Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that neighbouring Belarus was under unprecedented external pressure, as the Kremlin’s ex-Soviet ally faces a deep political crisis over a disputed election.
Belarus is in a “difficult situation” and facing “unprecedented external pressure”, Putin said in televised remarks, after a presidential vote last month sparked ongoing protests against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Protesters have taken to the streets of Belarusian cities since Lukashenko claimed a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote in the August 9 election.
Putin has promised to provide the 66-year-old strongman with security assistance if the political crisis worsens and gave Belarus a loan of $1.5 billion.
Lukashenko has accused various Western countries and NATO of attempting to destabilise his country or support the protest movement.
Addressing a forum on the Belarusian and Russian regions, the Kremlin chief said that Moscow was ready to stand by Minsk, describing ties as “timeless and all-weather”.
Lukashenko’s relationship with Putin was strained ahead of the vote last month with Minsk accusing Russia of dispatching mercenaries to plot unrest with the opposition.
Putin has long been pushing for even closer integration between the two countries, whose “union state” alliance guarantees close military and economic ties.
European leaders have refused to recognise Lukashenko’s relection and have promised sanctions on Belarus for vote rigging and a fierce crackdown on post-election protests.
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who claimed victory over Lukashenko in the August vote has rallied Western support for demonstrators since fleeing to neighbouring Lithuania.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who the West believes was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, has been discharged from hospital after just over a month, the Berlin medical facility treating him said Wednesday.
“Based on the patient’s progress and current condition, the treating physicians believe that complete recovery is possible,” Charite hospital said in a statement, adding however that it remained too early to assess any long-term effects of his severe poisoning.
The 44-year-old Kremlin critic and anti-corruption campaigner fell ill after boarding a plane in Siberia last month and was hospitalised there before being flown to Berlin.
He spent 32 days in the Berlin hospital, including 24 days in intensive care, before his release.
Germany has said toxicology tests provide “unequivocal proof” that he had been poisoned by the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent, which was also used in a separate poisoning in 2018 on ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Britain.
France and Sweden have since said tests they ran independently corroborate with Germany’s conclusions.
European leaders have demanded explanations from Moscow, with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that “only Russia can and must” provide answers on the poisoning.
Navalny’s allies say he may have been poisoned by a cup of tea he drank at Tomsk airport in Siberia.
But the Russian doctors who first treated Navalny said their tests did not find any toxic substances, and the Kremlin has rejected international calls for an investigation.
In his first blog post since emerging from a coma, Navalny said on Monday that the three European labs had found Novichok “in and on my body”.
He noted that Russia had still not opened an investigation but that he “did not expect anything else.”
Navalny aides said Thursday that German experts found Novichok nerve agent on a water bottle taken from the hotel room where he stayed before being taken ill.
The bottle appears to have been key evidence for Germany’s conclusion that the 44-year-old lawyer and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin was poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent.
The EU urged Russia on Friday not to intervene in Belarus after President Vladimir Putin vowed military support for the country’s embattled leader.
As EU foreign ministers meeting in Berlin discussed the crisis, President Alexander Lukashenko — facing unprecedented protests calling for him to quit — accused the West of trying to topple him in order to weaken Moscow.
Meanwhile neighbouring Ukraine, which saw its own pro-Russian leader toppled after bloody protests in 2014, has offered refuge to Belarusians fleeing a regime crackdown.
The EU has rejected the official results of an August 9 presidential poll in Belarus, which saw Lukashenko re-elected with 80 percent of votes, and is preparing sanctions against his regime for electoral fraud and a violent crackdown on opposition protesters.
Putin on Thursday said he stood ready to send in his military to stabilise Belarus after weeks of huge demonstrations calling for Lukashenko, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, to quit and hold new elections.
“I have heard many times from Russia the mantra that this is a domestic internal affair for Belarus and they do not want external interference. I suppose it’s also valid for themselves,” EU foreign affairs high representative Josep Borrell said.
“It is solely for the Belarusian people to determine their own future,” he added, urging Russia to “respect the wishes and democratic choices of the Belarusian people.”
