Western sanctions intended to punish Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko following the forced downing of a plane may actually help Putin fully annex Belarus.
In May, while a Ryanair flight was in Belarusian air space, air traffic told the plane there was a security risk on board. Then, Belarussian authorities sent a fighter jet to intercept the plane ordering it to land in Minsk. One of the passengers, journalist and dissident Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, were taken away by authorities after landing. Both Sapega and Protasevich appeared in “confession” videos, made from prison under duress. Protasevich had visible bruises and abrasions.
Putin almost certainly knew and approved of the diverted plane.
The Biden administration and EU sanctioned Belarus. Meanwhile, European-based airlines stopped flying over Belarusian airspace and banned Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace or landing in its airports.
Forcing down a commercial flight, arresting two passengers, and detaining crew and passengers with armed guards for six hours is an attack on international civilian aviation. It sets a dangerous precedent and requires serious ramifications to deter other rogue states from doing the same. However, the move may finally push Belarus fully into Putin’s camp.
For the last few years, Putin has put increasing pressure on Lukashenko to implement a 1999 Treaty that created a Union State between Belarus and Russia. Putin’s foreign policy is driven by what he calls “Historic Russia,” which includes parts of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and most of Ukraine.
Putin has tried to keep these countries in his sphere of influence with disinformation campaigns and subversion.
Former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers have occupied the Russian embassy in Minsk for the last several years, running a coordinated disinformation operation with three common themes: integration with Russia is inevitable, Belarus is not independent, and Belarusians are Russians.
One of those officers, Andrey Klintsevich, was honored by Putin for his service in Crimea during the 2014 annexation and was expelled from Ukraine for espionage.
Additionally, Putin has used energy prices as a tool to bring Lukashenko to the negotiating table for real integration. Belarus’ cradle-to-the-grave Soviet-style economy survives only with Russian loans and oil exports.
Lukashenko has so far been able to avoid fully ceding to Putin’s wishes by playing Russia and the West off of each other.
As analyst Konrad Muzyka points out, economic pressure and information operations fail because Russia is not exporting an ideology, like communism, it is only exporting “fear, weapons, gas, and oil.” Moscow has not been able to entice countries into closer cooperation and has resorted to conflict to maintain its interests, as it did in Georgia and Ukraine.
The U.S. has a strategic interest in Belarus because of the Suwalki gap – a piece of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad that connects the Baltic States to Poland. In a conflict, the Baltics could be cut off entirely from the rest of NATO.
Even though NATO is a defensive alliance, Putin views it as an existential threat. Belarus provides insulation from a Western invasion of Russia.
The Trump administration was interested in keeping Belarus out of Putin’s orbit. National Security Advisor John Bolton was the first U.S. official to visit Belarus in 18 years, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited in 2020.
In August, Lukashenko was declared the winner of the presidential election, but his victory was disputed by his challenger and protestors filled the streets in anger. The EU demanded a recount of the ballots. Lukashenko’s used brute force to put down the protests, with what Human Rights Watch called a “new low point on human rights during Alexander Lukashenko’s 25-year rule.”
Hundreds of those detained had serious injuries from torture including broken bones, cracked teeth, electrical burns, mild traumatic brain injuries, and kidney damage.
Whether the protests were entirely organic or helped along by provocateurs, the outcome benefited the Kremlin.
Isolated from the international community, Lukashenko could only turn East. Putin backed Lukashenko and said he had created a police reserve to defend the Belarusian leader if necessary.
Belarus was already in bad economic shape before the pandemic. In 2019, Russia cut oil supply to Belarus over integration which made export revenue fall. Belarus’ budget, which had had a surplus for years, went in the red for the first time since 2013. Belarus has $3.3 bn of foreign debt due in 2021.
Lukashenko has made concessions to Putin over the last year. In March 2021, Belarus and Russia signed a five-year strategic military partnership for the first time, and a new pro-Russian political party was established to “deep[en] integration.”
But Putin has not provided substantial economic relief and will likely only do so if Lukashenko announces a Constitutional amendment or another real step toward integration.
Additional sanctions following the Ryanair incident may be the final death blow to Belarus’ fragile economy. This in turn may lead Lukashenko to finally accept Putin’s demands for full integration.
If Lukashenko does not budge, Putin may have another card to play.
Putin and Biden will meet next week in Switzerland. Putin could use the opportunity to suggest that he could rein Lukashenko in to avoid another international incident. Putin successfully convinced the Obama administration of a similar concept over Syria in 2013. Then, rather than dealing with potential military action or more sanctions, any formal takeover of Belarus might be met with Western acceptance.
Many leaders have repeatedly claimed a special understanding with Putin only to find out that –shockingly –dictators lie.
Both Putin and Lukashenko are ruthless autocrats and deserve international condemnation. The downing of the Ryanair flight cannot go unpunished.
But European countries are ready to begin receiving gas from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will fund Russia’s military incursions. The Biden administration, while talking tough on Russia, removed sanctions from the company building Nord Stream 2, despite bipartisan opposition.
Western leaders are eager to appear to be human rights defenders but are too feckless to seriously deter Russian aggression.
Morgan Wirthlin is the Chief of Staff at the Center for Security Policy, a national security think tank in Washington, D.C.