The leaders of the democratic world will never shake the dictator's hand again.
How can the West help Ukraine? Why should Lukashenka be recognized as a sponsor of terrorism? Is it possible to bring him to justice?
Charter97.org spoke with David Kramer, a Florida International University scholar, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights in the George W. Bush administration, and former Freedom House director.
— In your recent speech to the House of Representatives you noted that Biden's administration has done a great job, but more needs to be done. What else can the US do to help Ukraine?
— Let me start from what I think the administration did a very good job at. It has coordinated with the allies, I think, in an unprecedented way. We have seen an unprecedented regime of sanctions that have been imposed on the Putin regime and on Russia. And that is thanks to the tremendous diplomatic work that was done by the Secretary Blinken and others at the Biden administration to prepare for this possibility.
I commend them for increasing the US troop presence in the region in the countries that border both Ukraine and Russia.
And I also commend them for the continued provision of military assistance to Ukraine. Although here I would also have some criticism: I think the administration had intelligence showing that Putin planed to invade no matter what United States did. And if that were the case, then I would argue that the United States and the allies should have provided more military assistance to Ukraine sooner. The military assistance that has been provided is significant: some 3.4 billion dollars of military assistance since the war started on February 24th, but I wish quite a bit of that has been provided beforehand.
I also think the administration needs to be careful in saying what it won't do. There's no reason to telegraph to Putin what our limitations are. And so I would rather have Putin wonder what the United States will do rather than to know what we won't do.
And then — this is less the Biden administration and more our European allies — I think sanctions on Russia's entire energy sector are critically important. The United States has banned the import of Russian coal, oil and gas but Europe has not yet taken that step. Although, there is talk more and more that they will ban and sanction Russian oil and gas. They have banned the import of Russian coal but Putin gets on average a billion dollars a day in revenue from Russian energy exports to Europe. That is significantly more than what the Europeans are providing Ukraine in military and economic assistance. So, that I think is where much more needs to be done.
And then lastly, back on the issue of military assistance, there is an increase in that assistance but we are seeing Ukrainians getting massacred in places like Mariupol, Bucha and elsewhere. And as long as that happens we have to continue on a significant scale and to increase the level of military assistance to Ukraine.
— Maybe the US and allies should close the skies over Ukraine to reduce the number of casualties?
— A no-fly zone is tricky. Russian air power has not been dominant in this conflict — and that is in large part thanks to Ukrainian air defense systems. The Russians have not been able to deploy their air force anywhere near as much as many analysts expected. Instead, we have seen artillery and other kinds of bombardments coming from the Russian side. So, on a no flies zone, the are arguments pro and against. The arguments for would be that it could stop aerial bombardments of Ukrainians. The counter is that it could put the United States and Russia in direct conflict.
It seems to me that that debate is not as strong as it was earlier, again, in part because the Russian air force has not played a very significant role in this conflict, at least so far. And again, that's thanks to the Ukranians.
— When did the West miss its last opportunity to stop Putin?
— We have to remember how Putin came into power; and that was in 1999-2000 through a brutal military campaign against Chechnya which is part of the Russian Federation. It just goes to show how little value Putin attaches to human life when he treats Russia's own citizens this way, leveling Grozny. We saw it again in Aleppo in Syria.
I think that the missed opportunity came with Georgia, the invasion in 2008 where a few months afterward the Obama administration came in with the reset policy, which essentially gave Putin a signal that what he did in Georgia was in the past, and that we were looking ahead. And I think that then created the impression that he could get away with something similar in Ukraine, which he tried to do in 2014. So, there is a track record of egregious human rights abuses, the abominable treatment of civilians. And in fact, it seems to be an intentional policy of the Russian military and Russian Security Forces to murder civilians.
— If the West had managed to stop Lukashenka in 2020, could a major war against Ukraine have been avoided?
— I think that's true. I think Lukashenka is an accomplice to Putin's aggression in Ukraine. He has completely supported what Putin has done and met with him numerous times before and even after February 24th. I think, Lukashenka has provided Russian forces with an additional platform from which to launch operations. Most of these, to be clear, have not been very successful, but they have diverted Ukrainian forces who have successfully repelled the Russian forces coming from Belarus territory.
But had they not been in Belarus to begin with, Ukraine would've been in even stronger position to defend parts of the east itself. So, while Russia has not accrued victory as a result of using Belarus territory, there's no doubt in my mind that Lukashenka bears responsibility for allowing Russian forces to use his country - actually, Belarus is not even his country anymore; he lost a legitimacy long before — as a platform for Russian operations.
