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But this weekend’s two phone calls with Putin — the first sought by Lukashenko after days of unprecedented protest following a highly contested presidential election and police violence — mark a turning point. And it is one fraught with a geopolitical risk significantly bigger than the attention the crisis is currently getting in European capitals and inside the Beltway. Reminiscent of the violent protests in 2014 in Kiev, it is a moment when a relatively localized moment of dissent could plunge Europe into crisis.

In their Saturday call, the two autocrats agreed to “regular contacts at various levels and the disposition to strengthen allied relations.” But however much Lukashenko insisted on Belarus’s autonomy afterwards, this was the moment he stopped his erratic courtship of the European Union, and directly turned to his harsher eastern neighbor to bail him out. The next move is Putin’s. But it is not obvious, or easy. Here are some of his options.

1. A full-scale Russian military intervention into Belarus

The nuclear option and pretty unlikely. Putin could decide the insertion of little green men seen in Ukraine, or even Russian uniformed troops or police, would settle finally his control of the vital neighbor. Belarus is essential to Putin’s sense of regional security. In defense, it is a territorial buffer between NATO in Poland. In offense, it provides access to the Suwalki Gap — the stretch of flat land from Belarus to Russian-controlled Kaliningrad — that NATO planners often fret Russia could swarm with tanks, cutting off the military alliance’s Baltic members from the rest of the European western mainland.

Military manoeuvers is something Putin has shown himself instinctively comfortable with, if the likely cost is limited. He may calculate — perhaps incorrectly — that Belarusians feel enough proximity to their overbearing neighbor, that Moscow’s men can “liberate” Belarus of Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.” But that would bring two huge risks. The first being that Russian troops could simply inflame the anti-government protests, and be left with a blunt military hammer to flatten the delicate wave of female-only protests and tractor-factory strikes. That’s not a good look domestically for the superannuated Russian regime, wary of its own unpopularity and periodic protests in major cities.

The second is the risk of sanctions and a Western response, where the Russian march towards the Suwalki Gap would ring huge NATO alarm bells. US President Donald Trump may be seen as suspiciously pro-Putin in much of what he does. But Putin may also assess, rightly, that the Kremlin shouldn’t risk making retaliatory Russia-bashing a central plank of the November presidential race. The Russian economy wouldn’t handle further pressure well. In short, there’s probably more to lose from the coarse march of Russian armor on Minsk than there is to gain.

Protesters demonstrate against presidential election results outside Belarusian state TV headquarters in Minsk on August 15, 2020.

2. Be a bit smarter than tanks

The Kremlin is the master of the slow game, and the unexpected, underhand move. The release of more than 30 Russian prisoners by Belarus, accused of being mercenaries, came with the Kremlin comment the two countries’ “relevant departments” — read intelligence services — were now working closely together. Putin could dispatch his spooks, practiced as they are in shutting down social media, picking up the right individual rather than beating up a crowd, and crushing dissent. Over the coming months, this silent brutality, coupled with a slow drop in protest enthusiasm, may win out.

3. Tell Lukashenko it’s time to go, and try to own the aftermath

This is hugely risky. The Kremlin would essentially be empowering the Svetlana Tikhanovskaya-led opposition here, and may hope that enduring ties with Russia, to which Belarus is intimately tied economically and societally, would mean any future government would seek warm relations with Moscow. But the larger crisis at stake would be that yet another dictator had fallen on Russia’s borders. Putin cannot afford that message of people-power right now. Any new Belarusian government would likely also look West to the EU for immediate assistance and ratification. The last time a Russian neighbor looked West so fast was Ukraine, and the Kremlin invaded. There are too many likely drawbacks and risks to make dropping Lukashenko, without a carefully planned alternative, appealing.

Demonstrators stage a "die-in" as part of protests against the results of Belarus' presidential election in Berlin, Germany on August 15, 2020.

