Report

Belarus Boots U.S. Diplomatic Staff, Mimicking Putin

Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko seems to have learned that neutering U.S. diplomacy is cost-free.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, hold a press conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on Sept. 9. Shamil Zhumatov/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko is taking a page out of Russia’s playbook, effectively smothering the U.S. diplomatic presence in his country by forcing the embassy there to fire 20 locally hired staff, which will force the closure of the embassy’s public diplomacy and U.S. Agency for International Development office in Minsk.

The move mirrors an action taken earlier this year by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who forced the United States to drop all local employees who formed the backbone of the U.S. diplomatic mission’s day-to-day operations, a directive that helped force the closure of the last two U.S. consulates in Russia earlier this year.

“These actions reflect the Belarusian authorities’ deep insecurities about the role of diplomacy, people-to-people ties, and independent civil society,” said Julie Fisher, the U.S. envoy to Belarus. Fisher, who was initially appointed ambassador to Belarus, has been denied entry to the country and is currently operating from Lithuania.

Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko is taking a page out of Russia’s playbook, effectively smothering the U.S. diplomatic presence in his country by forcing the embassy there to fire 20 locally hired staff, which will force the closure of the embassy’s public diplomacy and U.S. Agency for International Development office in Minsk.

The move mirrors an action taken earlier this year by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who forced the United States to drop all local employees who formed the backbone of the U.S. diplomatic mission’s day-to-day operations, a directive that helped force the closure of the last two U.S. consulates in Russia earlier this year.

“These actions reflect the Belarusian authorities’ deep insecurities about the role of diplomacy, people-to-people ties, and independent civil society,” said Julie Fisher, the U.S. envoy to Belarus. Fisher, who was initially appointed ambassador to Belarus, has been denied entry to the country and is currently operating from Lithuania.

Current and former U.S. officials say the decision leaves virtually no room for a skeleton crew of American diplomats to operate in the country and deals a body blow to a yearslong effort to thaw relations between Washington and Minsk.

“With these latest cuts … there’s really just not a lot left that you can do diplomatically,” said Scott Rauland, a former career diplomat who served as U.S. chargé d’affaires to Belarus from 2014 to 2016. Rauland said Lukashenko may have been emboldened to take this action after the muted response to how Putin slashed the U.S. diplomatic footprint in Russia this year.

The United States did not force Russia to shutter its consulates or cut back the number of Russian diplomats in the United States in response, prompting U.S. lawmakers to pressure President Joe Biden to cut the number of Russian diplomats. Putin’s cutbacks left around 100 U.S. diplomats in Russia, while there are nearly 400 Russian diplomats stationed in the United States.

A U.S. official told reporters this week that Russia’s continued restrictions on its diplomatic footprint there will make it “difficult for us to continue with anything other than a caretaker presence at the embassy.”

“Lukashenko would have to be looking at Russia saying, ‘Huh, look at that, they had all the local employees fired, they caused two consulates to shut, and the United States didn’t do a damn thing about it,’” Rauland said. “So what kind of message does that send to somebody like Lukashenko about what he might get away with?”

Unable to employ local staff to implement programs, USAID will also be forced to shutter its operations in Belarus. ​​“This latest escalation from the Lukashenka regime further demonstrates its callous disregard of the interests of the Belarusian people. For more than twenty years, USAID has invested in their health, dignity, and prosperity,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power said in a statement on Friday.

After years of cautious rapprochement, Belarus’s relationship with the West nosedived after Lukashenko violently cracked down on protests that erupted last year in the wake of rigged elections, in the clearest threat to his 27-year grip on power. While the United States and Europe slapped sanctions on government officials and elites, Lukashenko has increasingly looked to Moscow for support in propping up his embattled regime.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration had been quietly courting Lukashenko in a bid to blunt Russian and Chinese influence, including high-level visits to Minsk from then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. The two countries agreed in 2019 to exchange ambassadors for the first time in over a decade, and Belarus allowed the State Department to increase the number of personnel at the U.S. Embassy.

Those efforts came to a screeching halt during Lukashenko’s efforts to quash protests in the wake of elections, widely seen as fraudulent, that granted him a sixth term as president. His security forces arrested thousands of protesters and forced opposition figures, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, into exile. Belarus has detained over 800 political prisoners in the wake of the crackdown, according to human rights groups. By comparison, Rauland said when he served as the top U.S. diplomat in Belarus, there were only five political prisoners.

“This past year what he has done has irrevocably burned his bridges,” Rauland said. “I don’t think there will be any coming back for either the U.S. or Europe, he has just swung so violently the other direction … since this crackdown.”

Since the 2020 protests, Lukashenko has slashed the number of U.S. diplomats in the country down from 30 to five—six, including a military attache—according to current and former officials; blocked Fisher from entering the country; and forced the United States to cut 20 local employees who helped keep the embassy functioning and managed public diplomacy and USAID projects. The Belarusian Embassy in Washington has five employees and a military attache. Former officials say Belarus is unlikely to cut the number of U.S. diplomats allowed there below that number, lest Washington respond in kind.

Fisher, the envoy for Belarus, now heads a “Belarus Affairs Unit”—roughly akin to an embassy-in-exile—from the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Lithuania to backstop the small U.S. diplomatic footprint left in Minsk. Lithuania, a NATO and European Union member, has led the charge in supporting Belarus’s pro-democracy movement and in condemning Lukashenko’s crackdown.

“The Belarus Affairs Unit will continue many of the functions the embassy would fulfill if it were appropriately staffed,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The team will focus on our engagement with Belarusians no matter where they are, including leaders of the pro-democracy movement, media professionals, students, and other members of civil society who have been forced to flee Belarus due to the regime’s brutal crackdown.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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