The escalation of relations with the “Union State” requires a systematic reconsideration of Western countries’ policies
The incident of the forced or deceptive landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk in order to capture Belarusian oppositionist Raman Pratasevich continues hitting the headlines. One by one, airlines refuse to fly over Belarus and to Belarus, Belavia also cancels its flights, and the European Union prepares sanctions. Europe has reacted unusually quickly and unanimously to this episode of Alexander Lukashenka’s savage violation of international norms, and we could witness a turning point in the West’s relations with the Belarusian regime, behind which the Russian regime baldly stands.
It would seem that the West has never had any illusions about the nature of power in Minsk. The third year of Lukashenka’s presidency saw the European Union sanctions imposed in response to the 1996 referendum that allowed the president to prolong his tenure until 2001. In 1998, in response to a diplomatic war declared to ambassadors of the EU and other countries, the Belarusian authorities even ordered them to leave their residences in the village of Drozdy near Minsk, which was an unprecedented step. However, that incident did not seem to prevent settling the conflict and lifting the sanctions in 1999, just when, by the way, the disappearance of Belarusian opposition leaders and journalists began.
Only in 2004 did several high-ranking officials involved in the crackdown on the opposition come under new European sanctions, and the list was later somewhat expanded. In 2004, the United States passed the Belarus Democracy Act, recognising Lukashenka’s responsibility for the disappearance of political opponents, the brutal suppression of peaceful protests, and the usurpation of power. Despite this, the West did not want to seriously damage relations with Lukashenka, although at that time he already earned the nickname “Europe’s last dictator.” The fact that another, much more dangerous dictator was gaining strength in Russia at the time did not occur to anyone.
In 2006, the European Union reacted to the presidential election, which was held with significant violations, but suspended the new sanctions again in two years. The election situation was repeated in 2010. Lukashenka ordered the opposition to be severely and demonstratively punished: 600 protesters, including four of the six presidential candidates, were detained during a mass rally on 19 December. This led to the emergence of the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act, which imposed U.S. sanctions. The EU, in turn, expanded the list of Belarusian leaders and officials banned from entering the European Union and their accounts were frozen. In 2012, the number of persons and organisations under sanctions increased to 243 people and 29 legal entities.
The year 2015 came, and the EU again decided to forgive Lukashenka. The sanctions were suspended. Since 2016, restrictive measures against only four people involved in the persecution of the opposition were in force. Against the background of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the President of Belarus already looked like a model of prudence and almost normalcy. Minsk became a venue of negotiations between the conflicting parties, and Lukashenka acted as a peacemaker. The fact that his regime had not changed at all did not affect the process of rehabilitation of the dictator in the international arena. The United States suspended sanctions against a number of companies. In 2020, for the first time in 12 years, full-fledged diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored: the U.S. ambassador arrived in Minsk. It was the same year when Alexander Lukashenka for the first time openly lost the election and, facing an unprecedented wave of protest, demonstrated his true qualities to the fullest, striking the world with the brutality of crackdown on civilians and political opponents.
It seems that Alexander Lukashenka lost any chance of minimal normalisation of relations with the West after inhuman suppression of protests, imprisonment of opposition leaders and mass persecution of activists disloyal to the regime, exposure of a “CIA plot to assassinate the president,” detention of Belarusian oppositionists Yuri Zenkovich and Alexander Feduta in Moscow with the help of Russian FSB, and bold interception of passenger plane with Raman Pratasevich on board, again not without the participation of Russian special services. But Lukashenka does not want such a normalisation, and the regime has left no room for mitigation. Ahead is only the growth of confrontation on the outside and the intensification of repression inside, the transition to a state of isolation and constant police mobilisation. Moreover, Russia is an outspoken sponsor of such a somewhat “new” Belarus where the specter of the leader’s legitimacy has disappeared and the regime relies solely on coercion and economic support from its partner in the “Union State.” And this partner is also moving further along the path of confrontation with the West and intensification of internal repressions, accelerating, in turn, all stages of “Belarusisation.”
These circumstances require that the collective West provide not individual, albeit serious, reactions to what is happening in Belarus and the “Union State” as a whole. There is an urgent need to reconsider all U.S., EU and NATO policies on Europe’s eastern flank. In fact, this was supposed to happen in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine. But even the downing of the passenger plane Flight MH17 did not lead to a comprehensive reconsideration of relations with Russia, all the while there were people willing to “understand Putin” and give him a chance. Now that the activities of Russian secret agents involved in political assassinations and even military sabotage in European countries has become known, and the United States is constantly being the target of information and cyber attacks launched by Russia, there are already no illusions and hopes that some misunderstandings happened and relations still might be mended. Only a consistent, systematic, firm and decisive deterrence of the “Union State” can ensure an adequate level of protection for both Western institutions and fundamental democratic and liberal values.
And so, in a situation of obvious escalation in the East, the role that Ukraine should play in Western policy of deterrence is growing manifold. Indeed, our country is not yet formally a part of the West, but it must become such functionally as an outpost of the world of democracy and humanistic values. We have no options to stay outside the framework of this civilisational struggle. Ukraine has been at war for seven years already.