Weeks of demonstrations over rigged elections in belarus have created a predicament for russias vladimir putin. does he support a nasty autocrat, alexander lukashenko, who has lost all credibility in the eyes of much of his population but can be relied on to keep minsk in moscows orbit? or does he help to promote a change of power that might produce a more legitimate leader who, given belarus history and culture, may still be broadly favourable to russia? the signs are russias president has plumped for the first option. that choice is dangerous for europe and unwise for mr putin.
The belarus protests are different from the pro-western revolution in ukraine six years ago that prompted russias annexation of crimea. ukrainians rose against a russian-leaning president, viktor yanukovich, who had won fair elections but engaged in state capture. the trigger, however, was mr yanukovichs last-minute refusal to sign an eu association agreement many ukrainians saw as a decisive step towards the west. protesters wrapped themselves in eu flags.
Belarusians are marching to be freed from europes last dictator. they carry the white and red flag of a 1918 belarusian republic. svetlana tikhanovskaya, the joint opposition candidate, says the protests are not pro- or anti-russia or the eu; they are a democratic revolution. unlike ukraine, split between a historically western-leaning west and more pro-russian east, most belarusians while proud of nationhood see russians as friends. eu leaders have condemned mr lukashenkos electoral abuses and brutality towards protesters, but taken care not to appear to be seeking geopolitical advantage from the situation.
Mr putin tried to keep some distance after last months belarus poll. yet in essence he has now stepped in behind his counterpart. on august 27, he said he had created a reserve police force he would deploy in belarus if the situation gets out of control. this week he offered mr lukashenko a $1.5bn loan; not huge but enough to keep minsk on an economic drip-feed. there was talk of constitutional reform that, in theory, could eventually lead to new elections. but russias leader made further promises of security assistance and monthly joint military exercises.
In four hours of talks, mr putin no doubt extracted a high price from his supplicant. belarus-watchers speculate it involved pledges to implement a long-stalled union state agreement leading to closer economic and political integration, or to cede more belarusian state businesses to russian control.
Mr putin also believes his country needs a large western buffer of which belarus, like ukraine, is historically a part. he may have felt a transition in minsk was too risky. the removal of an ageing authoritarian in a country so close to his own would involve tricky optics.
Yet his approach could backfire. if a full-scale crackdown by mr lukashenko leads to turmoil, mr putin will have little choice but to send in his reserve. not doing so would make him look weak in his own backyard. doing so, however, would prompt another perilous stand-off with the west and new sanctions.
Even scenarios short of that could be counter-productive. moscows meddling in ukraine since 2014 has done more to foster a sense of national identity and anti-russian feeling there than anything in the previous 25 years. belarusians crave above all a right to domestic political choice, not a rupture with russia. if they feel mr putin is trapping them in authoritarianism, the kremlin will turn an uprising that has not previously been about belarus east-west orientation into exactly that.