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How Western sanctions drove Belarus closer to Moscow

Isolating and sanctioning Belarus has contributed mightily to destabilizing Eastern Europe

EuropeWar Zones

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Photo by Serge Serebro/Wikimedia Commons.

Philosophers like to distinguish between “deontological” ethics on the one hand and “utilitarian” or “consequentialist” ethics on the other. The first—associated most famously with Immanuel Kant—involves absolute rules and places a great importance on intentions. The second—associated with the likes of Jeremy Bentham—considers that what really matters is results; what the rule is or what you intend are much less important than whether your actions produce positive or negative results.

A case could be made that what is wrong with much of contemporary Western foreign policy is that it’s so concerned about deontology that it’s lost all track of consequences. Full of good intent, determined to do what it is “right” by promoting democracy, human rights, and the like, we embark on policies that fail utterly to do any good and more generally do a lot of harm.

Take, for instance, NATO’s 2011 bombing of Libya. Notionally undertaken to prevent genocide, it has left Libya permanently divided in a state of low-level civil war, while contributing to the spread of weapons and fighters around the region, destabilizing nearby countries such as Mali. Or take Western powers’ efforts to overthrow President Maduro of Venezuela, again notionally for the best of reasons (democracy, human rights, and so on). Several years on, Maduro remains in office, and the only effect of Western sanctions has been to impoverish ordinary Venezuelans even further. If these events were isolated incidents, it perhaps would not matter too much, but they happen often enough for one to discern a rather disturbing pattern.

Yet another example of well-intentioned policies gone wrong is Western policy towards the Eastern European state of Belarus and its president, Alexander Lukashenko, often popularly referred to as “the last dictator in Europe.” Until quite recently, Lukashenko had pursued a quite successful multi-vector foreign policy designed to prevent Belarus from falling fully into the orbit either of the West or of the Russian Federation. As host of the 2014/2015 Minsk peace agreements that were meant to settle the conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, he cleverly positioned himself as a neutral figure able to bring Russia and the West together.

This independent streak caused at least a little irritation in Moscow. In 1999, Russia and Belarus had agreed to the establishment of a Union State, which was meant to bring the two states ever closer together. Thereafter, however, the Union State remained largely a fiction. In 2014 Belarus then followed most of the rest of the world in refusing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. While Belarus was by no stretch of the imagination Russia’s enemy, it wasn’t nearly as close a friend as the Russians would have liked it to be.

All that has now changed. In August 2020, the latest Belarusian presidential election ended in controversy when Lukashenko was officially declared re-elected, having supposedly won some 80 percent of the vote. Few neutral observers believed the result. Claiming falsification, tens of thousands of Belarusians came out onto the streets to protest. Meanwhile, Western states slapped a series of sanctions on Belarus. Rather than trying to woo Lukashenko, the West now openly adopted a policy of regime change, with some states recognizing Lukashenko’s main challenger, Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya, as the legitimate president. Further sanctions followed in 2021 after the Belarusian authorities diverted a civilian aircraft flying over Belarusian airspace to Lithuania and once it had landed arrested a couple of well-known opposition activists. Yet more sanctions were imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

According to the Government of Canada, these sanctions are a product of the Belarusian government’s refusal “to restore democratic rights or to address ongoing human rights violations.” In theory, at least, therefore, their purpose is to coerce Lukashenko to do just that—i.e. restore democracy and human rights. In this respect, they are a complete failure, a result that is sadly far from untypical.

The sanctions’ failure goes far beyond their inability to persuade Lukashenko to change his domestic behaviour. They have also had a very negative effect on Belarus’s foreign policy, at least from our point of view. Sanctioned by the West, with his multi-vector policy in tatters, Lukashenko did what many predicted he would do in the circumstances and set about moving closer to Russia. Under the aegis of the Union State, in November 2021 Belarus and Russia signed an agreement to work towards common policies on taxation, banking, industry agriculture, and energy. In March 2022, all restrictions on movement between the two countries was lifted. Both parties are at pains to emphasize that they do not envisage a full-scale merger, and that progress towards enacting the terms of the Union treaty will take a long time. Nevertheless, their relations are undoubtedly much closer than before.

The biggest symbol of this was Belarus’s decision in February 2022 to allow the Russians to use its territory as a base to invade Ukraine. One cannot say for sure that Lukashenko would not have permitted this had he not been sanctioned by the West, but given the flavour of his previous foreign policy, it seems unlikely. The blowback from Western sanctions has therefore been very severe indeed.

More bad news arrived last week. Russia and Belarus announced that the latter had given permission for the former to station nuclear weapons on its soil. Justifying this decision, Lukashenko cited the buildup of NATO forces on Belarus’s western border, in Poland. “These lowlifes who are trying to blow us up from abroad, they need to realize that we won’t stop at anything to defend our countries, our states, and our populations,” said Lukashenko, adding that, “If they don’t understand any other language, this at least will force them to reckon with our people.”

Isolating and sanctioning Belarus has, therefore, contributed not an iota towards democracy and human rights, but has contributed mightily to destabilizing Eastern Europe. One can understand the logic behind the policy, but its consequences have been far from good. To put it crudely, our Belarusian strategy has blown up in our faces. One might imagine that in light of this failure, the West’s response would be to rethink. Instead, it has done what it most often does in such circumstances, that is to say double down on its failed policy. Canada, for instance, enacted further sanctions against Belarus in April, June, and November 2022. And a couple of weeks ago, a representative of the US government accompanied “president-in-exile” Tsikhanouskaya to a public rally held outside the White House in Washington, DC. Regime change remains the goal.

One may argue that the West cannot simply stand by and do nothing in the face of serious human rights abuses. This is a very powerful argument. But the desire to do what is right needs to be balanced with some consideration of consequences. Unfortunately, this appears to be something that we are not very good at.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.


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