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Belarus Threatens West as EU Debates Severe Sanctions

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko addresses Prime Ministers from the Commonwealth of Independent States during a meeting, in Minsk, Belarus, May 28, 2021.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko addresses Prime Ministers from the Commonwealth of Independent States during a meeting, in Minsk, Belarus, May 28, 2021.

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has threatened to retaliate for any European Union sanctions imposed on him for detaining two opposition activists after forcing their plane to land in Minsk earlier this week.

Hours before a scheduled meeting in the Russian seaside resort of Sochi with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, his only major international ally, the Belarusian leader warned he would allow migrants and drugs to pour into western Europe. The 66-year-old said, “We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves.”

In a show of support for Lukashenko, Russia has been refusing permission for some European passenger jets to enter its airspace after airlines, following EU guidance, ordered their planes to alter their usual flight paths and bypass Belarus, depriving the Belarusian government of millions of dollars in flyover fees.

Austria Thursday condemned Moscow’s decision to cancel the Vienna-Moscow service as “absolutely incomprehensible.”

“It is in the interests of both Austria and Russia that all flights to and via Russia can continue to be carried out without any problems,” the Austrian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Lukashenko also sought Thursday to play down the impact of any possible EU economic sanctions, saying, “We’ll substitute Europe, which is growing mercilessly old, for rapidly growing Asia.”

He continued to maintain that Belarus diverted Sunday’s Ryanair’s Athens-Vilnius flight because of a bomb threat against the flight by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The claim is dismissed by Hamas, and by Western governments, which say the forced landing of the Ryanair plane amounted to “state-sponsored hijacking.”

Opposition activists 26-year-old Roman Pratasevich, a blogger, and 23-year-old Sofia Sapega, a law student and Russian national, were taken from the plane and arrested when it landed in the Belarusian capital. Both are accused of a variety of offenses, including inciting rallies against Lukashenko in the wake of last August’s presidential election, which was widely denounced by Western powers as rigged and fraudulent.

European leaders have expressed outrage at the diversion of the Ryanair flight between two EU capitals and on Monday EU leaders discussed the incident at a summit, with European Council President Charles Michel saying in a statement the Belarus action “will not remain without consequences.” During an informal meeting in Lisbon Thursday, EU foreign ministers planned the steps to take in addition to the ban on EU-based airlines using Belarusian airspace.

The proposals being discussed focus on economic and sector-specific sanctions, EU officials told VOA.

“We will continue to look at what consequences [sanctions] will have in Belarus, whether Lukashenko will give in. And if this is not the case, we have to assume that this will be only the beginning of a big and long spiral of sanctions,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

Maas said sanctions must be made “effective” by targeting business sectors that are important to Belarus’ economy. He cited the potassium and phosphate sectors.

“There is also the question to what extent Belarus should still be allowed to issue government bonds by the Belarusian state or by the Central Bank in Europe in the future,” he added. He said Lukashenko's behavior was “so unacceptable,” the EU should not be satisfied with small steps.

Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters Thursday, “We could talk about [sanctions on] the oil production sector.” Foreign ministers of the G-7 countries have separately called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Protasevich and Sapega “as well as all other journalists and political prisoners held in Belarus.”

“We will enhance our efforts, including through further sanctions as appropriate, to promote accountability for the actions of the Belarusian authorities,” the G-7 group said in a statement.

There are splits among Western governments about how severe sanctions should be, though, with some arguing that a balance must be struck between punishing the Belarusian authorities while avoiding driving the country deeper into the arms of Putin, who Lukashenko is economically and militarily heavily reliant on.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg has publicly advocated moderation, fearing deep and wide sanctions risk harming ordinary Belarusians without deterring Lukashenko.

“We must also be careful that we do not hit people in Belarus,” he said. Estonia’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, appeared to echo those sentiments, telling reporters in Lisbon she hopes sanctions can be focused on “companies which are close to the Belarusian regime.”

Some Western analysts say fears of driving Lukashenko further into the Russian fold are misplaced. The diversion of the Ryanair flight, said Keir Giles of Britain’s Chatham House, “could be no clearer statement that President Lukashenko has turned his back on the West and abandoned any restraint or concern for international censure.”

“Four years ago,” he added, “Belarus was still ostensibly nurturing a fragile form of independence, maintaining a degree of willfulness in its independent foreign policy from Russia, trying to quietly grow ties with the West while not alienating President Putin, and resisting Moscow's attempts to take over the military defense of Belarusian territory.” Now, however, Giles said he believes "Lukashenko has placed all his bets on Moscow and Russia.”

Russian officials have backed Lukashenko but initially did so softly, possibly because, some Western diplomats suspect, the Kremlin was trying to take stock of what the implications could be for the just-agreed summit meeting next month between U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin, the first face-to-face encounter between the pair since Biden was elected president.

The editor-in-chief of state-controlled Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, said, at the start of the week, that Lukashenko “played it beautifully,” but top Kremlin officials were less forthcoming initially, with Putin’s spokesman declining press requests to comment, until Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov characterized Lukashenko’s actions “absolutely reasonable.”

Lavrov called on other countries “to soberly assess the situation.”

Lukashenko’s relationship with Putin has long been a fitful one, with the two frequently falling out. Lukashenko has relied on financial subsidies and oil supplies from Russia. A senior Russian diplomat based in Minsk once described to VOA a “shouting match” he overheard during a phone conversation between them. The dispute was over the Belarusian leader’s resistance to Putin’s goal of closer integration between Russia and its onetime Soviet satellite, he said.

Analysts say Putin’s major Belarus objective is to ensure — much as his goal is with Ukraine — that it doesn’t end up as a pro-Western enclave on Russia’s borders. The Belarusian leader has long played the West against Russia and vice versa. He observed a neutral stance over Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Western diplomats say it is irrelevant whether Russia is full-throated in backing Lukashenko or more vocally restrained. Either way Lukashenko has no one else to turn to now for support. They note since the August election, and the mass protests of his continued rule, he has been keener for closer cooperation between his military and Russia’s. That has seen the establishment of joint military training centers and planning for a massive joint military exercise in September, known as Zapad-2021.

Before departing Friday for Sochi, Lukashenko said he would be discussing with Putin restoring commercial air services between Russia and Belarus suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Kremlin officials said discussions would focus on forming closer economic ties between the two countries.