4. Call for new elections, and insert Russia’s own, new candidate

Over a decade ago, this may have been Putin’s favored option. Moscow were masters of creating and forcing through a local election victory for their preferred option, often a technocrat conjured seemingly out of nowhere.

Belarus leader calls Putin to reaffirm mutual cooperation, later rejects foreign mediation offers

New elections would calm the protests, and a third option candidate for president could assuage the Belarusian security services and elite that they might still keep a grip on the levers of power. Yet Moscow may also be wary that giving concessions such as a new vote to a protest crowd may encourage them to broader demands. Another, new vote that the protesters might also conclude could be rigged, would set the crisis back to square one.

5. Do nothing, for a week or two

Let the pressure build on Lukashenko, and the dysfunction escalate, as protests begin to affect ordinary life. Other protest movements have ebbed over time, once the violence of the riot police has calmed, the protesters’ bruises faded, and ordinary concerns become more important. Practical concerns dominate over ideology when a population has dealt with corrupt and repressive government for decades. The importance of jobs and salaries will hove into view when the euphoria of free expression and revolt begins to fade. The protesters’ leader is currently in Lithuania, and so over time the crowds may lack focus and motivation. Given how imperfect the other four above options are, this may be Putin’s first choice.

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Trump’s ex-Russia adviser Fiona Hill: US increasingly seen as ‘object of pity’

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“We are increasingly seen as an object of pity, including by our allies, because they are so shocked by what’s happening internally, how we’re eating ourselves alive with our divisions,” Fiona Hill, who was a witness in the Trump impeachment hearings, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Tuesday during the Citizen by CNN 2020 conference. “We’re the ones who are creating all this. It’s not the Russians or the Chinese or anyone else. We are doing this to ourselves.”

Asked whether the US is still seen as a model, Hill replied, “Unless we get our domestic act together, no.”

Her comments come on the heels of a recent Pew Research Center survey among 13 nations that found America’s reputation has declined further over the past year among its key allies, with part of the decline linked to the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“What is really eroding our standing is what people are seeing happening here in the United States,” Hill, who was a national security adviser until she left the administration last summer, told CNN on Tuesday.

She said it’s the “bungled handling of Covid, on top of race relations, on top of our political polarization and the spectacles that we’re presenting to the outside world is what’s really pushing all of this.”

Hill said it would be “difficult” for NATO to survive under a second term of President Donald Trump, adding that the US needs to “revitalize our commitment to NATO.”

“Right now, most of our closest allies, not just partners and other major players, do not see the United States as leading. They see us as quite the contrary, as being so consumed with domestic problems that we really can’t do anything very much at all,” she said.

During congressional hearings in the 2019 impeachment inquiry, Hill warned that the Republican defense of the President — by peddling Ukraine conspiracy theories — was in danger of extending Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

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House hits pause on spending vote as Hill leaders resume talks

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Both Democrats and Republicans are eager to reach a deal to avert last-minute drama, though the two parties have squabbled for weeks over various funding and policy provisions in the continuing resolution, which would buy more time for negotiations on a broader spending deal.

“The talks continue, and hopefully we’ll reach an agreement,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday, though he did not comment when asked if he’d spoken with Pelosi.

Without a spending agreement, top Democrats and Republicans would find themselves exactly where they don’t want to be just weeks before the election — perilously close to the Sept. 30 deadline with no agreement to keep the government open.

A deal had appeared to be coming together on Friday, including tens of billions of dollars in farmer payments that Republicans sought in exchange for $2 billion in pandemic-related nutritional assistance that Democrats wanted.

But last-minute objections to the trade relief — including Democratic concerns that the president is leveraging the money to boost his reelection chances — tanked the talks. House Democrats ultimately released stopgap legislation on Monday that lacked both provisions, drawing the ire of McConnell, who tweeted that it “shamefully leaves out key relief and support that American farmers need.”

Both Pelosi and McConnell have been adamant about avoiding yet another government shutdown under President Donald Trump, and have supported a bill to extend funding through mid-December.