French President Emmanuel Macron was blunter, telling reporters in Paris that the “worst thing would be Russian intervention” in Belarus.
There “could be no repeat of what happened in Ukraine”, Macron added.
After an uprising in 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and pro-Moscow forces declared breakaway republics in Ukrainian regions in the east.
‘Springboard to Russia’
Putin on Thursday also called on the Minsk authorities and the opposition to “find a way out” of the crisis peacefully, but the threat of military intervention by the Kremlin has raised the spectre of the crisis on the EU’s doorstep taking a darker turn.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 26 years, renewed his claims that the West wanted to see the back of him for its own ends.
“Belarus is just a springboard to Russia, as always,” he said, according to the state news agency Belta.
“Unlike Hitler, who sent his army to Moscow, they are trying to destroy the government in place here and replace it with a new one that will ask another country for military assistance and deploy troops.”
EU foreign ministers meeting in Berlin gave their backing to a list of some 20 individuals to be hit with asset freezes and travel bans for their role in rigging the Belarus election or cracking down on demonstrators.
Borrell said the list would encompass “individuals at high political level”, but it looks unlikely to include Lukashenko himself, despite calls from some countries for him to be targeted.
The EU is supporting offers by the OSCE to broker a negotiated end to the crisis and hitting Lukashenko in person is seen as counterproductive to these efforts.
The OSCE on Friday described the post-election violence in Belarus as “deeply alarming” and called on Minsk to accept its offer to support dialogue and avoid a “nightmare”.
The current OSCE chair, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, said the sooner dialogue started “the better it is for everyone”.
Macron said Putin had told him Russia was open to OSCE mediation but Lukashenko was opposed.
“He (Putin) has to make efforts to help us in this direction,” the French president added.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Belarusians seeking to enter “Ukraine in an attempt to flee the crisis” would receive entry permits from his country’s border guards.
He said they will be given preferential treatment and be exempt from a month-long entry ban over spiking coronavirus cases.
The demonstrations that erupted in Belarus after the election and the violent police crackdown that followed have prompted comparisons with Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising in 2014.
Lukashenko’s notorious security services violently broke up peaceful protests after the vote, arresting nearly 7,000 people in a clampdown that sparked widespread allegations of torture and abuse in police custody.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring EU country Lithuania after claiming she beat the 65-year-old leader and calling for the protests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed military support for embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday, while urging a peaceful resolution to unrest and demonstrations that erupted after a disputed election.
EU ambassadors in the capital Minsk on Thursday denounced a crackdown on the opposition in the wake of the presidential poll, in which 65-year-old Lukashenko claimed a landslide reelection with some 80 percent of the vote.
The Belarusian strongman’s relationship with Putin had soured ahead of the August 9 ballot because Minsk refused closer integration with Russia — and even claimed Moscow had sent mercenaries across the border to organise riots.
Yet Putin on Thursday promised military backing for Belarus and said Russia had set up a reserve group of law enforcement officers to deploy if the post-vote situation deteriorated.
“It won’t be used unless the situation starts to get out of control,” Putin said, unless “extremist elements … begin setting fire to cars, houses and banks, begin seizing administrative buildings”.
But Putin also called on the authorities in Minsk and the opposition to “find a way out” of the crisis peacefully.
He conceded there were problems in Belarus, saying, “otherwise people wouldn’t take to the streets”.
The Russian leader’s calls for calm came after the European Union and ambassadors of member states in Minsk condemned a crackdown on government critics seeking new elections and Lukashenko’s resignation.
– ‘Unacceptable’ prosecution –
The opposition created a Coordination Council to oversee the peaceful transition of power after their leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania fearing reprisals.
Lukashenko ordered a criminal probe into the opposition’s attempts to “seize power” and several of the presidium’s members have been detained or summoned for questioning.
Maria Kolesnikova, an aide of Tikhanovskaya and member of the council, was summoned by investigators for questioning on Thursday. She said she invoked her right not to testify against herself.
The group’s most prominent member, Nobel Prize-winning author and outspoken government critic Svetlana Alexievich, was questioned by investigators on Wednesday and also refused to answer questions.
