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The Belarusian crisis demands a decisive transatlantic response

The detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega was a blatant attack on the freedom of air travel. It must also be viewed as a test of Western resolve to stand up against transnational repression.

July 6, 2021 - Francis Shin - Articles and Commentary

Ottawa, Canada. August 23 2020. Protest walk to support the people of Belarus took a crowd of about one hundred participants from the Canadian Parliament to the Belarus embassy through city centre. Photo: meandering images / Shutterstock

The detainment of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich following the forced landing of an Athens-Vilnius flight in Minsk has sparked global condemnation of Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka. However, it also represents an alarming trend of transnational repression by authoritarian states across the world. Authoritarian states are increasingly enacting repression overseas through surveillance, threats, coerced returns, forced disappearances, and assassinations of suspected dissidents. It is likely that this growing phenomenon will only increase if the member states of the European Union and their democratic partners do not firmly stand together against these actions. Consequently, the United States must work with the EU to formulate far-reaching sanctions on top of existing ones against the Lukashenka regime. In order to take a firm stance against transnational repression, these should include Belarus-related sanctions on Russia.

Before the seizure of Protasevich, most sanctions on Lukashenka were related to his likely fraudulent re-election in August 2020. This sparked nationwide protests demanding his resignation and fair and free elections. After Minsk’s violent repression of demonstrators, Britain, Canada, the EU, Switzerland, and the United States joined together to impose sanctions on the Lukashenka regime. Despite this pressure, the EU’s interest in levying more sanctions against the Belarusian president decreased as his position remained mostly stable. As it became clear that Lukashenka aimed to wait out both the internal demonstrations and the EU’s sanctions campaign, “Belarus fatigue” set in as attentions in Brussels turned to other matters.

Despite this, the detention of Protasevich has once again inflamed tensions between the EU and Belarus. In response to Protasevich’s arrest, many airlines have announced that they will not operate flights in Belarusian airspace. Some states, primarily the EU and its NATO allies, have restricted Belarusian airlines from entering their own airspace. They have also joined the UN Secretary General in requesting the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a UN agency, lead an independent investigation into Protasevich’s arrest. However, it is clear that more can be done.

Previous sanctions on Belarus have remained fairly reserved out of fears that it may push Belarus towards Russia. Even now, the present restrictions placed on Belarusian air traffic do not directly pressure the Lukashenka regime. The EU similarly chose not to impose sanctions on Russia previously despite knowing that Moscow’s security and state media agencies were involved in the crackdown on protests. In response, the Kremlin has publicly declared its support for Lukashenka along with a 1.5 billion US dollar loan to offset a looming economic crisis. This issue stems from rising oil prices, currency exchanges, and nationwide strikes.

Because Protasevich’s arrest was such an egregious violation of international standards on travel, the EU and its NATO allies have already levied more sanctions on Belarus. At the same time, the United States must get involved with these matters and give them public backing. As the Biden administration has stated its interest in working with the EU on coordinating sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, it should actively encourage the organisation to enact tougher sanctions. This includes placing sanctions on business people associated with the regime that were not placed on sanctions lists before due to their links with several EU countries. If the United States is more involved in sanctions coordination, it can ensure that ‘Belarus fatigue’ will not set in like it did after last year’s protests. Washington can encourage the EU to take more decisive action through direct discussions with the European Commission and Council, as well as through talks with individual member states. Such discussions could include advocating for the introduction of transatlantic sanctions that target Russian oligarchs with ties to the Lukashenka regime.

As Belarus’s economic links with the EU continue to shrink, it could try to evade sanctions by deepening its economic and political integration with Russia. This pivot to Russia has included renewed discussions on forming the Union State, a proposed merger of the two countries. While there have been some concerns that imposing more sanctions would encourage Minsk to strengthen its ties with Moscow, it is unlikely that Lukashenka would allow the full unification of Belarus and Russia. Moreover, if sanctions are extended to Russia, it could in fact dissuade further integration. For example, a report by Reuters suggested that Russian oil exporters are wary of supplying Belarus’s Naftan Refinery after the United States imposed sanctions on the company. Wide-ranging sanctions would therefore reinforce international norms regarding the freedom of air travel and deter continued Belarus-Russia integration.

In addition to its overt support for Lukashenka, the Kremlin also likely gave either logistical support or its tacit approval during the operation to arrest Protasevich. This is yet another reason why sanctions on Belarus should be extended to Russia. Milan Nic, a Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, has speculated that Russian involvement in the arrest could be a way of “testing a new method of ‘rogue’ action”. Since Belarus already has a somewhat dubious international reputation, the Kremlin believes that Protasevich’s detention could act a litmus test regarding how the international community may react to further provocations and violations of international norms. Crucially, this ‘test’ also allows for Russia to face few repercussions.

Freedom of air travel is not the only international norm at stake, as transnational repression will only become more prevalent if democratic states do not take a decisively strong stance against the actions of the Lukashenka regime. A tough stance against Minsk must send a message to not only the regime’s enablers in the Kremlin but authoritarians everywhere. Other states that have already pursued aggressive transnational repression campaigns, such as China, Iran, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey may see a soft response as a greenlight to intensify their campaigns. As the dangers associated with an incompetent and disjointed response to Protasevich’s arrest are so high, an effective set of sanctions implemented through a transatlantic framework is essential. Should the EU and the United States fail in this endeavour, incidents like Protasevich’s internment will only increase. Authoritarian states will also be further emboldened in their campaigns to violate the sovereignty of democratic states for their own ends.

Francis Shin is the Geostrategy and Financial Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University and a Master in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. He has also contributed to The Diplomat and The National Interest.

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