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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, in Sochi, on Sept. 14, 2020.HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

The Kremlin threw its full backing behind the beleaguered regime of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday, extending a US$1.5-billion economic lifeline on the same day that it deployed troops for joint drills near Belarus’s borders with NATO.

A closed-door meeting on Monday between Mr. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi – with no one else present on the Belarussian side – immediately raised worries in the Belarussian opposition about the conditions Mr. Lukashenko might have agreed to in exchange for the aid.

Mr. Putin has long sought further integration between the two countries, which were both ruled from Moscow until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Until recently, Mr. Lukashenko had resisted the push to integrate the two countries, which many Belarussians fear would make their country little more than another region of Russia. However, Mr. Lukashenko has little bargaining power following an Aug. 9 presidential election that was marred by allegations of fraud, prompting five weeks of massive street protests calling on him to resign. More than 100,000 people marched through the Belarussian capital of Minsk on Sunday, chanting “Long live Belarus” and denouncing Mr. Lukashenko.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whom many Belarussians consider the real winner of the Aug. 9 vote, warned Mr. Putin on Monday that any deals he made with Mr. Lukashenko would not be recognized if the opposition came to power.

“I’m very sorry that you have opted to have a dialogue with the usurper and not the Belarussian people,” she said from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where she is in exile. “Any agreements signed with Lukashenko, who lacks legitimacy, will be retracted by the new government.”

Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko made no announcements beyond the US$1.5-billion loan – cash that Belarus is desperately in need of amid an economic crisis compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and opposition protests that have included widespread strikes. “You find out who your friends are when you’re in need,” Mr. Lukashenko said, according to a Kremlin transcript of the beginning of the four-hour meeting.

Both men raised a 1999 treaty creating a Union State of Russia and Belarus. “Russia remains committed to all our agreements,” Mr. Putin said.

Thus far, the Union State exists only as a customs union, meaning there are no internal checks on goods or people crossing between the two countries. Additional steps, including the creation of a joint currency, military and flag have been repeatedly delayed over the past two decades.

“Lukashenko was pretty reluctant and tried to avoid or slow down this [integration] process. But now he is in a different position,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow-based think tank that advises the Kremlin.

But Mr. Lukyanov said he didn’t expect any immediate steps toward the Union State. “Task number one is stabilizing the situation in Belarus, to make sure the Ukrainian scenario doesn’t repeat itself in Belarus.”

Stability, from Moscow’s perspective, means firming up Mr. Lukashenko’s hold on power so that he isn’t ousted the way that former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was by street protests in Kyiv in 2014. That upheaval led to Russia seizing and annexing the Crimean Peninsula, and providing military aid to pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, moves that led to Western economic sanctions and Russia’s expulsion from the Group of Seven (formerly the G8).

In the medium term, the Kremlin is expected to encourage Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, to make constitutional changes that will ease the way for a transition of power – though to another Moscow-backed candidate, rather than Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who is described in Russian media as “Western-backed.”

The arrival Monday of 300 Russian airborne troops near the city of Brest, in western Belarus, is part of a message from Moscow for the West to back off. While the 12-day “Slavic Brotherhood” joint exercises were planned before the protests against Mr. Lukashenko began, the decision to go ahead with the exercises makes clear that Russia intends to support the regime. “From the Russian side, it’s important to show to everybody that this regime is under Russian patronage and don’t touch,” Mr. Lukyanov said.

Mr. Putin has said that Russia has law enforcement units ready to intervene in Belarus if Mr. Lukashenko requests it. In Sochi, Mr. Lukashenko – who has claimed that NATO members Poland and Lithuania seek a war in Belarus – praised Mr. Putin for “demonstrating that the Belarussian borders are the borders of the Union State, and no one is allowed to rattle weapons there.”

The protests in Belarus have thus far focused on ousting Mr. Lukashenko from office – unlike the Ukrainian revolution, which included explicit demands for an end to Russian influence over the country, and appeals for membership in the European Union and NATO. Opposition figures have warned that could change if Moscow intervenes too overtly in Belarus.

“It’s not right for somebody in Lukashenko’s position to make any promises on behalf of the Belarussian people,” said Valery Kavaleuski, a former Belarussian diplomat who resigned in 2006 when Mr. Lukashenko first violated the constitutional limit on serving more than two terms as president. “He is on the verge of giving away Belarus’s independence and sovereignty for the sake of his own political future.”

Veronika Laputska, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which gives grants to civil society in Belarus, said the concern was that the US$1.5-billion loan from the Kremlin would help fuel repression, rather than economic recovery, in Belarus.

“We all understand that the money will be invested into the law enforcement agencies, the riot police, the Ministry of Defense, to all these agencies that ensure the repressive apparatus keeps operating,” she said.

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