It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Can Biden Do Anything About Belarus?

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s brazen air piracy and increasing closeness to the Kremlin demand a response, but Washington’s next move isn’t obvious.

By , a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
A woman holds a banner during a protest against the detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich in front of the European Commission representative office on May 24, 2021 in Warsaw, Poland.
A woman holds a banner during a protest against the detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich in front of the European Commission representative office on May 24, 2021 in Warsaw, Poland.
A woman holds a banner during a protest against the detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich in front of the European Commission representative office on May 24, 2021 in Warsaw, Poland. Omar Marques/Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Hello, Matt! Good morning from occupied Washington, where an airborne invasion force has taken control and is now hanging out in the trees, screeching loudly. It’s like Red Dawn but with cicadas instead of Russians.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes, they are everywhere. At least one local restaurant is offering cicada tacos; it will be your last chance to try them for 17 years.

When you mentioned airborne invasion, I thought you were going to mention the Belarusian hijacking of the civilian airliner. That and the Israel-Palestinian cease-fire are the big news items this week.

Emma Ashford: Hello, Matt! Good morning from occupied Washington, where an airborne invasion force has taken control and is now hanging out in the trees, screeching loudly. It’s like Red Dawn but with cicadas instead of Russians.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes, they are everywhere. At least one local restaurant is offering cicada tacos; it will be your last chance to try them for 17 years.

When you mentioned airborne invasion, I thought you were going to mention the Belarusian hijacking of the civilian airliner. That and the Israel-Palestinian cease-fire are the big news items this week.

For me, these episodes highlight the need to remove Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko from power and the United States’ continued role as the world’s indispensable nation, respectively. Since I suspect you disagree, shall we get to the debate?

Western countries need to be able to protect the way of life of their citizens and residents, and letting autocracies pick off dissidents is a pretty intolerable violation of sovereignty.

EA: Look, whether it’s eating cicadas or hijacking international airliners, there are a lot of things you shouldn’t do just because you can. I suspect Lukashenko will come to regret faking a bomb threat to seize a dissident during an international flight. But regime change? That’s a ridiculous response.

First, the details seem pretty clear: Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was boarding a flight from Greece to Lithuania when he noticed some shady characters at the airport taking his picture. Then, when the plane was over Belarusian airspace, the government used a combination of onboard disturbances and a fake bomb threat to force the plane to divert to Minsk National Airport, where they seized him. Pretty blatant stuff.

MK: Yes. Then, looking beaten and battered, he was forced to issue a video confession. And he might soon die in custody as the Belarusians are now claiming this young journalist, in his 20s, has serious heart problems.

The brazen act of state-sponsored aviation piracy was also contrary to international law, and the European Union and much of the rest of the world are upset.

But why do you suspect that he will regret it? He nabbed a dissident, eliminating a threat to his power, and so far, the only cost appears to be some sanctions.

EA: You may be right, though it certainly reignited an issue that had largely fallen off the radar in most places. Lukashenko has been brutally suppressing protests for a while; just the other day, his regime made it “legal” to fire at protesters with live ammunition.

Calling it just “some sanctions” though I think minimizes the speed and cohesiveness of the EU response to this event. The European Union responded swiftly, promising new sanctions and issuing a harsh condemnation. Most planes are now avoiding Belarusian airspace at the advice of their nations’ aviation authorities.

MK: I was pleased by the speed of the initial EU sanctions. But the EU and the United States should go further to impose a more significant cost on Lukashenko. They could ban all flights going into and out of Belarus until Protasevich is released. They could also take bigger steps aimed at weakening Lukashenko’s grip on power, including sanctioning Belarus’s central bank by banning U.S., U.K., and EU financial institutions from purchasing or trading Belarusian sovereign debt. U.S. President Joe Biden took similar steps against Russia in April.

EA: There needs to be some response. It was clearly a brazen and premeditated event. It wasn’t quite unprecedented: We have a prior case where the United States forced down a plane with fugitive terrorists on board in 1985, for example. Then there was the 2013 episode when France, Spain, and Italy denied the plane of then-Bolivian President Evo Morales access to their airspace in response to rumors that the U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden was on board. That forced the plane to land in Austria, where it was searched.

