Standing arm in arm with Putin, Belarus’ Lukashenko remains unbowed and unbent

At a recent meeting with the senior command of the Belarussian army, President Alexander Lukashenko announced that his government would support a Russian military incursion into the Ukraine.

Commenting on the tensions between Russia and the NATO alliance, Lukashenko’s aside of ‘its perfectly clear whose side Belarus will be on’ was as threatening as it was conclusive.

Lukashenko has long been a thorn in the side of the West and his forced landing of a Ryanair flight this summer resulted in the imposition of sanctions by the US, UK, and EU.

These measures were refreshed and extended last week, but the Ukraine wants the West to do more and ramp up sanctions on Russia and Belarus if an invasion were to occur.

However, Lukashenko and Putin’s recent aggression is a grim demonstration that sanctions have failed to pacify them and there are fears that an intensification of these measures would likewise come to nothing.

In his appearance last week, Lukashenko chose to forget the massive build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, telling the foreign press that it was the NATO alliance, not Russia, that has been guilty of sabre-rattling in recent months.

In preparation for what is now a seemingly inevitable conflict, Lukashenko and Putin’s armed forces will continue to conduct joint military training exercises on the EU’s eastern border, to the bloc’s considerable alarm.

Ukrainian politicians, understandably rattled by the aggression of the autocrats on their doorstep, want not only the intensification of sanctions but greater military support from the West.

However, such an approach is being questioned in European policymaking circles, with experts asking if the ramping up of sanctions is really the right approach when both Russian and Belarus have been sanctioned for so long.

Not only have their economies successfully adapted to the restrictions, but Putin and Lukashenko are as threatening as ever on the international stage.

Digging down into the efficacy of economic sanctions, research from the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) and the Cato Institute, two think tanks, has shown that while trade and financial restrictions are certainly impactful, their impact largely falls on those who can ill afford it.

Emma Ashford, one of the academics behind the research and now a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, has explained how the US and EU’s long-standing regime of sanctions on Russia caused food shortages and credit crunches for working Russians.

Sanctions have also been proven to be against the economic interests of the West itself, with Italian MP Deborah Bergamini estimating that Italian firms lost €1.5 billion in revenues in the two years after sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014.

Concerningly, these unintended consequences are starting to play out in Belarus.

Having been locked out of Western markets, Lukashenko has shifted the country’s export focus eastwards, with Belarusian consumer goods going to Russia and a lucrative potash supply contract being signed with a Chinese consortium earlier this year.

The result is that the Belarusian economy is buoyant enough to maintain Lukashenko in power, but not strong enough to maintain the living standards of his people.

Ordinary Belarusians must now watch on as Lukashenko parades himself in front of the international media in full military garb, while they earn what they can in a hamstrung economy.

For European foreign policy hawks looking on, there has been a great deal of surprise that Western leaders are content with such an outcome and have no interest in diplomatic engagement with Belarus.

After all, the EU, UK, and the Biden administration have religiously followed a policy of engagement, rather than the knee-jerk imposition of new sanctions, in other global hotspots.

Take Iran, an unstable and hostile power, but one with which the West has engaged extensively. Indeed, the NATO alliance is currently renegotiating a deal with Iran, known as the JCPOA, which will rein in the country’s uranium enrichment programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.

With Lukashenko clearly unbowed and unbent by his own sanctioning, the West should now consider if a similar approach should be adopted in dealing with Belarus.

Why? Because Lukashenko is simply too dangerous, and his people are too vulnerable, for the West to continue with the same failed strategy.

Instead, a quid pro quo of democratic reforms in return for the gradual winding down of restrictions would neutralise him as a threat on the international stage and deliver ordinary Belarusians out of an exceptionally dark period.

 

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