Europe Must Stand Up for Belarus

The crisis has come at the worst possible time, but red lines must be set.

Crowds gather for an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 6.
Crowds gather for an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 6. Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Russia watchers are fond of talking of an “August surprise,” with the month’s rich pedigree of shocks like the 2008 Georgian War. This year that surprise could easily come from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where veteran authoritarian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, battered by his mishandling of the pandemic that has caused almost 70,000 cases in a country of fewer than 10 million people, has been rocked by mass protests and a sudden surge in opposition confidence.

The elections this week could just as easily see the pro-democracy movement establish itself, fizzle out, or even trigger a Russian power play—at which the arrest of so-called Russian mercenaries in Minsk might hint. Seizing on the concept of such Kremlin-deployed “little green men” to paint himself as the savior of Belarusian independence, Lukashenko has warned that “an attempt to organize a massacre in the center of Minsk is already obvious.”

But amid this crisis, Western foreign policy is missing in action. The failure to act decisively in Belarus, in fact, clearly shows the decline of Western influence. A profoundly erratic Washington, which seemed on the verge of offering material help to the Lukashenko regime to distance itself from Russia when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited in February, is now nowhere to be seen. The United States previously had a long-term strategy, however flawed, to support the post-Soviet states by proactively seeking to distance them from Russia: Under Trump, this is no longer the case.

The Minsk mass protests could not have come at a worse time for the West. London, Paris, Berlin, and Washington are all distracted and running distinct and barely coordinated Russia policies—from Macron’s engagement strategy and Merkel’s silence to Johnson’s new Magnitsky sanctions and Trump’s regular calls with Vladimir Putin. The next six months could get much worse: A protracted crisis following a disputed election in the United States is a distinct possibility. It is time for the European democracies to take responsibility and provide their own strategic leadership.

That’s not the case right now. In Brussels, the Belarus crisis exposes more than a decade of denial over the limits of Europe’s neighborhood policy and the inability of its flagship Eastern Partnership to make much of a difference in its more entrenched authoritarian neighbors. The EU’s great tools, trade and integration offers, have proved extremely weak when it comes to states like Belarus and Azerbaijan that have shown no interest in them, while the EU has lacked the strategic will to use energy or security diplomacy to make up for it.

And in London, the crisis reveals a lack of strategy for handling Europe’s strategic frontiers and Russian aggression. It’s a sharp contrast with the days of the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 when the United Kingdom and the United States pledged not only to affirm the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, but also to provide them with security assurances in the event of it coming under threat. But Belarus seems to be making barely any impact in London, despite Britain’s major investments in European security, NATO, and recent support for Kyiv.

But the mounting crisis in Belarus offers Europe an occasion to reboot a format that will serve them well in the months to come: the E-3 group of Britain, France, and Germany. Britain’s signature on the Budapest Memorandum provides a firm ground on which to act, but Britain can’t act alone. London, Paris, and Berlin should put aside their differences and commit to a new and mutually reinforcing approach to foreign policy. Belarus is a European crisis and key capitals need to treat it as such.

The E-3 is an attractive format for the crisis on Europe’s borderlands for two reasons. Firstly, as the French presidency has frequently pointed out, the EU’s formal foreign-policy infrastructure is subject to national veto and bold moves can instantly be vetoed by an actor like Hungary. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s Global Britain lacks the weight on its own and after Brexit needs to cooperate with France and Germany to shape world affairs.

Contrary to expectations, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron have been impressed by each other and have a good working relationship, both eager to put Brexit behind them. They should propose greater use of the E-3 format, starting with the Belarus crisis, reinforced by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, to represent the other member states.

That way, statements will be released not by the E-3 alone, but the E-3 and whoever Borell can gather to sign. Foreign-policy coordination should be stepped up. Inspired by the “Quad” of the U.K., United States, France, and Germany in the Cold War, a rotating secretariat, working groups, and ambassadorial coordination should be established.

What does this mean in practice? Firstly, the grouping should begin issuing clear and firm statements daily on the imminent election, making clear their support for free and fair elections, political prisoners, and no repression. The grouping should establish a Belarus contact group, bringing Sweden, Poland, and the neighbor Baltic states into daily crisis coordination. Publicly, the Europeans should learn the lessons of Ukraine and stick to a firm public script of values and rule of law.

However, behind the scenes, there should be no denial of the geopolitical reality. If High Representative Borrell is serious about Brussels “relearning the language of power,” the mounting crisis in Minsk is the place to start by embracing Europe’s real strengths and limits.

To achieve its goals, the grouping should present a twin-track approach. Toward the regime in Minsk, it should be clear that if elections were peaceful and free then it would materially support the state during a transition, and be flexible to insiders wanting to assist the process. Such elections, of course, remain unlikely. But if delivered with a warning, a severe crackdown would terminate the dialogue between the European powers and Minsk, and Magnitsky-style sanctions on senior officials. It would also show that London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin are ready to impose a real cost on repression.

Toward Moscow, the grouping should be clear that it favors the same approach the West took toward the Armenia revolution in spring 2018: It supports democracy, but will not seek to expand either NATO or EU membership toward Belarus. That will leave less room for Russian propaganda, with the E-3 placing its bets on the hope that Belarusian society will continue to evolve toward greater democracy.

While Europeans should be flexible, they should also be firm about the red line of Belarusian sovereignty as laid out in the Budapest Memorandum. The grouping should make clear by a joint private communiqué from the E-3 leaders to Moscow that any dramatic erosion of Belarusian sovereignty would be met by sanctions—either a “soft annexation” in the form of political power grab under the guise of the existing “Union State” agreement, or a hard annexation, as some analysts have suggested is a possibility. Macron should also make clear that the Franco-Russian dialogue would be terminated by any aggression toward protesters or power grab. Moscow’s policy on Belarus, and the group’s ability to engage Putin, will be a good test of the outreach efforts by Paris. With mass protests in Khabarovsk worrying the Russian regime, it is reasonable that the possibility of a power grab or aggressive crackdown triggering European sanctions might at least cause a pause for reflection. The Europeans have nothing to lose by making things clear.

Such an initiative can start a process that a more constructive U.S. administration post-Trump can pick up. This was the model the E-3 deployed for nuclear diplomacy with Iran under the Bush administration that then laid the groundwork for Obama’s diplomacy. Europeans could create a fait accompli, putting them at the center of the administration’s approach to Eastern Europe come January 2021. Those hoping to form the future Biden Administration should make clear that if a conflagration erupts in Belarus, they will stand fully behind the E-3, and that both Minsk and Moscow should view the grouping as an expression of a policy platform that it will also embrace should the Democrats win in November. Biden should give a high-profile interview on his foreign policy toward the region and use it to lay a coordinated set of red lines with the E-3.

Six years ago, Maidan brutally awakened Europeans to geopolitical realities. As the EU was negotiating a free trade agreement with Kyiv, democratic protests, the fall of Yanukovych, and ensuing Russian aggression caught the EU unaware and left a frozen conflict, 10,000 deaths, and a derailed transition on Europe’s doors. This time, Europeans must seize the moment and learn the lessons of Ukraine. Distraction and denial about mounting crises is not a foreign policy.

Europe is alone until American leadership finds some new form. Learning how to navigate these crises without Washington will require setting down what the continent’s democracies are and are not prepared to tolerate. Inattention, pig-headedness, and post-Brexit blues will only reward the authoritarians.

Benjamin Haddad is the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Le Paradis Perdu: l’Amérique de Trump et la fin des illusions européennes.

Ben Judah is a British-French journalist and the author of This Is London and Fragile Empire.

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