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Putin says Russian “reserve” force ready to back Lukashenko in Belarus

Minsk — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that he was ready to provide a reserve force of police to neighboring Belarus if the political upheaval there continues to deteriorate.

Speaking on Russian state TV, Putin said the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, had “asked me to set up a certain police reserve,” and “I have done so,” adding, “we also agreed that it won’t be used until the situation gets out of control.”

Unprecedented protests have swept across Belarus since election results on August 9 declared Lukashenko, president of 26 years, the winner with more than 80% of the vote, raising global accusations of vote rigging.

Riot police have cracked down violently on protesters — numbering at times more than 200,000 people — with human rights groups documenting numerous instances of brutality and torture of protesters in state custody.

On Thursday, police ratcheted up their tactics by detaining dozens of journalists who were reporting on those protests in the streets of Minsk.

Putin’s statement marks the Russian president’s first detailed response to the crisis unfolding in his backyard, and raises concerns that he might prop up his longtime ally Lukashenko with force, or use the turmoil as an opportunity to occupy territory, as he’s done in other former Soviet republics.

In 2008, Russia occupied the South Ossetia region of Georgia in its effort to break away from the country.

In 2014, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and sent troops into eastern Ukraine when protesters forced a Russian-backed authoritarian president from office by occupying the center of the capital Kyiv.

Putin’s commitment to supply Russian security forces signals that the Kremlin will not tolerate Lukashenko’s violent removal from office.

The protests in Belarus have been peaceful, despite a heavy hand from the president known as Europe’s last dictator — a moniker Lukashenko relishes.

During protests on Sunday, state TV showed the president’s helicopter circling overhead as he called demonstrators “rats,” then descended wearing a bullet-proof vest and brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle to applaud his security forces, the only thing standing between him and the end of his authoritarian rule.

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