The Cold, Hard Truth about Belarus | Opinion

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is commonly known as "Europe's last dictator" for a very simple reason: He is the quintessential autocrat, a man who has about as much tolerance for dissident as the average person has for waiting at the DMV.

He falsifies election results, authorizes his security forces to pick up any citizen who dares protest against his continued reign (more than 30,000 Belarusians have been arrested since last August), puts pressure on universities to expel students who engage in anti-Lukashenko activities and signs laws that allow the government to shut down media organizations at will.

Lukashenko also has no compunction going to extraordinary lengths to silence his critics. This week's forced diversion of a passenger aircraft, escorted to the Minsk airport by a MiG-29 fighter jet, and arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich (one of Lukashenko's most high-profile irritants) shocked heads of state around the world and put Belarus back on the European Union's front-burner. President Joe Biden expressed his disgust in a written statement, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, all denounced Lukashenko's plane gambit as akin to state-sponsored hijacking. On May 25, less than 24 hours after Protasevich was grabbed from his plane, the EU authorized another round of economic sanctions on Belarus and banned commercial EU carriers from traveling through Belarusian airspace.

There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Lukashenko's latest attempt to squelch opposition is a gut punch to those who believe horrible actions like this have no place in the 21st century. Yet for the United States and the West more broadly, Belarus is one of those frustrating problems that don't lend themselves to easy solutions. Like the brutal, deadly crackdown by the military junta in Myanmar, Washington and Europe find themselves a largely peripheral player in the drama. Every policy option available is either underwhelming, potentially dangerous, or unsatisfying. The Biden administration is now facing a classic scenario where retaliation of one kind or another is unlikely to do much of anything to change Lukashenko's calculus. Autocrats care about one thing and one thing only: preserving their power and privileges. They don't scare easily.

Sanctions, an increasingly popular policy tool in the West, have limited utility in the case of Belarus. The European Union already sanctioned dozens of Belarusian individuals in multiple rounds for rigging the August 2020 presidential vote and arresting demonstrators. The U.S. Treasury Department hasn't been far behind, slapping sanctions on several entities and banning certain individuals from traveling to the United States.

A demonstrator hoists a Free Belarus poster
A demonstrator hoists a Free Belarus poster while staging a protest in Praça Rossio as part of the Day of Solidarity with Belarus during COVID-19 on February 7, 2021, in Lisbon, Portugal. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Nobody who analyzes the situation objectively, however, can argue with a straight face that these measures have had an impact on Lukashenko. Nor is it likely that broader-based banking sanctions as envisioned by the EU will magically compel the former collective farm boss to resign or negotiate with the opposition. The West in general has little economic leverage over Minsk. U.S.-Belarusian trade in 2019 was a paltry $505.2 million. While the EU's trade relationship with Belarus is far higher ($12.37 billion in goods), it's dwarfed by Russia, the dominant foreign player in Belarus' economy. As long as Moscow is willing to extend loans and lines of credit to Lukashenko, it's difficult to see Europe's last dictator feeling enough of a pinch to begin thinking about retirement.

Forceful intervention in Belarus is a non-starter and frankly ridiculous given the low stakes involved—particularly for the United States. While Lukashenko may be a thug, he doesn't pose the kind of national security threat to Europe or the U.S. that would warrant military action. Intervention would likely spur Russia to get more involved than it already is. If there is a lesson in the Kremlin's seven-year adventure in Eastern Ukraine, it's that Russia is not willing to risk a reasonably tolerable client state (however aggravating that client state can be at times) to fall into the West's firm grasp.

The Biden administration could respond to Protasevich's imprisonment with a break in formal diplomatic relations, but this course of action wouldn't necessarily be innovative. Up until this year, Washington didn't even have an ambassador representing its interests in Minsk. Pulling diplomats is little more than a symbolic expression of disapproval. It can also do more harm than good—when a country deprives its diplomats from doing their work, it deprives itself from one of the most important tools in statecraft.

Even the EU's flight restrictions in Minsk, agreed to this week, will have unintended consequences. What at first seems like a responsible punitive move to an indefensible act is in reality a hindrance to ordinary Belarusians who now have limited options in traveling to Europe. With the state-owned carrier now prohibited from flying to EU member states and European airlines avoiding Belarus entirely, the EU is in effect punishing Belarusians for the sins of their government.

None of this is to absolve Lukashenko of his ghoulish behavior. But one cannot responsibly conduct foreign policy without surveying the full picture. And that means understanding one crucial reality: In more cases than not, there is no such thing as the perfect, cost-free policy solution.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.