Senate Republicans on Monday said a lack of relief for farmers in the stopgap spending bill is problematic. But most stressed that it’s not worth shutting down the government in protest and said their side of the Capitol could still attempt to amend the bill.

“We could offer an amendment to try to put it back,” Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said of the trade aid on Monday. “Or we could vote against the CR. But I’m for running the government. I’d prefer to keep the government running.”

Asked if Republicans would be willing to spend more on food-related assistance in exchange for the farm aid, Shelby said Tuesday: “I’d listen to reason on that.”

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, slammed the lack of assistance for farmers. But when asked if Republicans would shut down the government without it, he replied, “No.”

As of Friday, Democrats had dropped a request that would extend the Census Bureau’s Dec. 31 deadline to turn over apportionment data used to divvy up House seats to the president — potentially punting the final handling of census data to Democratic nominee Joe Biden if he’s elected this November. Democrats had also failed to secure $3.6 billion in election security grants.

The GOP demands for farm aid, however, have emerged as a sticking point for many rank-and-file Democrats, who have been increasingly irate about Trump’s blatant use of farm aid for political purposes. That includes a campaign rally in Mosinee, Wis., last week, where Trump touted the taxpayer money as if it were a gift from him.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the No. 4 Senate Democrat and ranking member of the agriculture committee, this week criticized Trump’s use of the program as a “slush fund” and argued Republicans have been unwilling to agree to stricter guardrails around how the aid can be spent.

“This is not just a political fund for the election,” she said.

Helena Bottemiller Evich contributed to this report.

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Nicola Sturgeon Has Banned Household Mixing In Scotland And Claimed English Measures Do Not Go Far Enough

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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has banned household mixing (Credit: PA)

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Nicola Sturgeon has announced a ban on households mixing in Scotland, claiming experts say the restrictions introduced in England by Boris Johnson do not go far enough.

The first minister said the Scottish government’s top experts had warned the curbs announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday would not make a big enough impact on Covid-19 transmission rates.

“The advice given to the Cabinet by the chief medical officer and the national clinical director is that this on its own will not be sufficient to bring the R number down,” she told the Scottish parliament.

“They stress that we must act, not just quickly and decisively, but also on a scale significant enough to have an impact on the spread of the virus, and they advise that we must take account of the fact that household interaction is a key driver of transmission.”

Mr Johnson has imposed a 10pm curfew on the hospitality industry from midnight on Thursday, as well as a legal requirement for those working in the sector, and in retail, to wear masks.

The PM stopped short of preventing different households from socialising with each other outside of local lockdown areas, but said people should work from home wherever possible.

Mrs Sturgeon said she planned to impose similar restrictions on pubs, bars and restaurants but would also go further.

“To that end, we intend as Northern Ireland did yesterday to also introduce nationwide additional restrictions on household gatherings, similar to those already in place in the west of Scotland,” she added.

Earlier in the Commons, Mr Johnson claimed the four nations of the UK were following “similar” restriction plans, despite Northern Ireland announcing on Monday that it would ban socialising between households.

This applies in places like pubs and restaurants as well as in people’s homes.

In Wales, people are not allowed to mix indoors with people outside their own household or support bubble, and meetings or gatherings indoors even within an extended household is limited to six people.

Reports suggest insiders were worried about the prospect of Mrs Sturgeon diverging and implementing a “circuit-breaker” of stricter measures – leaving the actions of Mr Johnson’s government further exposed should they fail.

Some members of the prime minister’s frontbench – including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel – are believed to have lobbied for lighter intervention, while other cabinet ministers were in favour of a more drastic approach.

Mr Johnson told MPs: “I want to stress that this is by no means a return to the full lockdown of March.  We’re not issuing a genuine instruction to stay at home, we will ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open.”

He added: “We will continue to act against local flare ups, working alongside councils and strengthening measures where necessary.”

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