Belarus chaos brings a poker-faced response from Russia

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FILE - In this June 30, 2020, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko greet World War II veterans during the opening of a monument in their honor in the village of Khoroshevo northwest of Moscow, Russia. As Belarus experiences spasms of protests and a brutal police crackdown, its giant neighbor Russia has been uncharacteristically low key in response. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

MOSCOW – As Belarus experiences spasms of mass protests and a brutal police crackdown, its giant neighbor Russia has been uncharacteristically low key in its response.

When upheavals struck other former Soviet states — notably Georgia and Ukraine — Russia pounced on opportunities to increase its influence. Moscow portrayed those protests as Western-backed efforts that roped in both naive young people and extremist forces, including neo-Nazis, and quickly capitalized on Ukraine's 2014 chaos to annex Crimea and back separatist rebels in the east.

But if Russia has a strategy for Belarus, it's obscure.

Moscow has been tight-lipped about the protests that began after the Aug. 9 election in which official results showed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recorded an unlikely 80% landslide to win a sixth term. The first publicly known contact between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin since the election came Saturday.

It's possible that the sustained unrest caught the Kremlin flatfooted, expecting the trouble would be short-lived. Or it could be that Russia is struggling to see a clear path forward given that relations between Moscow and Minsk are a shape-shifting mix of cooperation and suspicion.

Previous presidential elections that gave similarly outsized victories to Lukashenko were met with protests, but they were smaller, lasted only a short time, drew largely young crowds and centered in the capital.

This year's outburst has been larger, affected many parts of the country, and, significantly, includes factory hands and other working-class people. The diversity of the crowds and their huge size — more than 200,000 in Minsk on Sunday by some estimates — undercuts the ability of both the Belarusian establishment and Russia to argue that the protests aren't representative of the country as a whole.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova last week complained of “clear attempts of external interference in the affairs of a sovereign state to split society” in Belarus, without elaborating. But the brevity of the comment from a woman known for lengthy hectoring made it seem almost cursory; she used more words to discuss Russian journalists detained in the protests.