Vladimir Putin has said Russian police are on standby to be sent to Belarus if the situation in the country deteriorates, following mass protests against dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarusian police launched a brutal crackdown on demonstrations this month after Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the Eastern European country with an iron fist for 26 years, claimed 80 percent of the vote in a presidential election widely seen as rigged.
The Russian President said Mr Lukashenko had asked him “to form a reserve of law enforcement employees, and I have done so”.
“But we also agreed they would not be used unless the situation gets out of control,” Mr Putin said in an interview with state television on Thursday.
Russia would intervene if “extremist elements, using political slogans as cover, overstep a certain boundary...in general, however, the situation is levelling out”.
In the days following the August 9 election, the Belarusian regime seemed on the brink of collapse amid a wave of popular protests and strikes.
But since then, Mr Lukashenko has ordered law enforcement to quell further protests and launched a criminal case against the opposition.
Officials in both Minsk and Moscow have accused foreign forces of trying to destabilise Belarus. Mr Lukashenko has put the army on high alert and ordered military exercises along its border with Lithuania and Poland.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday condemned Mr Putin’s announcement, calling it “a hostile act, in breach of international law and human rights of Belarusian people, who should be free to decide their own fate”.
The EU has announced sanctions in response to police violence.
Belarus and Russia have traditionally close ties but these have become strained in recent years as Minsk resists moves from Moscow towards further integration.
The Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denis Shmyhal, said Belarusians seeking refuge from persecution would be welcome in the country, despite a current ban on foreigners arriving because of coronavirus measures.