Will the West end up saving Alexander Lukashenko by its eagerness to target Vladimir Putin? Will it force a Belarus-Russian Anschluss that no one – not Europe, not Moscow, not Minsk – really wants? The crisis over Belarus following the Ryanair incident highlights the dilemmas of modern policy-making, and the sometimes confused motivations in play.
Unsurprisingly, from the first many have sought to roll Lukashenko’s latest outrage into the wider Russia crisis. Yale historian Timothy Snyder flatly asserted on Twitter that “Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval” and so sanctions for the act should hit Russia (although he walked that back in a subsequent blog post, adding an all-important caveat that “Perhaps Russian authorities had prior knowledge that the hijacking would take place”). However, by then the hare was running.
There were the initial claims that the men who disembarked in Minsk alongside Roman Protasevich were Russians, so clearly this was at least an operation jointly run by the Belarusian KGB and their Russian FSB counterparts. Except that it turned out they were Belarusians (and one Greek, who had been heading to Minsk anyway). Then there was the claim that the KGB had no track record of running such operations without the Russians holding their hands; they have actually been aggressively tracking, spying on and harassing opposition figures in the West on their own account for over a decade.
The fact that Russian and Belarusian air defence is integrated meant that Lukashenko could not have ordered a MiG-29 fighter into the skies to escort the plane to Minsk without Moscow’s approval. Except that this ‘integration’ doesn’t actually deprive the Belarusian commander-in-chief of his command – at most it means Moscow would have known when it happened.
Above all, though, there was the underlying contention, foreshadowed by Snyder, that Lukashenko is just a Russian puppet who, in the words of Republican Senator – and member of the Select Committee on Intelligence – Ben Sasse, “doesn’t use the bathroom without asking for Moscow’s permission.”
Of course, this is wildly inaccurate, mischaracterising the relationship between two men who – for all the awkward congeniality on display at their recent meeting in Sochi – dislike and mistrust each other, but find themselves in a mutually inconvenient co-dependency.
As Franak Viacorka, one of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s advisers, more accurately put it: “Lukashenko doesn’t listen to anyone… He’s an absolutely unpredictable, rather impulsive person.” He is also jealous of his autonomy. Until recently he had ensured that by playing Putin off against the West, but he now finds himself with no ally but Russia in light of his virtual declaration of war against his own people. Putin, unwilling to go down in history as the tsar responsible for the ‘Ungathering of the Russian Lands,’ cannot afford to see Belarus follow Ukraine as a popular rising replaces a Moscow-leaning regime and instead moves their country towards Europe.
Of course, so long as Moscow supports the Lukashenko regime, it shares some of the moral culpability for Lukashenko’s erratic and brutal measures. (Though at the risk of “whataboutism,” we have to remember the degree to which the West often supports unpleasant authoritarians, believing them to be the least-worst or geopolitically necessary option.) However, contrary to the notion that Russia is backing Lukashenko to the hilt, it has actually done the least it can.
Blocking a few flights to Moscow which had planned to avoid Belarusian airspace “for technical reasons” – while letting others in – is at best a cosmetic and likely temporary gesture of solidarity in response to Europe’s blanket ban. Likewise, the $500mn loan announced at the Sochi summit is simply the next tranche of a $1.5bn agreed last year rather than any new money.
More broadly, Lukashenko is trying to spin his brutal thuggery at home as a first line of defence for Moscow, claiming that the West is developing its techniques for “hybrid war” in Belarus before unleashing them on Russia. Although this undoubtedly fits the paranoid current mood in the Kremlin, it seems to have done little to endear him to Putin, who pointedly refrained from joining in with Lukashenko’s histrionics.
After all, Putin has good reasons to be furious. Russian support – financial, political, intelligence – is helping keep Lukashenko’s beleaguered regime alive, yet he continues not only to assert his independence, but also renege or backpedal on existing deals. A new constitution, which Moscow would like to see dilute the president’s powers, seems to be receding over the horizon, with Lukashenko now promising a draft ready for the end of 2021, but with little credibility or conviction. Belarus has not even recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea, something Moscow might have hoped a billion dollars of credit might buy.
Meanwhile, a brazen gambit intended presumably not simply to arrest one admittedly significant figure within the opposition media but intimidate the rest of émigré political movement, has bounced Putin into supporting Lukashenko right before his summit with US President Joe Biden. At the very least, this becomes a distraction; at worst, it will overshadow what was meant to be a demonstration that Russia is a great power whose president is the equal of America’s.
It also, of course, raises questions as to how Minsk can be punished most effectively in the modern, politically and economically interconnected world.
First of all, the habitual use of sectorial economic sanctions always risk unintended consequences. Indeed, the irony is that some would directly benefit Russia. Moves to block exports of Belarusian potash, for example, would open up new market opportunities for Russia’s industry (and potentially drive up prices for European clients). In any case, the evidence that this would bring about positive change – and at less than glacial speed, at that – is distinctly unclear. Potash, for example, accounts for a substantial 20% of Belarus’s budget revenues, but at least part of the shortfall could be met by pivoting to other markets in Asia and Latin America. Nonetheless, this is the kind of measure that will undoubtedly affect ordinary Belarusians, which might make them more inclined to protest, but will not have a quick or devastating impact on the security apparatus on which Lukashenko’s power now rests.
