Belarus: Russia prepared to offer "military assistance" to Lukashenko

Russia has confirmed to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko it was ready to send military assistance if necessary as demonstrators gathered for one of the biggest protests against Lukashenko’s contested re-election yet.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told Lukashenko Russia was ready to assist Belarus in accordance with a collective military pact if necessary, and that some undefined "external pressure" was being applied to the country.

There was tight security as supporters of the visibly ailing Lukashenko gathered in central Minsk for the first time since the election to voice their support for him and watch him give a passionate speech.

Lukashenko, under pressure from the European Union for cracking down on his opponents, said NATO tanks and planes had been deployed 15 minutes from the Belarusian border. NATO was not immediately available for comment.

“NATO troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and our native Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections,” he said, adding that Belarus would “die as a state” if new polls were held. “I have never betrayed you and will never do so,” he said.

Often emotional in state TV appearances, the 65-year-old leader had already alleged a foreign-backed plot to topple him.

Several thousand people attended the protest. Opposition media channels said Lukashenko, a onetime manager of a Soviet-era collective farm, had bussed people in from other parts of the country and that they were coerced into attending.

Russia, which has had a troubled relationship with Lukashenko, is watching closely as Belarus hosts pipelines that carry Russian energy exports to the West and is also viewed by Moscow as a buffer zone against NATO.

Belarus and Russia signed an agreement in 1999 that was supposed to create a unified state. That project was never properly implemented however, as Lukashenko rejected calls by Moscow for closer economic and political ties as an assault on his country’s sovereignty. In recent days however, he has begun to talk about the "union" in glowing terms.

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