But none of those seem entirely comparable. To my mind, this is more like the Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul consulate or the Russian poisoning of dissident Sergei Skripal in the U.K.; it’s part of a growing trend of authoritarians reaching into the West to silence their detractors. Protasevich was on a flight between two EU member states, after all.

I’m usually the first to argue we shouldn’t let human rights violations abroad direct U.S. policy. But I would argue this is different. Western countries need to be able to protect the way of life of their citizens and residents, and letting autocracies interfere internally to pick off dissidents is a pretty intolerable violation of sovereignty.

MK: Hear, hear. That’s more evidence in my view that the democracy versus autocracy cleavage is among the most important fault lines in the contemporary international system. There was some hope a few years ago that Belarus could become a neutral party in the rivalry between NATO and Russia and would be helpful for the defense of the West. Looking at the chessboard of Europe, the Baltic states and Poland are much easier to defend if Belarus isn’t fully aligned with Russia.

Lukashenko has clearly thrown in his lot with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At this point, I think Lukashenko’s removal from power is the only development that could change this alignment.

But since the uprising last year, Lukashenko has clearly thrown in his lot with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At this point, I think Lukashenko’s removal from power is the only development that could change this alignment.

EA: Hold your horses a second there. Just because I said we should do something about autocracies meddling in our domestic affairs doesn’t mean I think we should be trying to overthrow them.

MK: So what would you recommend?

EA: Well, first of all, your suggestion isn’t very plausible. The history of U.S. regime change attempts has hardly been one of success. And even if you manage to extract Lukashenko from the presidency, there’s no guarantee Russia wouldn’t simply send in troops or special forces to create a frozen conflict like they did in Ukraine and Georgia.

Instead, we should be talking about defense. That might mean punitive measures—travel bans, blacklisting state-owned companies, targeted sanctions—on autocrats who interfere in Western countries. But it might also mean getting smarter about these kinds of threats: more intelligence to prevent things like the Skripal poisoning and more awareness among defectors and refugees that states might try such things. This is the response I already see taking shape on Belarus: planes avoiding its airspace, bans on Belarus’s national carrier entering the EU, and a coherent response with targeted sanctions from European countries.

Why jump straight to regime change?

MK: The steps you recommend make sense. And leading democracies will be in a much stronger position to deter autocratic interference in the future if they can coordinate their response in this and other cases. Lukashenko, Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and other autocrats should know that interfering in one democracy could lead to a response from the entire free world.

But I also think steps to weaken Lukashenko’s ability to rule with an iron fist (such as with some of the stronger sanctions I referenced above) and efforts to aid those in Belarus who desire greater freedoms, including by promoting independent journalism and civil society organizations, can also be valuable.

EA: Can we talk for a minute about the other part of your argument here? You said “the democracy versus autocracy cleavage is among the most important fault lines in the contemporary international system.” And I’m not so sure that’s a helpful frame here.

Yes, there’s clearly a democracy versus autocracy angle here: Dissidents flee to the West, and when countries offer them refuge, they should try to at least offer them safety. But I don’t see how that translates immediately to the notion that Washington should engage in an ideological struggle between autocracy and democracy. All that does is help minimize nuance and imply all autocracies are the same.

There was a statement like this on the plane incident from Sen. Ben Sasse, which made me cringe. He argued the Biden administration should take this as an opportunity to “tighten the screws” on Russia since “Lukashenko doesn’t use the bathroom without asking for Moscow’s permission.” It was such an oversimplification of the complex relationship between Minsk and Moscow, ignoring the fact that Lukashenko has often been at odds with Putin.

MK: Sasse is one of the brightest lights in the U.S. Senate, and we are lucky to have him as a public servant. And he is right on this point. It is hard to imagine Lukashenko would have engaged in such a risky and provocative act without a wink and a nod from Putin. While Lukashenko was on the fence before, I think it is clear now he has sided with Moscow against the West.

