enforcement officers, and I did it,” Mr Putin said in an interview with state-run television aired on Thursday.
“But we also agreed that it will not be used until the situation gets out of control, and until the extremist elements, hiding behind political slogans, cross certain boundaries such as looting, setting fire to cars . . . seizing administrative buildings and so on,” he said. “We came to the conclusion that there is no such need now, and, I hope, it will not exist, and therefore we will not use this reserve.”
Mr Lukashenko has on multiple occasions called for military assistance from Moscow. But analysts have warned that while the peaceful pro-democracy protest movement against him — and Belarusian society in general — is not anti-Russian, a strong show of support from the Kremlin could alter that.
Since Mr Lukashenko’s disputed re-election on August 9, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets, in what has become the most serious challenge to his quarter century in power.
Since the crackdown in the immediate aftermath of the election, in which at least three people died and almost 7,000 were detained, Mr Lukashenko has resorted to more targeted harassment of opposition figures and revived vague promises of constitutional reform in a bid to pacify protesters.
“If someone wants dialogue — fine . . . If there are reasonable people in the opposition, who see their country as free and independent . . . express your position, but not on the street. There won’t be any dialogue in Belarus under pressure from the streets,” he said on Thursday, according to the state-run news agency Belta.
However, even as he has made vague promises about domestic dialogue, Mr Lukashenko has continued to warn that his opponents are backed by foreign forces bent on ousting him.
“Today were are confronted with a certain stage of a — let’s put it bluntly — hybrid war against Belarus. How else can we describe it? . . . The diplomatic slaughter against us has begun at the highest level,” he said on Thursday.
He also reiterated his claims that Belarus’s western neighbour, Poland, had designs on the region around Grodno, where Mr Lukashenko recently replaced the governor after local authorities made concessions to protesters.
“You see these statements that if Belarus falls apart, the Grodno region will go to Poland. They are already openly talking about this,” he said. “[But] they will not succeed in this plan, that I know for sure.”