Grounded: Belarus & the EU Swap Sanctions

Last weekend, Belarus dispatched a warplane to divert and ground a commercial Ryanair flight in Minsk. After landing, authorities swiftly moved to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich, a longtime critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who, in a predictable turn, defended the move as an internal matter. In response, the EU banned Belarusian flights over the bloc’s airspace and called for its own airlines to cease flying over Belarus. More sanctions are in the works, but the relationship between the EU and bad-actor Belarus seems stuck on repeat – the latest iteration of a diplomatic ping-pong match since Western consternation over Lukashenko’s bloody crackdowns after rigged elections last year. While some see ratcheting up sanctions as the only reasonable response; others, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, are beginning to question their utility:   

After sanctions were announced in Brussels: A visibly irritated Macron repeatedly asked a reporter after the summit what other measures could be more productive. “It’s not obvious what else can be done,” Macron said Tuesday. “You yourself don’t know what to say — in this case, do we start an armed conflict? Do we entirely cut off relations? We already did that. We go further but to where?” (Source: Bloomberg)

On the other hand, some Western commentators insist that holding the line is the only viable option. Writing in The Atlantic this week, Anne Applebaum worries that letting Lukashenko get away with this one will set a dangerous precedent:

“In autocratic capitals all over the world, dictators and their flunkies are also watching to see how the West reacts… Invariably, others will seek to use it, if only because it sends a message to their dissident and exile communities: You are not safe. You are never safe. Not even if you live in a democracy; not even if you have political asylum; not even if you are sitting on a commercial plane, thousands of feet above the ground.”

The Biden Administration and Secretary Blinken have for now taken Applebaum’s line, but with a more cautious tone, condemning the actions demanding an international investigation, and plans to “[coordinate] with our partners on next steps.” 

So for now, harsh words and stronger sanctions. Again. As Macron put it: further, but to where?

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