And I don’t see the democracy versus autocracy angle as an ideological divide. It is a pragmatic one. A more democratic government in Belarus would be better for the security of the United States and the West and deliver better lives for the Belarusian people.

EA: Well, the fact the Russian government didn’t have a statement ready to go after the hijacking suggests they weren’t prepared. That’s just speculation though.

But I really disagree here. The protests drove Lukashenko back toward Moscow, but prior to last year, he had been engaged in outreach with the EU. There are serious policy disagreements between the two sides. Here’s an example: In my forthcoming book, I catalog all the uses of Russia’s so-called energy weapon. Between 2006 and 2020, Russia shut off gas to Ukraine three times. During the same period, they shut off gas supplies to Belarus—three times! That alone suggests Minsk and Moscow are not always on the same side.

The bottom line is Western countries should absolutely seek to punish Lukashenko for this incident, but that doesn’t mean we should immediately buy in to the notion of pro-democracy regime change in Belarus.

MK: As the Belarus incident was flaring up this week, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calmed down. The two sides agreed to a cease-fire this week. For me, one of the big takeaways was the United States’ continued role as the indispensable nation. Many charge the United States no longer has the power or moral authority to claim the title as the world’s leading state, but as soon as violence erupted, these same commentators were calling on the White House to wave a magic wand and make it stop. And, indeed, only one day passed between Biden calling for an end to hostilities and the Israeli security cabinet voting to an unconditional cease-fire.

What do you make of the conflict and its denouement?

EA: Indispensable nation or concrete leverage? I incline toward the latter. Either way, I’m glad Biden eventually took a tougher line with the Israelis and there was a cease-fire. It was a terrible situation, and worse, a largely pointless loss of life. The situation is no different today than it was prior to the outbreak of major violence: The Israelis still don’t have a coalition government, Palestinians still have no rights, and we’re no closer to a solution for any of this.

Western countries should absolutely seek to punish Lukashenko for this incident, but that doesn’t mean we should immediately buy in to the notion of pro-democracy regime change in Belarus.

I did think one bright point though was the Biden team’s decision to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which the Trump administration had closed. The White House seems to recognize that if you are to resolve a conflict, you need to talk to both sides, and that’s a welcome change from the one-sided approach the Trump administration pursued.

MK: I thought both the United States and Israel handled the crisis well. Washington gave Israel the time and space it needed to significantly degrade Hamas’s capabilities and then brought the conflict to a successful close.

The people of Gaza, suffering under Hamas’s poor leadership, were the biggest losers. Hamas initiated the indiscriminate violence against Israeli civilians knowing full well it would invite a tough response from Israel, but it did not care.

I, too, was pleased to see Washington offer aid to Gaza, but the situation will not improve until the Palestinians have a more effective and responsible leadership.

EA: Well, I don’t want to relitigate our last column. But I suspect we’ll be back here again in six months or a year if more effort isn’t put into trying to find a resolution to this conflict.

Before we wrap up though, did you hear that John Cena, the star of the Fast & Furious movie franchise, was forced to issue a video denouncing his own comments about Taiwan being a country?

MK: I saw the video. It was embarrassing and another example of the above phenomena: autocracies (in this case, China) using their power to try to reach into democracies and undermine free speech and democratic norms. We need to persuade corporate America that kowtowing to a genocidal regime to make some cash is not a savvy business move.

EA: It’s a tough one. I agree the video was absurd. It was offensive to anyone who believes in freedom of speech. That said, it’s what happens under market incentives when China remains a major media market. And short of decoupling from China entirely—an unrealistic, costly, and unpopular choice—it will keep happening. I’m not sure I see any policy solution here, though perhaps U.S. consumers who are offended might consider voting with their feet.

I should get going. I need to catch up on my Fast & Furious movies just in case it comes up in future Taiwan debates. Apparently, I’m so out of touch with pop culture that I missed all nine movies.

MK: Believe it or not, I’ve never seen a John Cena movie either.

EA: Finally, something we have in common.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and the author of Oil, the State, and War, a forthcoming book on energy and international security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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