Yesterday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi to discuss closer integration. The ongoing political unrest in Belarus — a small country that is politically close to Russia and borders it on its west — has led some observers to speculate Putin might intervene militarily to prevent Belarus’s government from being overthrown.
Putin faces his own domestic problems, with Russia in the middle of a deep recession. Intervention might be popular with the Russian public, just as Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine was. However, as my research shows, this is unlikely: Ordinary Russians don’t like military adventures in bad economic times.
Belarus’s leader is in political trouble
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for nearly 30 years, despite a sagging economy, international isolation and mass dissatisfaction. In the lead-up to the August 2020 presidential elections, he sought to arrest key political opponents and hang onto his rule. This led to mass protests. When Lukashenko announced he had won with a purported 80.1 percent of votes, spontaneous and leaderless street gatherings turned into a countrywide uprising.
The peaceful protests in Belarus have kept going and growing, attracting tens of thousands of people, labor unions and entire industries. Lukashenko has sought to stop them through police beatings, guns and explosives, mass arrests, kidnappings and torture. However, he hasn’t been able to reestablish order. Increasingly, it appears he cannot remain in power without outside help.
Putin has been paying attention
Russia’s leaders are worried that a “color” revolution in Belarus — previous peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe have identified with specific colors — could trigger a revolution in Russia at a moment when Putin’s rule is not particularly stable, with Russians unhappy with the economy, the national response to the pandemic and Putin’s recent move to extend his rule for 12 more years. Concerns about a chain reaction are particularly strong because of the cultural and historical similarities between Russia and Belarus, as well as a long-standing tendency for political developments in Belarus to foreshadow events in Russia. Like Lukashenko, Putin has persecuted opponents, co-opted parliament and the courts, and organized a nationwide vote to extend his presidential terms. But Russia’s opposition has also learned from the experience of Belarusian protesters. Furthermore, if Lukashenko were forced out, Belarus might drift away from its military commitments to Russia. Russian military doctrine sees Belarus as its western forward base, and a pivotal element in Russia’s defense against attacks from the West. Losing its commitment would be a problem.
All this makes some observers wonder whether Russia might invade or even annex Belarus, just as it did Crimea when Ukraine began turning Westward. Putin has warned he stands ready to send Russian forces to Belarus if necessary.
How I did my research
However, my own research in Russia suggests most Russians are unlikely to support military action. In June 2019, I ran an online experimental survey in Russia on a representative survey of Russian population to see how economic conditions affected their attitudes to foreign policy. The survey was run by Russia’s Centre for Independent Social Research, one of the most reputable polling companies in Russia. The participants were divided into three groups of approximately 400 people each. One group read an introduction that offered no information about Russia’s economic situation; another read information that suggested Russia’s economic situation was bad, and the third read information suggesting Russia’s economic situation was good. The information was drawn from real news sources and standardized as much as possible. After this reading, all participants answered a set of questions about their foreign policy views.
Russia’s public may not be happy with military action
People who had been told that the economy was in trouble were less likely than those who had been given no information — and still less likely than those who had been told that the economy was good — to favor hard power. They were less likely to want to spend money on defense that might undermine economic growth, more likely to think that internal problems were more important than external threats, and more likely to prioritize high standards of living over Russian military strength.
Other polls of Russian citizens have found that support for Russia’s military intervention in Syria and confrontation with the West and Ukraine has declined as the economy stagnated. Instead, Russians increasingly believed the government should focus on fixing declining living standards, rising prices, and deteriorating social welfare supports.
Russia and Belarus are joined in an economic and political “union.” Deepening the political relationship with Belarus is already unpopular. In January 2020, before the pandemic-driven economic crisis, only 13 percent of Russians supported plans to deepen the Belarus-Russia Union with a unified leadership; another 10 percent believed Belarus should become part of Russia (the majority supported deepening economic rather than political cooperation). Since then, the pandemic and falling oil prices have led to a sharp decline in living standards. As a result, public opinion polls find the largest drop in positive assessments of the economy since the 2008 world financial crisis.
Of course, public sentiment is only one factor in the Kremlin’s decisions about Belarus. Even in democratic countries, leaders sometimes launch politically unpopular wars. However, this does mean any intervention would probably have political costs. Putin may be more likely to try to maintain Russia’s hold over Belarus through such indirect means as providing economic assistance, spreading propaganda, sending strikebreakers to replace workers on strike to assist in broadcasting Belarusian state media stations, and sending unmarked military to shore up existing Belarus security forces.
Maria Snegovaya is a PPE postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech and a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.