Secondly, there is the continuing disagreement about the fundamental intent. There are those who see Putin as the only source of meaningful pressure on Lukashenko, and who therefore argue that Russia needs to be sanctioned precisely to force the Kremlin to bring that pressure to bear. Then there are others who, to be blunt, simply see this as one engagement in a wider war with Russia. While they affect the same rhetoric as the former group, they are happy simply to use Minsk’s adventurism and brutality as an excuse to call for the usual measures against Russia – cancelling Nord Stream 2, suspending it from the SWIFT system and so on – not because they really think this will hit Minsk, but because they want to undermine the Kremlin.
The tragic irony would be if moves meant to punish Minsk actually forced Putin’s hand. For all Belarus and Russia have been in a ‘Union State’ since 1999, this does not really mean a merger. Putin’s goal, it appears, is to institutionalise Belarus’s status as a part of Russia’s sphere of influence through all the integration that suits the metropolis, from defence to the economy, but no more. Empires are expensive things, after all, and Moscow is already paying to greater or lesser extents for Chechnya, Crimea, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the Donbas (and continuing troop deployments to Tajikistan, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and Libya). There is little if any appetite for actually taking on the full burden of a country with a GDP per capita less than two-thirds of Russia’s.
This is why Putin’s game plan appears to be to engineer, as soon as he can, a transfer of power, to try to maintain the regime but with a less toxic figure at its helm. Already potential replacements are apparently being auditioned. Lukashenko, as wilful as he is wily, is obviously going to do all he can to avert this. Indeed, part of his calculations when he ordered that Ryanair flight brought down – and there is also no evidence to suggest he was not behind, or at least wholly supportive of this move – may have been precisely to engineer a situation in which Putin, who never wants to look as if he can be influenced by Western rhetoric or pressure, feels he has to give Lukashenko his personal backing.
However, if Belarus is hit by wider economic sanctions and if it genuinely looks as if Russia will have to choose between letting the regime fall to the street, or accepting the costs of bankrolling it, then there may be those in Moscow who question the wisdom of open-ended sanctions but limited control. To be blunt, at what point would Putin feel that he owned what he was paying for? Thus, clumsy policies could actually force a reluctant merger or full Russian intervention. Those who suggest that Putin has gained from this crisis as it burns Belarus’s bridges with the West forget that not only were those bridges already well and truly destroyed by months of brutal repression, but that Russia actually benefited from using it as a turntable, whether to sell ‘laundered’ coal from the Donbas pseudo-states to Ukraine and the West or allowing the elite to smuggle in their sanctioned luxury goods.
Does this mean doing nothing, though? Not at all. Rather, that any measures need to be smart, carefully targeted and above all imaginative. The evidence suggests that the old toolbox simply is not up to the job – claims that, for example, Western threats of sanctions forced Russia to abandon planned military intervention in Ukraine in March are based wholly on assumptions and wishful thinking. Instead, authoritarian regimes such as Lukashenko’s and Putin’s (and many more) have demonstrated depressingly strong capacities to resist sanctions that thus become, more than anything else, a way of comforting the West that it is good – rather than actually doing any good.
First of all, the Belarusian regime’s capacity to oppress its enemies ought to be targeted. Not least, this should mean expelling known and suspected KGB officers in embassies across Europe, a co-ordinated cleaning of the stables that would not only be a powerful symbol of unity and will but also seriously degrade Minsk’s capability to continue to hound the opposition. Given that, for example, former minister turned opposition figure Pavel Latushko was recently warned by a loyalist parliamentarian that he could be returned to Belarus “in the boot of a car”, such moves matter.
Secondly, given that the leadership of the opposition and the free media which undermines Lukashenko’s propaganda is now based abroad, direct assistance to them would be a suitably asymmetric response. This may sound like it is playing into his claims that the protesters are dupes of the West, but so be it. Too much Western “support” is essentially rhetorical and for show – yet another photo op with Tikhanovskaya – such that it is time to back that with money and genuine authority. Just to pluck a number from the air, €50mn is small change compared with the likely costs to Europe from any economic sanctions, but would have a transformative impact on the capacity of the opposition to spread their message, support the dependents of those in prison and otherwise act on the ground. Visas for those fleeing persecution, stepped-up efforts to monitor and record abuses and the identities of those involved, all these measures can help by supporting Belarusians themselves in their struggle against repression.
Finally, the right political signalling is crucial. It is probably too late to hope that Putin could be encouraged to do anything positive – but it is still worth trying to avoid pushing him into anything negative. Sanctioning Moscow directly or indirectly for its ties to Belarus will only make it more determined to resist what it will regard as gibridnaya voina, the West’s hybrid warfare aimed at marginalising and “house training” Russia. There is a wider crisis in Russo-Western relations, to be sure, but viewing this latest incident in that context betrays and belittles the Belarusians’ own struggle with Lukashenko and will just exacerbate the situation.
In a perverse way, Lukashenko is right that today’s Belarus is a proving ground for Western policy. Not as he means it, of course, but that it provides an opportunity not only to see if the EU can rise to the challenge – this is, after all, first and foremost a European issue – but also whether the West generally can demonstrate the finesse, imagination and nuance to be able to find ways of influencing this situation for the better, rather than relying on a discredited and undiscriminating old set of responses.
Mark Galeotti is director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and also an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies.