Spreading demonstrations and strikes in Belarus have led many Western observers to predict some sort of Kremlin intervention to save Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship. The stakes for Moscow are high, and Russian President Vladimir Putin makes no secret of his hatred for so-called color revolutions. Putin has many reasons to hesitate before deciding to prop up a failed regime. If he chooses not to, he should act quickly.
1. The protests against Lukashenko have virtually no anti-Russia dimension—yet. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan uprising of 2014 drew on nationalist sentiment: Russia was seen by many as Ukraine’s oppressor, and pro-Russia politicians as agents of colonialism. Earlier political upheavals—including Baltic independence movements in the early 1990s and Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003—had varying doses of nationalist fervor. What is happening in Belarus does not.
2. Crushing democracy in Belarus brings Putin no nationalist payoff. Whatever political benefit Putin received from the annexation of Crimea—very significant—and fomenting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine—by now, slight—any actions to prop up Lukashenko will look very different to the Russian public. Intervention will appear to have one motive only: to support electoral fraud and silence the Belarusian people. Coming on the heels of his own sketchy referendum to escape term limits, Putin does not need more trouble.
3. Popular mobilization in Belarus is already far advanced. Nipping demonstrations in the bud is no longer an option. Lukashenko tried a crackdown, and it only spurred more demonstrations. For his part, Putin has spent his summer tolerating ongoing protests in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, sparked by the arrest of the elected regional governor. Putin clearly hoped those demonstrations would eventually go away. When they did not, he realized he would have to tolerate them—and try something else.
4. “Little green men” cannot solve Putin’s problem. The head of the government media outlet RT, Margarita Simonyan, made news last week when she called for “polite people” (Putin’s smirking term for the irregular Russian troops who seized Crimea, also known as “little green men”) to get involved. But it is extremely unlikely that Russian military, intelligence, or police are telling the Kremlin that pacifying the Belarusians will be a low-cost operation. At this point, they are probably not even sure their Belarusian counterparts would stand with them. If not, intervention would be a nightmare.
5. If “little green men” are no use, the Belarusian elite may be. Even some of Lukashenko’s strongest political opponents want close ties with Russia. The two countries have enough economic, political, and military experience dealing with each other that there is no treason—or even personal discredit—in favoring good relations. These connections to and favorable attitudes within the Belarusian elite give Putin many ways to foster a transition away from Lukashenko.
These are Putin’s reasons for caution and delay, and since he is for the most part a cautious, even indecisive, politician, he is likely to be persuaded by them. But there is one big reason for him to hurry: the elements of the Belarusian crisis that favor Russia could change very quickly. If the crowds come to see Putin as standing behind Lukashenko, anti-Russia slogans could take hold. As members of the elite are pushed to abandon the regime, they may have to advocate solutions, such as early elections rather than a managed transition, that Moscow could consider riskier. The longer Putin waits before giving up on Lukashenko, the greater the chance that the color revolution train will already have left the station.
Putin’s advisors are surely telling him all this. Some European leaders—perhaps even U.S. officials—may be saying the same, too. Dumping Lukashenko now is the only good move the Kremlin has left.