The number two US diplomat will visit Russia and Lithuania soon for talks on Belarus, two sources familiar with the matter said on Friday, as Washington seeks a peaceful resolution to that country’s election crisis that averts Russian intervention.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun’s planned mission signals a greater US role in trying to settle the strife that erupted when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brutally cracked down on peaceful protesters rejecting his claim of a landslide Aug. 9 election win.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One source, a former senior US official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Biegun was expected to leave in the coming days for Moscow and the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where Belarusian opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took refuge after Lukashenko launched his crackdown.
The United States and European Union have condemned the election as marred by irregularities. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday urged Lukashenko to accept international help in opening talks with the opposition and implicitly warned Russia, Belarus’ massive neighbor, not to intervene.
Lukashenko has appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help salvaging his 26-year rule. Belarus is bound to Russia by a mutual defense treaty and deep economic, political and cultural ties.
Putin has offered assistance, if required. Moscow on Wednesday said it saw no need to help for now, but has warned against outside involvement in Belarus and said the crisis should be settled internally.
The second source said he did not know Biegun’s planned message but thought he would aim to prevent further violence in Belarus or Russian intervention.
“I would guess the administration is trying to dissuade Moscow from either intervening on its own or using its influence with Lukashenko to encourage him to have a (more) violent crackdown,” said this source, also on condition of anonymity.
EU member Lithuania, which has sought backing from Washington, has been an outspoken critic of Lukashenko’s crackdown on the demonstrations by tens of thousands of Belarusians in which his security forces have beaten, teargassed and arrested thousands of people, many of whom say they were tortured.