Why instability in Belarus, Khabarovsk and Lebanon are problems Putin doesn’t want

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Political instability in Belarus, Lebanon and Khabarovsk all present shades of the same challenge for Russian president Vladimir Putin: They disrupt the status quo he prefers in parts of the world that matter to his regime’s survival. He’s not going to sit back.  

In Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s Far East, tens of thousands had taken to the streets starting in July after the Kremlin arrested the region’s governor, Sergei Furgal, on murder charges. The people of Khabarovsk chanted “our vote, our Furgal,” and called for Putin to resign. Furgal, while no pro-Western democrat, won by a landslide over a Kremlin-chosen candidate in 2018 — no small feat in what was already an election rigged in favor of the Kremlin’s candidate. Putin could not let this slide.  

In Belarus, Europe’s last dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, appears to have lost the presidential vote in another rigged plebiscite. After the main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya rejected preliminary poll numbers, Belorussians took to the streets. Lukashenko’s crackdown against peaceful protestors has been horrific. At least 7,000 have been detained, many brutally tortured and at least two died in custody. For Putin, however, these events raise his usual worry of a color revolution; if Belarusians can protest (if not overthrow) their dictator, what’s to stop Russian citizens from the same? 

The recent massive explosion in Beirut, most likely a result of corrupt and incompetent government dominated by Hezbollah, has led the Lebanese to demand a fundamental change of the system.  

Make no mistake: These popular protests are a consequence of corrupt and inept governments — in Moscow or those backed by Moscow — and they will not change without a fight. Still, Belarus is not Ukraine. A full-scale intervention would likely be very costly and unpopular, but Putin has many other means to prop up the leader he prefers to see in Mink. If Lukashenko falls, it would hurt Putin’s image of a champion against perceived American meddling that leads to anti-authoritarian protest. But Putin can still ensure control in this situation — ultimately he wants Belarus, no matter who runs it.

Putin’s fear of color revolutions always encompassed the Middle East, even though it has received less attention. Indeed, the color revolutions swept the post-Soviet space in early to mid-2000s also touched the Middle East, with Lebanon’s Cedar revolution.

Current events in Lebanon may seem remote compared to protests closer to Russia. But Lebanon also matters directly to Russia’s policy in Syria, where Putin’s intervention in 2015 both saved dictator Bashar al-Assad from losing power and elevated Russia’s status — in the eyes of many Western and regional officials — of an indispensable player.   

It is not just that that Moscow never labelled Hezbollah as a terrorist organization (unlike Western countries), and that overall Moscow leans closer to the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis in the Middle East. That in and of itself is enough for Moscow to support a Hezbollah-backed government in Beirut. But some Russian experts observed that Lebanese banks could serve as Syria’s connection to the outside world, facilitating reconstruction in a manner that keeps Assad in power.  

Current events threaten to complicate this status quo, casting due scrutiny on Hezbollah’s involvement with the port, with Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s resignation, as well as the recent UN tribunal conviction of a Hezbollah member in connection to the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. 

Khabarovsk protests won’t break the Kremlin but they are slowly eroding his system. They expose not only growing domestic dissatisfaction with the regime, but its inability to provide anything better than traditional anti-Western narratives and suppression methods as a response to demands for change.  

But Putin will fight for power, and if he has no methods other than repressions left, he is likely to double down. Especially since the West is not going to push back. The European Union rejected Belarusian election results, agreed on sanctions and offered to mediate between the government and opposition, but these steps alone are unlikely to deter Putin, even after U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s call for an international probe into “electoral irregularities” in Belarus. 

We don’t know if the most recent poisoning, this time of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, is connected to current events, but we do know the Kremlin has a history of trying to silence those who pose the greatest challenge to its rule. In recent years, Navalny has risen to such a position. In the context of ongoing protests, the Kremlin always fears a voice that could inspire others to speak out against it.

In the backdrop of a recent letter from many former American officials and foreign policy experts advocating for what essentially boils down to another reset with Russia, France has already been pursuing one for a year, with little to show for it. And as French President Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead in Lebanon, this is not necessarily bad news for Putin. 

Without American leadership, Macron is unlikely to push beyond cosmetic reforms. Moreover Macron initiated a call with Putin to discuss Lebanon. Earlier, then-Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin said that Russia will not accept efforts to undermine Lebanese sovereignty. Just days ago, Putin named a new ambassador to Lebanon, but Moscow will never admit that it is Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and other Iranian partners, who have repeatedly undermined Lebanese sovereignty and fomented regional instability over the years. 

In Lebanon and Belarus, the people are demanding a change in the status quo that has enriched a corrupt and incompetent political elite and one that has given Putin’s rule greater power and stability. His regime continues to target critics with seeming impunity.  

The Trump administration is only now starting to speak on Navaly’s poisoning, while Trump’s own silence on this issue would likely only embolden Putin. Unless the U.S. wants to play an active diplomatic role in supporting the desires of so many Lebanese and Belarusians, their sacrifice at the hands of live bullets and ammonium nitrate will be all for naught.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. In addition, she is a contributor to Oxford Analytica and a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. She holds a doctorate from George Mason University

Tags Aleksandr Lukashenko Aleksei Navalny Belarus Belarusian protests Belarus–Russia relations Emmanuel Macron French President Emmanuel Macron Human rights Belarus human rights protests International relations Kremlin Mike Pompeo Russia Vladimir Putin

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