— There is a lot of talk about a tribunal for Putin, but Lukashenka seems to be somewhat missing in these conversations. Should they find themselves in the same dock?
— I actually do think Lukashenka should be brought up on trial in a tribunal for gross human rights abuses. I would do him separately, however. Because I think he bears responsibility for events in August of 2020 when he stole the election and then followed that with a brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors in Belarus. So, I would actually charge him with crimes against humanity there. I realize some legal experts may have a different definition of that but that was a brutal vicious crackdown that included deaths of a number of protestors, a brutal torturing of people who were thrown in jail simply for exercising their right of free speech and assembly. So, it seems to me that Lukashenka deserves to be brought up on charges there, including by the way, the hijacking of the Ryanair flight going from Athens to Vilnius in May of last year, including the weaponization of migrants from the middle east and south Asia that he did last summer and last fall, in which a number of people died as a result of the conditions that they were placed in.
So, Lukashenka has lots of blood on his hands and, in my view, should be tried in his own right along with support for Putin's unprovoked war against Ukraine and the crimes that Putin has been committing there — Lukashenka has been supporting him from day one.
— Western countries use the term 'co-aggressor'. Is this more of a political statement or do you see any ways to prosecute him in this regard?
— Lukashenka is one of the few "leaders" (he's an illegitimate leader) of country who has supported what Putin is doing, not just rhetorically, but by providing territory and space for Russian forces to operate from. And so in my view, he is a hundred percent guilty of participating in this aggression and absolutely deserves to be put on trial for his complicity in Putin's war and invasion of Ukraine.
But I also think, as I said before, that he deserves to be on trial in his own, right separate and apart from his support for Putin's aggression, for what he's done to the people of Belarus first and foremost, but then also his involvement in Putin's war and invasion of Ukraine.
— Should Lukashenka regime be considered as a sponsor of terrorism?
— I do believe it's time to designate Lukashenka's "state-sponsored" terror, using "state-sponsored" in quotation marks as he's not the legitimate leader of the state, and yet that is the best way to designate him as a terrorist.
He did hijack a civilian airliner. He put in danger 126 passengers and crew on board of that flight. And then he weaponized migrants. He tricked them into Belarus and then forced them in across borders in Poland and Lithuania putting them in grave danger. So, in my view, he has been engaged in terrorist activity and needs to be labeled as such and suffer the consequences.
— How to make sure that the dictator is indeed brought to justice?
— I think maybe it isn't a way to hold him to account, but it's a way to cut off his support. And that is to sanction all Russian sources of support: individuals and banks and others. Some of these have already been sanctioned as a result of Putin's invasion of Ukraine but Lukashenka, in my view, would not still be where he is without Russian support. And so, if you want to weaken Lukashenka's grip on power, the way to do it, I would argue, is to go after the Russian sources of support.
He also gets funding and support from the Gulf states in particular from the UAE. And so, it seems to me that some ultimatums need to be issued to those countries, and in particular to the UAE: you can stand in good grace with the United States, or you can stand with Lukashenka, one or the other, but you can't do both. So, I think it's also time to pressure these outside sources of support for Lukashenka that doesn't necessarily bring accountability, but if it weakens his grip on power, then he might no longer be in power before too long.
— You stated in your interview to our website that Lukashenka's days are numbered. Have the latest events brought the outcome closer?
— He's certainly (and has not been for a long time) not a legitimate leader. I don't think he was a legitimate leader before August of 2020 but certainly after August 2020 no one, I think, in the democratic world views him as a legitimate leader.
In February of that year Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited him. There are pictures of the two shaking hands, smiling. I don't think you'll ever see a US Secretary of State traveling to Minsk and a meeting with Lukashenka ever again. That was a mistake on Pompeo's part, I think. John Bolton also met with him a few months before, in 2019. You won't see any US officials meeting and shaking hands and yucking it up with Alexander Lukashenka ever again, nor do I think, you'll ever see any Western leaders doing so. Chancellor Merkel had called Lukashenka during the migration crisis — that, I think, was a mistake; it shouldn't be done.
So, I do think that no one at respectable countries views Lukashenka as a legitimate leader. I do think that means his days are numbered. I just don't know what that number is. And the more we can weaken Russia and impose sanctions on Russia, the less ability Putin will have to sustain Lukashenka in power.
I do hope that the people of Belarus understand that their efforts in 2020 were not for nothing, that the West still stands with them and recognizes Lukashenka as an illegitimate threat to their country and will continue to apply pressure.
We won't go back to what we were guilty of before, which was this sanctions and isolation and then reengagement. The reengagement phase of that is over. We will remain in a sanctions and isolation phase phases until Lukashenka is gone.