Two of the presidium’s members this week were sentenced to 10 days each in police detention for organising unsanctioned rallies and disobeying law enforcement orders.
“The European diplomats emphasised that prosecution of Coordination Council members on grounds presented by the authorities is unacceptable,” a joint statement said.
EU nations have also vowed to sanction individuals they say were involved in vote-rigging and the violent crackdown on protesters.
The EU ambassadors in Minsk on Thursday said that: “Belarusians are asking for an open dialogue with their own authorities about the future of their country,” urging “a peaceful and democratic process, underpinned by independent and free media and a strong civil society”.
– ‘Diplomatic war’ –
Lukashenko has dismissed calls to resign or host new elections, instead accusing Western countries and Russia of stirring political unrest.
The authoritarian leader on Thursday said the ex-Soviet country’s European neighbours had declared a “diplomatic war” and were meddling in Belarus’s internal affairs.
Last week he described demonstrators as “rats” in a video that showed him carrying an assault rifle, after more than 100,000 people took to the streets to demand he stand down.
His notorious security services rounded up nearly 7,000 participants in peaceful rallies that erupted in the days after the vote, and hundreds of detainees claimed they were abused by police in custody.
Local and international rights groups have urged the UN to investigate allegations of systematic torture at the hands of security services.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political newcomer who ran in place of her jailed husband, called for historic demonstrations and mass strikes following the election.
Workers at state-owned factories initially downed tools and joined the walk-outs in large numbers, but fewer employees have kept up participation due to pressure from the authorities, activists have said.
Industry Minister Pyotr Parkhomchik said Thursday that there were no ongoing strikes and that “all assembly lines have been restarted.”
Vladimir Putin has offered to help ensure Belarus’s security, according to its president Alexander Lukashenko, as pressure builds on the strongman leader and opposition protesters prepare for a show of force Sunday.
Thousands demonstrated in the capital Minsk Saturday after main election challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya asked supporters to rally over the weekend and keep alive a movement that poses the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s hold over the ex-Soviet country.
Many gathered at the spot where Alexander Taraikovsky, 34, died on Monday during protests against an election the opposition says was rigged to give Lukashenko another term in office.
Demonstrators heaped flowers at the spot and the crowd chanted “Thank you!” and raised victory signs. Police kept a low profile.
Many held up photographs of protesters beaten during the crackdown, while one man stood in his underwear revealing the purple bruises on his thighs, buttocks and back.
Later thousands protested outside the Belarusian state television centre, complaining that their broadcasts backed Lukashenko and gave a skewed picture of the protests.
Around 100 staff came out of the building to join the crowd, and said they planned a strike on Monday.
“Like everyone we are demanding free elections and the release of those detained at mass protests,” said one employee, Andrei Yaroshevich.
Riot police later arrived at the centre and blocked off the entrance to the building.
The opposition is planning a major show of force on Sunday with a “March for Freedom” through the streets of central Minsk.
– ‘I’m really afraid’ –
Facing the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power in 1994, Lukashenko called in Moscow’s help and spoke on the phone with Putin Saturday, after warning there was “a threat not only to Belarus”.
He later told military chiefs that Putin had offered “comprehensive help” to “ensure the security of Belarus”.
The Kremlin said the leaders agreed the “problems” in Belarus would be “resolved soon” and the countries’ ties strengthened.
While Lukashenko periodically plays Moscow off against the neighbouring EU, Russia is Belarus’s closest ally and the countries have formed a “union state” linking their economies and militaries.
Lukashenko criticised Russia during his election campaign and Belarus detained 33 Russians on suspicion of planning riots ahead of polls.
Opposition protesters slammed Lukashenko for now seeking Moscow’s aid and said they fear Russian intervention.
“It’s obvious that our president can’t deal with his own people any more, he’s seeking help in the east,” said Alexei Linich, a 27-year-old programmer.
“If Russia intervenes, that would be the worst. I’m really afraid of this,” said Olga Nesteruk, a landscape designer.
