JOHN OXLEY, LONDON
The costs Western powers have imposed on the Belarusian dictator haven’t deterred him. There is now a rogue state in the center of Europe. Ignoring it will not make it go away.
Three months ago, Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, ordered the hijacking of a regularly-scheduled international passenger flight from Athens to Vilnius. We wrote at the time that this was piracy, classically defined, and acasus bellum. It demanded a thunderous response. The West, we wrote,
must urgently cohere around a collective, comprehensive answer to this abomination. Putin and Lukashenko have shown that they can, and will, endanger hundreds of foreign civilians in pursuit of regime critics, whether through nerve agent attacks or aircraft seizures. Western spinelessness is priced into their calculations: Each time, they escalate in the confidence that the West’s response will be predictable and feeble.
We stressed the severity of this disruption to international air travel. We called for a severe, shocking, and disproportionate response from NATO and the EU, certain that failing this, Lukashenko and his Russian backers would only be emboldened.
It did not come. Now the dictatorship, the last remnant of Stalinism in Europe, is fast becoming an authentic rogue state.
The state-sponsored hijacking of Flight 4987 did not go entirely unpunished. Most Western countries now divert their planes away from Belarus, denying the nation important revenues. The regime and its closest supporters have been sanctioned. On Monday, Canada, the UK, and the United States issued fresh trade, financial and aviation sanctions, prompting Belarus to revoke its consent to the appointment of the US ambassador to Minsk and to demand Washington reduce its Minsk embassy staff to five people. Such measures clearly do sting in Minsk. But they are not enough to dissuade Lukashenko.
Lukashenko continues to bite his thumb at Western powers, imprisoning dissenters at home and pursuing them abroad. He has also discovered a new way to undermine the EU—weaponizing the migrant crisis on its borders.
Belarus is the geographic center of Europe, on the Eastern frontier of the European Union. It shares a land border with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Since Western sanctions began to bite, Lukashenko has exploited this position by turning migrants into weapons to sow discord within the bloc. His game is simple. He imports migrants wholesale from the world’s poorest and most dangerous hotspots, then despatches them toward the frontier on the West.
EU forces at these borders are overwhelmed. They’re unable fully to police the frontier, so most migrants make it through, creating discord between border nations and countries such as Germany that are more squeamish about migrant crackdowns. The influx fosters security anxiety about these migrants (some warranted, some not) and exacerbates disputes within the EU about asylum seekers and Europe’s passport-free Schengen Area. The strategy is perfectly designed to exploit and exacerbate the most complex and serious divisions within the bloc.
Dividing EU member states is the most immediate way for Lukashenko to frustrate sanctions. The bloc is only powerful when it moves in concert. Member states can frustrate collective action and force carve-outs that concede ground to the regime. Shamefully, Austria vetoed placing Raiffeisenbank, the Lukashenko regime’s primary lender, on the sanctions list—thus protecting Austria’s bankers under the guise of protecting ordinary Belarusians from economic harm.
The Belarusian government has coordinated multiple flights, every day, from Iraq to Belarus. There is almost no commercial reason for these flights; the planes have taken off and landed expressly for the purpose of importing and weaponizing migrants. Each flight has brought hundreds of migrants, who are promptly rushed to the EU’s borders. In the past few weeks, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have detained hundreds of migrants every day. Latvia declared a state of emergency. Lithuania and Poland have reinforced their borders with razor wire.
To sidestep Lukashenko, the EU made a deal with Iraq to suspend these flights. But this won’t be the end of the matter. As Afghanistan falls to the Taliban following the US withdrawal, hundreds of thousands will flee. Many routes could take them to Belarus. Lukashenko will exploit them.
This is his riposte to Western sanctions. His strategy is clearly designed to foster disunity among EU states, lumbering those in the east with another migrant crisis. He is proposing an implicit but obvious quid pro quo: End the sanctions and he will stop the flow of migrants. It hardly needs be said that this state-sponsored human trafficking—exploiting the migrants’ desperation, or their eagerness for a new life, to prop up his ghastly regime—is callous and brutal. Already, several migrants have died in unclear circumstances at the border. Others face homelessness, harassment, or worse, caught in the net of the EU’s complex border policy.
Lukashenko continues, with impunity, to pursue and kill dissidents, exiles, and participants in last year’s protests. Early this month, the body of Vitaly Shishov was found in a Kyiv park. Shishov had been living in the Ukrainian capital since fleeing Belarus last year. He led an organisation called Belarus House, a focal point for opposition to Lukashenko’s regime. It provides support to some 150,000 Belarusian refugees who have fled to Ukraine. Shishov disappeared on a regular jog in the park and was found the next day, hanged from a tree. The Ukrainian authorities have not confirmed a cause of death, but Belarus House officials and others believe he was killed by Belarusian KGB operatives or by Russia’s security services. It is unlikely either would have acted without Lukashenko’s orders.
At the Tokyo Olympic games, Belarus’s star sprinter, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, objected to the state’s decision to enter her in the 4×400 meter relay rather than the 200m race she preferred. Her innocuous objection offended the regime—probably because the Belarusian Olympic Committee is headed by Lukashenko’s son—and her coaches told Tsimanouskaya she had been recalled home and escorted her to the Tokyo airport. Terrified, she refused to board the plane for fear of the punishment awaiting her upon her return. The standoff ended when Poland granted her asylum and the International Olympic Committee expelled the two coaches from the games.
Any of these acts is shocking. Together, they demonstrate that Lukashenko is not only undeterred by the West’s response to the kidnapping of Roman Protasevich from an unlawfully diverted flight, but emboldened. He has calculated the costs that the Western powers will impose and he finds it worth paying. A year after the contested election, he feels at liberty to commit ghastly crimes throughout Europe to shore up his illegitimate regime and—in his words—“mop up” dissidents abroad and at home.
These crimes demonstrate his capabilities. Away from the EU-NATO axis, he retains influence that he can exploit, as he has with Iraq and its migrants. His security services—and Russia’s—can not only move without impediment in large parts of Europe, they can murder on his orders. The West’s response has neither disrupted nor dissuaded him.
The EU now has a rogue state on its border. Unless Lukashenko can be forced to comply with international laws and norms—or better still, brought down—he will continue to pursue his vendettas and play European states against each other. He has calculated each crime against the odds of serious repercussions; clearly, he has concluded the odds are in his favor.
It’s time to hit back harder. The intelligence networks that support Lukashenko’s overseas activities must be rolled up. Expel those with diplomatic cover. Arrest those who operate illegally. Sanctions must bite further and harder, isolating him from his supporters and imperilling his regime by undermining the Belarusian economy. They must be strictly enforced by blocking every hole in the porous financial borders he exploits to circumvent the sanctions. It is time for a troop buildup around Belarus. It is past time to end Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas.
The Belarusian regime is brutal to its own people and indifferent to those who might serve its purposes. It can persist only so long as it can rely on Russian support and Western apathy. Should the West wake up and bestir itself, Russia might find it less rewarding to keep supporting this tyrant.
Lukashenko plays his geopolitical games dirty. It’s time he faced the consequences. If he doesn’t, this will get worse. You can count on it.
John Oxley is a Cosmopolitan Globalist staff writer in London.