Gonzalo de Cadenas-Santiago
Director of Economic and Financial Research at MAPFRE Economics
More than two weeks after President Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner of Belarus’s rigged presidential election with an unlikely 80 percent of the vote, his regime remains in crisis. Lukashenko needs help, and despite saying that he has secured assurances from President Putin, Moscow reiterates that its agreement is to provide “comprehensive assistance to maintain security in ‘Ukraine’ — sorry, ‘Belarus'” — but under the terms of the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State between the two countries (which specifies aid against external threats only). No sooner said than done: Lukashenko claims that the protests have been orchestrated by “foreign actors” and that “NATO troops are creeping toward our borders.”
Dmitri Trenin—from the Carnegie Moscow Center—and Putin have four genuine options. The first is military intervention, either to support Lukashenko or to force the two States together, which would be hugely counterproductive. It would turn a friendly neighbor into a hostile one, and possibly result in prolonged resistance to Russian presence. It would also constitute a profoundly undemocratic move that would further destabilize the region, increase tensions with NATO and result in new sanctions being imposed on Moscow. The second option is inaction, in the knowledge that Lukashenko would fall, and in the hope that his successor would want to retain close ties with Moscow. But violence and a power vacuum may persist, leaving Moscow with no option other than military intervention, with the same consequences as set out above. The third option is to prop up Lukashenko without using military force. But this would make Russia complicit in a doomed regime, incite hatred of Moscow and surely steer Belarussian sympathies toward the West. The fourth option is to manage a transfer of power in Minsk, pushing Lukashenko into exile, which would help to assert a respected interim leadership, and then ensure more legitimate elections in due course.
The fourth option seems most likely to produce the best result for Moscow. On August 19, the European Council declared that it did not recognize the results of the elections, but resolutely decided not to echo the opposition’s call for the elections to be repeated, offering instead “to support a peaceful transition of power.” Putin has long wanted to put an end to Belarus’s independence. His offer of a formal union last year was rejected by Lukashenko, partly because of the latter’s insistence on keeping Moscow at arm’s length. This crisis could, in theory, present Putin with the ideal opportunity to achieve a renewed long-term goal: greater Russia. The EU and the West, meanwhile, are neither there nor wanted (Westlessness).