– ‘Will not give up the country’ –
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday urged Lukashenko to “engage with civil society”, during a trip to Poland, which has offered to act as a mediator.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other opposition candidates including her husband were jailed, accuses Lukashenko of rigging the vote and has demanded he step down so new elections can be held.
The 65-year-old has ruled Belarus with an iron grip and claims to have won the election with 80 percent of the vote.
Tikhanovskaya left the country on Tuesday for neighbouring Lithuania, with her allies saying she came under official pressure.
She is also demanding authorities be held to account for the crackdown, which saw police use rubber bullets, stun grenades and, in at least one case, live rounds to disperse protesters, with at least 6,700 people detained and hundreds injured.
Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including Taraikovsky — who they say died when an explosive device went off in his hand during a protest — and another man who died in custody in the southeastern city of Gomel.
– Call for ‘free and fair’ vote –
On Friday authorities began releasing hundreds of those arrested and many gave horrific accounts of beatings and torture.
European Union ministers have agreed to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions in response to the post-election crackdown.
The leaders of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — on Saturday condemned the crackdown and called for a new vote.
Lukashenko has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled “sheep” and “people with a criminal past who are now unemployed”, repeatedly accusing foreign governments of plotting his downfall.
Tikhanovskaya on Friday announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to “help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities”.
She demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown.
President Vladimir Putin paid homage to Russia’s World War II dead on Monday as he visited an enormous new Orthodox cathedral built to honour the military.
Nearly 100 metres (330 feet) high and crowned by six golden domes, the Cathedral of the Armed Forces in a military theme park outside Moscow is now Russia’s third-largest Orthodox Christian church.
It sparked controversy earlier this year when it was revealed that it would include mosaics featuring Putin and Soviet-era dictator Joseph Stalin. The mosaics were eventually removed at Putin’s request.
“For us Russians, the memory of all those who fought, those who died, who with their strength brought us closer to victory in the Great Patriotic War, is sacred,” Putin said in a televised ceremony, using the Russian name for the war.
“We are improving the armed forces, we are equipping them with new material, their combat capacity is increasing,” Putin said alongside the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.
The ceremony was held on the 79th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and ahead of a huge military parade planned on Wednesday to mark 75 years since victory in the war.
Putin was forced to reschedule the parade from May 9 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen Russia record the world’s third-highest number of cases.
He has also rescheduled a public vote on constitutional reforms, initially planned for April, for July 1. Among other changes, the reforms will reset presidential term limits, allowing Putin to potentially stay in the Kremlin until 2036.
In power for 20 years, Putin often vaunts the country’s military power and Orthodox Christian values to boost his support among Russians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced additional payouts to health professionals working on “the frontline” of the country’s fight against the coronavirus.
Putin listed the bonuses as part of new measures to support Russians during the epidemic after health officials reported over 1,000 new COVID-19 cases.
The president also urged the public to be patient with the lockdown to help slow the spread of the infection.
“For most people, to be inside four walls is dreary and miserable,” he said during a video call with regional governors.
“A breakthrough in battling the infection will depend on our discipline and responsibility,” he said.
The country is realising how crucial the work of doctors is “for the first time in decades”, said Putin, promising 10 billion rubles ($132 million) for monthly bonuses to health care employees nationwide.
Doctors treating coronavirus patients would be paid an additional 80,000 rubles ($1,059) per month, while nurses, ambulance medics and drivers would get between 25,000 and 50,000 rubles.
“These specialists are on the front line,” Putin said, ordering an increase in their state insurance to the level enjoyed by members of the armed forces.
Russia on Wednesday reported 1,175 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 8,672. The epicentre of the epidemic in Russia is Moscow, with 5,841 cases.
So far, Russia has recorded only 63 deaths from the virus.
The ban aims “to protect the interests of Russian citizens” as the coronavirus outbreak has killed more than 3,000 people and infected around 92,000 globally.
It does not affect supplies leaving the country as humanitarian aid or for personal use. The decree is dated Monday, when it entered force, and is set to expire on June 1.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month called for the closure of pharmacies that hike prices for face masks.
