The European Union is never as divided as when it deals with authoritarian leaders of large countries, such as Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In theory, Alexandr Lukashenko should be much less of a problem. Belarus is a relatively small country, with fewer inhabitants than Belgium. Its GDP is lower than that of Luxembourg. Of the various strongmen on the frontier of Europe, Lukashenko is probably the least intelligent, but that doesn’t make him the least dangerous.
Even so, the European Union will find it extraordinarily difficult to find the appropriate response to the Belarussian’s intolerable act of air piracy, unless it proceeds with a degree of strategic planning that does not characterize it. First of all, we should ask ourselves what we want to achieve: are we pursuing regime change? Do we want to avoid a political union between Russia and Belarus? Do we just want to send a signal that hijacking a plane constitutes an unacceptable violation of EU security? All three objectives may be legitimate, but achieving them would require different instruments.
I do not see the point of banning flights, since it is difficult for Lukashenko to repeat the same maneuver. The air veto affects opposition politicians more than the Belarusian president and his close circle. Lukashenko continues to allow free travel by air. Roads to neighboring Poland and Lithuania are closed due to the pandemic. Russia’s decision to retaliate by banning European Union flights avoiding Belarus by detour tells us that we should think that Russia and its neighbor are acting as strategic allies. Saturday’s meeting between Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko strengthened their bond. They are in this together.
The European Council has asked the High Representative to draw up a list of sanctions. There is talk of expanding existing trade restrictions, as well as a more extreme response, consisting of excluding Belarus from the international payment system. I fear that both measures will throw the former Soviet republic into Putin’s hands if they are not accompanied by sanctions against Russia itself. For starters, Russia is the main trading partner of its neighbor, with a 50% stake, while the European Union only accounts for 18%. A trade embargo would not be large enough to provoke regime change, but it would be large enough for Lukashenko and Putin to accelerate their fledgling project of political union. Economic sanctions have proven to be an effective diplomatic instrument against Iran, but we should not expect them to work in the same way with Belarus. Lukashenko may not be smart, but he knows who to turn to in case of trouble. If the EU imposes economic sanctions, its only option is to align itself with Putin and strengthen its ties with China.
This is the last thing the European Union could wish for. A few weeks ago I wrote about the geopolitical danger posed by the Suwalki corridor, a 60-kilometer long strip of land that separates the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the old Königsberg, from Belarus. As the map at the beginning of this column shows, in case of a political union with the latter, the gap along the Polish-Lithuanian border would separate two Russias. If the EU overreacts to Lukashenko’s provocation, the Suwalki corridor could become a source of geopolitical conflict. It is clear that this is not in the interest of the Union.
To avoid such a calamity, the EU would need a broader strategy. Germany could signal to Russia that it is willing to terminate the Nord Stream 2 project if Russia meddles in Belarusian affairs. If Putin sees that he has the gas pipeline secured, he will have more geopolitical freedom of maneuver. I highly doubt that he would sacrifice the opportunity to make the European Union dependent on Russian energy for the sake of protecting an unpopular dictator in his neighborhood. Russia is not as attached to Belarus as it is to the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine.
This is where the EU’s strategy to contain Lukashenko can fail. Angela Merkel’s actions are not consistent with her words. The main objective of Germany’s foreign policy is not European integration. It is the rapprochement with Russia and the agreement with China.
Consequently, the nightmare scenario is the most likely: the European Union passes sanctions, pushes Lukashenko into Putin’s hands, and continues to do business with Russia as if nothing had changed.
Biden’s foreign and security policy team is more strategic than the Europeans, but I’m afraid he’s too China-centric, he’s complacent about Russia, and he’s too optimistic about Germany. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Putin is the sole winner in this constellation.
Wolfgang Münchau is director of eurointelligence.com
Translation of News Clips.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.