The European Union has announced sectoral economic sanctions against Belarus for the first time in the ongoing international campaign to put pressure on Alexander Lukashenko, who has refused to step down following a contested presidential election last summer. Until now, sanctions had been limited to fairly toothless packages of targeted measures against Belarusian officials and companies close to the regime.

The new sanctions were a response to the Belarusian authorities forcing a Ryanair flight to land on their territory in order to arrest the opposition activist Roman Protasevich back in May. The EU decided it had to make sure the incident did not set a precedent of unpunished interference in international civil aviation for political ends, to prevent other autocracies from getting any ideas.

This is an important turning point in the new attitude toward the Belarusian regime. For the West, Lukashenko is no longer a contributor to regional stability, or even a legitimate interlocutor. He is someone who has broken all the rules, and who must be contained and forced to capitulate. The time of offering him carrots is over, and now the only variable for the EU and United States is the size of the stick they are willing to use.

The new sanctions will restrict the trade of petrol and tobacco products, as well as potash (of which Belarus is one of the world’s biggest producers), and will also affect large state-owned banks. Items now banned for export to Belarus include dual-use goods (that can be used for both civilian and military purposes), software, and technology for use by the security services. Minsk has been cut off from European capital markets, and EU companies are forbidden from underwriting deals with the Belarusian government. Contracts signed before the sanctions were introduced, however, are valid for their duration, meaning the impact will only really start to be felt in six to eighteen months’ time, depending on the sector and type of contract.  

Sanctions have hardly ever changed regimes, and have not often led to major changes in the policies of autocrats like Lukashenko. Back in 2008 and 2015, he freed political prisoners in exchange for getting sanctions lifted. But that’s unlikely to satisfy the West this time. Trading with Lukashenko for a third time would mean agreeing to play by his rules, and going back on Western leaders’ refusal to recognize his legitimacy or allow him to use the freedom of his opponents as a commodity once again.

It’s naive to think that the sanctions will swiftly achieve the EU and United States’ requirements: the freeing of all political prisoners (there are more than 500), an end to repression, and a national dialogue with a view to new elections. Indeed, in the short term, the sanctions might have the opposite effect, prompting a fresh crackdown and more arrests.

Meanwhile, to show the West the cost of its actions, Minsk has started letting hundreds of migrants from Asia and Africa through its border with Lithuania. Vilnius has even accused the Belarusian authorities of flying in migrants from abroad to send to the EU. Lukashenko has also hinted that he is generously stopping drugs and even “nuclear materials” at the border, and that this goes unappreciated by the West.

Belarusian economists estimate the potential loss from sanctions at 3 to 7 percent of GDP. That figure may not prove fatal, but it’s hardly conducive to the constitutional reform that Lukashenko wants to enact in 2022, when their impact will be greatest. No one can say how soon and how exactly the economic decline will influence Lukashenko’s battered regime. He still has several life buoys.

Firstly, political and economic emigration from Belarus is on the rise, which has the effect of opening a pressure valve. The only thing that can be said with any certainty about the situation right now is that this trend of Belarusians fleeing abroad is likely to continue for months and maybe years to come.

Secondly, Lukashenko is still backed by Russia, which can help not only by issuing its neighbor with new loans, but also by enabling it to get around specific sanctions. If the EU or Lithuania later imposes a full ban on trading Belarusian potash through its ports, for example, Minsk will have no choice but to build a terminal on the Russian coast of the Baltic Sea. This would, of course, make it necessary to strike a new unpleasant deal with Moscow on its terms.

If there is indeed any political effect from the sanctions, it’s likely to be indirect: knocking Lukashenko off balance, rather than forcing him to make concessions. Tough sanctions will provoke him into raising the stakes and making new temperamental—and often self-destructive—retaliatory steps.

If too many migrants are let into Lithuania, for example, or if they begin appearing in Poland, or if drugs start being allowed into the EU, the loophole on existing potash contracts may be closed before Minsk has time to prepare.

If, on the other hand, Lukashenko becomes unnerved by the economic slump and feels he is not getting enough support from Moscow, he might start drifting over the other way, and could amnesty political prisoners and ease off on the repression, which would in turn give a new lease of life to the protests.

Another indirect path to a transition of power in Minsk as a result of Western sanctions is through the increased cost for Moscow of supporting Lukashenko: an argument openly cited by Western diplomats.

This logic is based on two assumptions. The first is that Lukashenko loves being in power so much that even when faced with economic collapse, he still won’t agree to all of Moscow’s demands, and will refuse to give up Belarusian sovereignty to the last.

The second assumption is that there is a limit even to Putin’s geopolitical ardor and willingness to keep propping up Lukashenko, of whom Moscow is heartily sick in any case. Skeptics insist that Russia is prepared to sustain any financial and image damages if there is a risk of a less anti-Western leader assuming power in Minsk.

Both of these hypotheses can only be proven—or disproven—by events. And while the first hinges on the unpredictable limit of Lukashenko’s stubbornness, the second depends largely on the international backdrop.

The greater the atmosphere of conflict between Russia and the West, the more incentives the Kremlin has to spite its enemies by supporting even its most obstreperous satellites until the bitter end. If Moscow and the West manage to de-escalate their confrontation, Lukashenko’s main currency—his demonstrative anti-Western stance—will be devalued in the eyes of the Kremlin.

Either way, it’s Lukashenko himself who remains the key driver of the Belarusian crisis and its future resolution. Because of the extremely personalized and hermetic nature of the Belarusian regime, all external forces—not just the EU and the United States, but Russia too—must first and foremost create incentives for Lukashenko himself to move in the required direction.

This is a delicate and risky game—and risky above all for Belarusian society and statehood. The greatest chance of success will lie with whoever is prepared to devote the most attention to the Belarusian crisis, and to formulate their interests as the lesser evil.

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

  • Artyom Shraibman