Russia has had six confirmed cases of coronavirus, including three people repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan and two Chinese citizens. The first case in Moscow, a Russian man who had travelled to Italy, was announced Monday.
The country has imposed a near blanket ban on visits by Chinese citizens, although flagship airline Aeroflot is still running some flights to and from China.
It has also restricted entry for Iranians and for those travelling from South Korea.
The leaders of Russia and Turkey called for restraint in the escalating crisis between Iran and the United States, following a meeting in Istanbul on Wednesday.
“We believe that exchange of attacks and use of force by any party do not contribute to finding solutions to the complex problems in the Middle East,” said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a joint statement written in English.
“We express our commitment to de-escalate the existing tensions in the region and call on all parties to act with restraint as well as commonsense and to prioritize diplomacy,” they added.
The killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a US strike on Baghdad threatens to inflame the situation in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday.
“This action can seriously aggravate the situation in the region,” the Kremlin quoted him as saying during a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Meanwhile, the world has reacted with alarm to the development, with many governments appealing for restraint.
Although, the attack was praised by US President Donald Trump’s Republicans and close ally Israel, but elsewhere there were sharp warnings it could inflame regional tensions.
Following are some of the reactions from around the world:
US President Donald Trump said Soleimani was “terminated” when he was on the verge of attacking US diplomats but insisted that Washington is not seeking to topple Iran’s government.
But among Democrats, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the killing risks provoking a “dangerous escalation of violence”.
“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” his 2020 presidential rival Joe Biden said.
‘Cannot afford another war’
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of the need to avoid war in the Gulf.
“This is a moment in which leaders must exercise maximum restraint. The world cannot afford another war in the Gulf,” a spokesman for Guterres said in a statement.
“China has always opposed the use of force in international relations,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
“We urge the relevant sides, especially the United States, to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid further escalating tensions.”
He said Iraq’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity must be respected.
‘Spark a devastating war’
Iraq’s caretaker prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said the US strike, which also killed an Iraqi commander, would “spark a devastating war”.
“The assassination of an Iraqi military commander in an official post is an aggression against the country of Iraq, its state, its government and its people,” he said.
It was a “flagrant violation of the conditions authorising the presence of US troops” on Iraqi soil, he added.
‘Cycle of violence’
“The current cycle of violence in Iraq must be stopped before it spirals out of control,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“The EU calls on all the actors involved and on those partners who can have an influence to exercise maximum restraint and show responsibility in this crucial moment.”
‘Will not be forgotten’
The Syrian regime condemned the killing and heaped praise on the Iranian general.
The Syrian people “will not forget that he stuck by the side of the Syrian Arab army”, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in a letter of condolences sent to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
‘Avoid aggravating situation’
Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia cautioned against “anything that could aggravate the situation” while the foreign ministers of Bahrain and Qatar also called for “restraint.”
The Jordanian foreign ministry also called for efforts to be made to avoid an escalation.
‘Meting out punishment’
“Meting out the appropriate punishment to these criminal assassins… will be the responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide,” the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militant group, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a statement.
“We will carry a flag on all battlefields and all fronts and we will step up the victories of the axis of resistance with the blessing of his pure blood.”
‘Threaten peace and stability’
“Pakistan has viewed with deep concern the recent developments in the Middle East, which seriously threaten peace and stability in the region,” the foreign ministry said.
“Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, which should be adhered to. It is also important to avoid unilateral actions and use of force.”
The foreign ministry in neighbouring India said: “We have noted that a senior Iranian leader has been killed by the US. The increase in tension has alarmed the world.”
‘Against foreign intervention’
“It is manifest that the operation carried out by the US will increase insecurity and instability in the region… Turkey has always been against any foreign intervention in the region, assassinations and sectarian conflicts,” the foreign ministry said.
‘Act with restraint’
French President Emmanuel Macron urged restraint after Soleimani’s killing.
In his telephone call with Putin, Macron said there should be no “new dangerous escalation of tensions” and “called on all the parties to act with restraint,” the Elysee said.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London had “always recognised the aggressive threat” posed by Soleimani and his Quds Force. “Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”