2023: strategic isolation; 2024: reorientation of foreign policy
The Lukashenka regime managed to evade inclusion in the sanctions packages timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Western countries failed to reach a consensus on synchronizing restrictions regarding Moscow and Minsk. Belarus exploited the contradictions and commercial interests of Europe, especially in the field of food security. However, subsequent escalations by Lukashenka, including the migration crisis, the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons, and the involvement of the Wagner PMC, led to the extension of new restrictions to Belarus. The West ignored Minsk’s signals of readiness to engage in bargaining and dialogue without preconditions but with recognition of the existing status quo. In the second half of the year, Europe increased sanctions pressure on Belarus, gradually synchronizing it with sanctions against the Russian Federation.
Relations between Belarus and the West at the beginning of the year were largely determined by the trends set in the second half of 2022. The regime managed to avoid inclusion in the 10th package of sanctions against the Russian Federation for complicity in aggression against Ukraine. At that time, the EU did not agree on new restrictive measures against Minsk due to the lack of consensus on the ban on the Belarusian potash sector. Moreover, the European Commission even considered lifting sanctions against Belkali. Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Portugal initiated the development of special regulations, and their work was supervised by the office of the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The primary political objective was to ensure food security not only for EU member countries but also for the so-called Global South. The main technical goal was the abolition of restrictions on imports into the EU, as well as the removal of all obstacles to free transit through the EU to third countries. Ukraine also contributed to the exclusion of Belarus from the new sanctions package, fearing negative consequences, such as the direct entry of the Belarusian army into the war.
However, after Putin’s March announcement of plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in Belarus, the West received an additional argument for increasing pressure on Minsk. Poland took the lead in developing new restrictions, negotiating with European leaders on structuring the 11th round of EU sanctions against Belarus. Agreement on new restrictions encountered difficulties, with some Western European countries advocating for easing the ban on the export of potash fertilizers. Poland and the Baltic countries opposed this option, insisting on tougher measures against Belarus due to the persecution of the opposition, complicity in the war on the side of Russia, and plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons.
The Belarusian regime skillfully leveraged its ties with Hungary to derail new sanctions and dissuade a more assertive stance from the EU. Lukashenka aimed to disrupt the intra-European consensus by proposing deeper trade and economic cooperation with Budapest. Hungary justified its stance by underscoring the importance of maintaining open communication channels with Minsk and preventing the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Consequently, the 11th package of sanctions adopted in June only targeted Dzmitry Pantus, the Chairman of the State Committee for Military Industry of Belarus (for producing weapons for the Russian army), and Uladzimir Mikhailau, the head of BelZhD (for transporting Russian military personnel and cargo).
However, the latter part of the year witnessed new dynamics in European pressure due to Belarus’s escalations. By the end of July, the EU imposed more substantial sanctions against the regime. Contrary to expectations, the new package did not provide exceptions or relief for Belarusian potash fertilizers. A significant portion of the restrictions focused on measures preventing the circumvention of sanctions against Russia through Belarus. The changes also aligned the sanctions imposed on Belarus with those on Russia, affecting 38 individuals and three enterprises (OJSC Minsk Electrotechnical Plant, OJSC BMZ – the management company of the BMK holding, Belneftekhim).
The anniversary of the protests and the subsequent political crisis in 2020 prompted the West to reassess its stance towards the regime and Belarusian society. Europe expressed its commitment to increasing pressure on Lukashenka, supporting the people, and advancing the democratic future of Belarus. The EU urged Belarusian authorities to engage in a genuine and inclusive dialogue with all sectors of society, leading to free and fair elections. Brussels reaffirmed its commitments to assisting Minsk in stabilizing the economy and reforming institutions during the transition to democracy.
Lukashenka’s calls for dialogue on his terms, without concessions, were predictably ignored. Instead, the West intensified pressure. As part of the synchronization of restrictions with the EU, the USA, Canada, and Great Britain introduced their own sanctions against Belarus. A technological embargo aimed at reducing the potential of the military-industrial complex of Belarus and Russia was imposed by countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Korea and Japan.
In response to external pressure, Minsk has taken decisive countermeasures. These include the creation of a list of unfriendly nations, imposing restrictions on investors from these countries, and introducing limitations on technological imports and various food products. Belarus has also imposed restrictions on the entry of Polish trailers and semi-trailers into its territory. A significant aspect of Belarus’s response has been the realignment of its foreign policy towards countries in the “far arc,” encompassing Asia (China, Vietnam, India), Africa (Zimbabwe, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea), the Middle East (Iran, Turkey, United Arab Emirates), and Latin America (Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil).
Despite this shift, Minsk has not completely abandoned the idea of negotiating with the West. Lukashenka has indicated a willingness to ease migration pressure on the Baltic countries and Poland, contingent on the restoration of EU funding for relevant programs. Additionally, he has shown openness to discussing the release of political prisoners under certain conditions. The regime is urging the West to alleviate pressure on Belarus and acknowledge the existing status quo, shaped by the political crisis of 2020 and the onset of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2022. Lukashenka has proposed the resumption of trade and economic relations with neighboring countries, and the regime has expressed a readiness to mediate in resolving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, promoting global food security, and developing the conceptual foundations for a new security architecture in Europe and Eurasia, inspired by the “spirit of Helsinki and San Francisco.”
However, as anticipated, the West has largely ignored Minsk’s overtures. Aligned with European capitals, Washington has outlined its own set of conditions, including the release of all political prisoners, an end to repression against the Belarusian people, and a halt to complicity in Russia’s war against Ukraine. The release of political prisoners has been identified as the starting point for any potential discussions.
By the close of the year, the EU has implemented the 12th package of sanctions against Russia and Belarus, targeting 12 Belarusian officials from various sectors. The primary focus of these restrictions is to prevent the circumvention of sanctions and reinforce the technology embargo imposed by previous packages. Western sanctions against Russia and Belarus have begun to synchronize. Towards the end of the year, concerns about the “creeping annexation” of Belarus by the Russian Federation were voiced in the West. However, these concerns have, thus far, remained at the level of declarations, despite the acknowledgment of the strategic importance of a free and democratic Belarus for Euro-Atlantic security.
- Western countries are expected to continue synchronizing sanctions against Belarus and the Russian Federation, given the diminishing potential for further tightening of restrictions.
- The regime is likely to lose interest in diplomatic negotiations, influenced by Russia’s increasing sway over Belarus’s domestic and foreign policy and its reluctance to comply with Western preconditions.
- Minsk is expected to intensify efforts to strengthen relations with the global South and East to counter Western pressure.
- The regime’s complicity in Russian aggression against Ukraine will remain a crucial factor influencing relations between Belarus and Western countries; an increased involvement in the war or its escalation could disrupt the existing balance and trigger renewed pressure.
- The outcome of the conflict or a strategic defeat for Ukraine may lead to the establishment of a new “iron curtain” in the heart of Europe, along Belarus’s western borders, as part of the Russian sphere of influence. A strategic defeat for the Russian Federation could open avenues for Belarus to forge deeper institutional relations with the West.
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Situation in Belarus