May 24. 2024. 6:21

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The Brief — Why is the EU soft on Lukashenko?

Belarus is clearly a co-belligerent country in Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. But why is the EU so soft on Aleksander Lukashenko, often labelled Europe’s “last dictator”?

About a quarter of the Russian troops that invaded Ukraine came from Belarusian territory. The troops were deployed under the pretext of holding military exercises.

According to the CIA, Belarus railroads were used to transport some 30,000 Russian troops into Ukraine, while Belarusian hospitals were used to treat wounded Russian soldiers.

The worst war crimes uncovered so far, in Bucha and Irpin, are the deeds of Russian forces that came from Belarus.

After the Russian army suffered defeat in Ukraine’s north, Lukashenko’s Belarus continued to help Putin’s Russia by providing its territory as a launchpad for Russian missile strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, making it an accomplice in other war crimes.

Last November, an independent Belarusian railway initiative said that Minsk had transferred 65,000 metric tons of ammunition to Russia since the start of Russia’s war.

Lukashenko has acknowledged his country’s status as a co-belligerent in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

In an interview with AFP last 21 July, he confirmed that his country supports Russia, provides its territory for missile strikes on Ukraine, and provides medical and intelligence assistance to Russian troops.

“Yes, we are taking part in this operation,” Lukashenko said.

At the same time, the EU has adopted sanctions on Belarus that do not include many of those adopted against Russia.

For example, after Russia invaded Ukraine, only 22 military commanders have been listed personally, while discrepancies between the categories of goods under sanctions potentially allow Belarus to smuggle to Russia European products banned in Russia but still legally imported in Belarus.

Another peculiarity is that many representatives of big business associated with Lukashenko’s inner circle, called “Lukashenko’s wallets”, remain outside the scope of EU sanctions.

One may imagine that EU leaders don’t want to be tough on the Belarusian people because clearly, opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya won the 2020 elections but was barred from power, which means sanctions should affect the dictator and not the people, who clearly want to be part of Europe.

But may also be another reason for that.

European diplomats are aware of plans by the Kremlin to absorb Belarus. Last month a leaked document purportedly revealed Kremlin’s plans to annex its smaller neighbour by 2030.

This would mean bringing Russian nuclear weapons to the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, all three NATO members. Belarus reportedly has nuclear-capable Iskander missiles on its soil, and Putin has spoken of upgrading Belarusian Su-25 fighters to carry nuclear weapons.

But the project could be accelerated: Annexing Belarus would offer Putin a way to save face over the Ukraine debacle.

Lukashenko is in a difficult position and doesn’t want to worsen it. The Belarus army is reportedly tiny and weak, and Lukashenko should not count on its loyalty.

So far, the army has not been involved in the war against Ukraine and has remained stationed inside Belarus throughout the conflict. Lukashenko has stated that there was “no way” he would send soldiers into Ukraine unless attacked first.

For now, Putin sees interest in Belarus remaining a separate country – at least under international law. Western diplomats believe Putin may use Belarus not only to smuggle prohibited goods but as an official destination for the weapons and ammunition his army needs.

China, seen as a possible provider of weaponry, might think it’s less burdensome to deliver armament to Belarus. But officially supplying the aggressor state with weapons, even through an intermediary, is a red line for the West. Beijing has probably received the warning.

A colleague from Belarus told me that Lukashenko’s fall into Putin’s arms has been a gradual process over the past 20 years, which has accelerated in recent years.

The main driver for this is Lukashenko’s ineffective economic system, making the country dependent on Russian subsidies and cementing his dependence on the Kremlin to back his forced control over the population that, in all likelihood, voted him out in 2020.

To remain in control of Belarus, Lukashenko will have to continue paying Putin every couple of years with new pieces of Belarus’ sovereignty – of which there is already very little left.

One thing is sure: it is not in the interests of the West to make moves that would push Lukashenko deeper into Putin’s ’embrace’.

Who knows, Lukashenko might even host new peace talks in Minsk, depending on how the situation in Ukraine evolves. This is not the West’s preferred option – but if it is available, why waste it?

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The Roundup

On Wednesday, the Dutch government announced plans to introduce new export controls on chip-making technology following a deal struck with the US and Japan earlier this year aimed at curbing supplies to China.

Hungary’s Justice Minister said late on Wednesday (8 March) that Budapest would fight in the Court of Justice of the EU to defend an education law that Brussels says discriminates against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Council of Europe’s (CoE) annual report on the safety of journalists highlighted ‘continuous backsliding’ of press freedoms in both EU member states and third countries, citing violence, use of spyware, and “strategic lawsuits” against journalists as key problems.

France and the UK are set to meet in a bid to mend relations between Western Europe’s biggest military and diplomatic powers after years of post-Brexit tensions and animosity over the AUKUS security pact between the UK, US, and Australia.

Don’t forget to check out our Economy Brief, as well as EU Politics Decoded, for a roundup of weekly policy news.

Look out for…

  • Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets with US President Joe Biden in Washington D.C.
  • Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič meets with Minister of Petroleum and Energy Terje Aasland in Oslo.
  • Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit participates in event organised by EESC, “Skills and talents as key drivers for personal fulfilment, economic growth and competitiveness.”
  • Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting continues on Friday.
  • Informal meeting of trade ministers continues on Friday.