Are the US, EU playing into Putin’s hands on Belarus?

The answer to that question is almost certainly, although to be fair, the situation gave them almost no other choice. After Alexander Lukashenko used a bomb-threat ruse to commit air piracy, all to arrest a dissident blogger off of an Irish airliner, the European Union locked Belarus out of EU airspace and cut off all flights to or over the country. Late yesterday, the US followed suit as the White House announced new and expanded sanctions on Belarus and Lukashenko’s regime:

According to the White House, the United States on June 3 will reimpose full blocking sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises. Biden administration officials are also coordinating with allies in the European Union and elsewhere to develop “a list of targeted sanctions against key members” of Lukashenko’s regime, Psaki said.

Meanwhile, Treasury Department officials are working on a new executive order for Biden to review that would increase his authority to impose sanctions on “elements” of Lukashenko’s regime, she added. …

The punishments are similar to those enacted by European Union leaders, all 27 of whom agreed Monday to toughen sanctions on Lukashenko’s authoritarian government, bar E.U. airlines from traversing Belarusian airspace and prevent Belavia, Belarus’s national airline, from flying over or landing in E.U. territory.

These are not unreasonable responses to Lukashenko’s bizarre and completely disproportionate act. However, they are almost designed to exacerbate the problems Lukashenko has presented for decades in Europe. Commercial engagement at least offered the potential for exposing and his dictatorial regime and human-rights abuses, and put some pressure on Lukashenko to liberalize. Locking Belarus out of that engagement means greater isolation and less accountability.

The greater concern, however, is Lukashenko’s role as a puppet of Moscow and Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko’s Belarus is a potentially hostile state on the European frontier, unlike Ukraine. And now the EU and US are leaving Lukashenko no choice but to align even closer to Putin for both political and economic survival. Putin has wasted no time in taking advantage of this, the Wall Street Journal reported last night:

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a display of support for beleaguered Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko Friday in their first meeting since Minsk sparked Western outrage earlier this week by forcing a European airliner to land and arresting a dissident journalist onboard.

State television showed the leaders embracing, and both mocked international condemnation of the incident ahead of talks at Mr. Putin’s residence at the seaside resort of Sochi. Mr. Putin even suggested the two go swimming.

But Mr. Lukashenko’s increasing political and economic isolation from the West is pushing the leader dangerously close to Russia and providing Mr. Putin an opening to advance long-held plans to deepen the integration between Russia and the former Soviet republic. …

In recent months, as Mr. Lukashenko increasingly has become an international pariah, Mr. Putin has pledged more financial and military support for Belarus, signaling Moscow’s intention to bolster its embattled junior partner—support that could ultimately bind Minsk more tightly to Russia.

“Putin probably sees it as a way to press Lukashenko to make more concessions in the integration bargaining,” said Eugene Rumer, the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.

Putin wants to get the old Soviet band back together and re-establish a Russian empire. He tried that by force in Georgia and Ukraine, and now Putin has an opening to all but annex Belarus. Lukashenko insisted yesterday that he would never agree to that formally, but politically and economically, he might be left with few other options. His strategy for nearly thirty years in power had been to play footsie with the West to keep Russia close-but-not-too-close. The EU and the US just foreclosed those options, at least for the moment, although again Lukashenko forced them to react in the first place.

“Now his dependence on Moscow seems pretty complete,” one analyst told the WSJ. Unless China unexpectedly enters the equation, that’s true — and Putin would almost certainly confront China if Beijing attempted to ensnare Belarus in its Belt and Road Initiative. Montenegro’s learning that lesson the hard way with its “road to nowhere.”

The EU and US might hope that the isolation created by the sanctions will prompt a popular revolution against Lukashenko. It certainly has some Belarusians considering their own options:

“We are cut off from the rest of the world,” 54-year-old Nikolai, who is only identified by his first name due to security concerns, told CNN from his home in Minsk. “(President Alexander) Lukashenko is doing everything possible to isolate the country and return the Iron Curtain.”

“I don’t feel trapped, but there’s no freedom either,” he added. “All my friends are worried about the future of the country … we are very pleased with international solidarity and assistance.” …

Ales, 31, who is only identified by his first name, told CNN from Minsk that “many people like myself are happy that the West finally is doing something real. However many people are anxious about not having the possibility to fly to the EU countries or Ukraine.

“Due to the closure of the land border, the plane was the only option for many people to leave the country. There are still options to transit through Russia but it is more expensive and lengthy,” he said.

Ales added that: “Right now, all Belarusians are hostages to Lukashenko’s regime, and he is the one to blame for the international isolation of Belarus that worsens all the time.”

Another citizen, Anastasia, who lives in Minsk and preferred not to give her second name due to safety concerns, told CNN it was important “not to wait for the moment when it will be impossible to leave for many years like it was with the Iron Curtain in the USSR.”

So the sanctions are producing internal pressure on Lukashenko. That too has its limits, though. Remember when the people of Ukraine decided in 2014 that they’d had enough of a Russia-oriented oligarchical government? Russia has occupied a significant chunk of Ukraine since shortly after that action, and the EU didn’t do much to stop it. No one did anything to stop Putin in Georgia thirteen years ago, either. The Belarusians likely learned a lesson from that — no one will save them from Russia either, not the EU or the US. And thus does all of this play into Putin’s hands, one way or another.

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