By Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hindered by frayed ties with Europe, limited leverage and doubts about President Donald Trump's devotion to democracy in Belarus, the United States is gingerly trying to nudge the former Soviet state toward new elections without provoking Russia.
Current and former U.S. officials acknowledge the challenge of promoting change in Belarus, which faces protests over an Aug. 9 election that the opposition says was rigged to extend the 26-year-old reign of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, who denies fraud, has responded with a violent crackdown on the protests and shown no sign of backing down despite sanctions imposed by three Baltic states on Monday and the threat of impending U.S. sanctions.
"The United States and European partners are together reviewing imposing targeted sanctions on anyone involved in human rights abuses in Belarus," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.
A senior U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday that Washington was weighing sanctions on seven Belarusians it believes were involved in falsifying the election results and in violence against peaceful protesters.
Belarus has responded firmly to the Baltic states, saying it will impose travel bans on officials from those countries, and warned of reciprocal measures against any other countries that hit it with sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin makes no secret of his interest in Belarus, which is a conduit for Russian oil and gas to Europe and is vital to Moscow's European defence strategy, and Russia has formed a police force to back Lukashenko if necessary.
Washington wants a way to bolster democracy in Belarus that avoids Russian intervention, something which - as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun told Russian officials last week in Moscow - would further damage U.S.-Russian ties.
Biegun also visited Ukraine, which borders Belarus, and Vienna, home to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), where he promoted the regional security group that includes Belarus, European nations, Russia and the United States as a vehicle to find a solution.
"This is not a contest between East and West, and certainly not a contest between Russia and the United States," he said on Friday, calling for violence against protesters to stop, those "unjustly detained" to be freed and "a truly free and fair election under independent observation."
AN UPHILL STRUGGLE
Experts said Biegun has an uphill climb.
"He has to work in the face of a lot of friction and unnecessary tension in U.S.-European relations and in the face of President Trump's own apparent ambivalence about supporting democracy," said Dan Fried, the former top U.S. diplomat for Europe who is now at the Atlantic Council think tank.
The Republican president, running against Democratic former vice president Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, has said little about Belarus, leaving some analysts with the impression he has scant interest.
"I like seeing democracy," he told reporters on Aug. 18. "It doesn't seem like it's too much democracy there."
A senior U.S. official said the United States and European Union were closely coordinating to find a way that avoids overt Russian intervention and opens "space" for a dialogue between the opposition and Lukashenko on transitioning from his rule.
"We are not looking to impose a solution or suggest that we need to have a seat at the table," the official said on condition of anonymity.
A European diplomat saw little chance for Washington and the EU to succeed via the OSCE because Belarus and Russia, as members of a group that operates by consensus, would be unlikely to go along.
Putin is sticking with Lukashenko, possibly looking to buy time for a "managed transition" to another leader acceptable to Russia and the opposition, said the diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Another European diplomat acknowledged the difficulty.
"I don’t think anybody is naive enough to believe that the OSCE path is going to be easy," he said. "Everybody recognizes the complexity."
Belarusian protesters have been careful not to wave EU or U.S. flags, brandishing instead the red and white flags used in Belarus after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union until Lukashenko restored the Soviet version.
Aware of the potential geopolitical risks, they have steered clear of being drawn into conversations about whether they want to exit Moscow’s orbit, saying they want strong relations with all countries.
Andrew Weiss, who served on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council and is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, said "neither the U.S. nor the EU has much leverage over Lukashenko."
"That makes it very hard to push the Belarusian government to re-run a stolen election," he said. "Putin is a master at creating leverage, which is precisely why he indicated that Russia is potentially poised to come in militarily if requested, or even if not requested."
(Addition reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Susan Heavey in Washignton and by Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Editing by Timothy Heritage)