By PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News
(MINSK) — President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said that for now, Russia sees no need to send in its forces to intervene in Belarus but warned that it might if protesters there sought to remove president Alexander Lukashenko violently.
Putin said Russia had created a “reserve” of security forces to send and assist Lukashenko’s government in face of the protests but that for now, Moscow had not considered it necessary to deploy them and he hoped it would not need to.
“Russia starts from the position that all the problems in Belarus will be resolved via a peaceful way,” Putin said in an interview with Russian state television aired on Thursday. “For now there is no necessity for the use of Russian forces in Belarus and I hope there won’t be,” he said, adding that the position was agreed upon in both Moscow and Minsk.
Since the start of the large protests in Belarus almost three weeks ago, there has been speculation whether Russia might intervene to protect Lukashenko to prevent the collapse of the regime in a country heavily integrated with Russia and which the Kremlin views as strategically critical.
Putin on Thursday said he had created the “reserve” of security forces at Lukashenko’s request.
Lukashenko “asked me to form a certain reserve from officers of the law enforcement bodies. And I did that,” Putin said. “But we agreed it will not be used so long as the situation does not get out of control and while extremist elements, covering themselves with political slogans, don’t cross a certain line, don’t start burning cars, houses, banks, don’t seize administrative buildings, etc.”
Putin’s comments — his first detailed ones since the Belarus crisis began — signaled the Kremlin will not tolerate Lukashenko’s violent removal in the model of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution when protesters forced a Russian-backed authoritarian president from office through months of violent struggle by seizing government buildings and occupying the center of the capital, Kyiv. That revolution triggered a military intervention from Moscow, which annexed Crimea and covertly sent troops into eastern Ukraine.
The protests in Minsk have been peaceful. In the first days after a contested election sparked the demonstrations, riot police loyal to Lukashenko used violence against the protesters, detaining several thousands and subjecting them to systematic torture in jails, according to various reports and detainees’ accounts.
For the past two Sundays, Minsk has seen colossal, peaceful protests — the largest in Belarus’ history — where well over a hundred thousand people flooded the city center demanding Lukashenko step down and new elections held. The protests have rocked Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years and is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator.” But he has refused to begin negotiations with the opposition, instead accusing them of being part of a NATO plot to invade Belarus.
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Since the protests swelled, Lukashenko’s security forces have refrained from the earlier brutal violence. Instead, authorities are using quieter tactics to undermine the protests, such as opening criminal cases and detaining some key leaders. Smaller protests continue during the week, but the numbers are much less than during the weekends. In recent days, large forces of masked, heavily armed police have shown themselves at demonstrations, sometimes arresting people when crowds thin out.
Putin on Thursday said he believed the situation in Belarus was “leveling off” and repeated he did not think it was necessary for Russia to intervene with force to resolve the situation.
Analysts have been divided over how ready Russia is to intervene to protect Lukashenko, who the Kremlin views as a difficult partner and a potential liability given now the scale of opposition to him in Belarus. Some observers have suggested the Kremlin could be prepared to accept an alternative to him provided they do not seek to move Belarus away from Moscow and closer to Europe.
Others though, have said the Kremlin for now would prefer to keep a weakened Lukashenko who it can then pressure to accept its demands for greater integration with Russia.
In a further sign that the Kremlin is ready to help Lukashenko, on Thursday, Lukashenko said Russia had agreed to refinance $1 billion of credit already loaned to Belarus.
There have been other indications of Russian assistance to Lukashenko already. Belarus’ state television workers who have been on strike said that journalists and production staff from Russian state television had been flown into replace them, something that Lukashenko himself publicly confirmed this week. Protesters since the start have expressed fear of a possible Russian military intervention and some demonstrators have previously claimed that some riot police who detained them appeared to be Russian not Belarusian, though no evidence has emerged.
A Russian government plane used sometimes to carry the director of its FSB security service made a brief trip to Minsk and then back to Moscow on Wednesday evening, for the second time in a week, according to online flight trackers.
Putin on Thursday warned there was probably “no country closer” to Russia than Belarus and that he felt Moscow so far had been “far more restrained and neutral” in relation to the crisis there than European countries and the United States. Putin also appeared to dismiss the violence used against protesters, saying that in his view Belarusian police have been “quite restrained.”
European countries have condemned the crackdown by Lukashenko and the European Union has refused to recognise his reelection over the allegations of ballot-rigging. Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is in Lithuania where she was forced to flee.
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