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Daniel Fried: Fundamental Question On Sanctions Against Lukashenka Regime Arises

Daniel Fried: Fundamental Question On Sanctions Against Lukashenka Regime Arises
Daniel Fried

Both the US and the EU should think about it.

Do sanctions work against the regimes of Lukashenka and Putin? Is it necessary to unify restrictive measures regarding Moscow and Minsk? Is the Russian economy really used to sanctions?

Former coordinator of the sanctions policy of the US State Department, former American ambassador to Poland, expert at the Atlantic Council analytical center Daniel Fried spoke about this in an interview with the Charter97.org website.

— Western sanctions against Russia and Belarus are not uniform and Belarus has become a major hub for bypassing sanctions against Russia. What does it take to align the sanctions policy towards Russia and Belarus?

— We've all noticed that European exports to various countries like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Belarus have gone up tremendously in recent months. It is logical to assume that this has something to do with sanctions evasion. The EU and the US have taken steps to try to curtail this.

So far, the US has imposed a great many sanctions on Belarus. On December 5th, new US sanctions were announced targeting Belarus for both human rights violations and for helping Russia circumvent the sanctions against it.

The policy question is whether we should continue to sanction Belarus as occasion and evidence arises, or whether we should make the decision that the Russia sanction should be applied to Belarus as a rule with the possibility of exceptions when there's a good reason for it. That is, should we treat Belarus as an adjunct of Putin's empire?

We believe in freedom for Belarus. We don't believe that its future is with Russia or should be with Russia, but the sanctions policy question is whether we should start treating Belarus as simply an adjunct of Russia for the purposes of sanctions? I don't have a firm answer for this, but it's something that we, the Americans and the US government and the European Union, should think about.

— In your previous experience in guiding sanctions policy, did you have such a situation when the was a bad actor and a small satellite of that bad actor or is Belarus' case something completely new?

— It is not completely new, there were always countries which were inclined to engage in sanctions busting. For example, we know that North Korea is the arms supplier to Russia. There are other countries which may be turning a blind eye to Russia sanctions violations.

Belarus is an interesting case because Lukashenka seems to have partially surrendered Belarus' sovereignty to stay in power —that's a crude way to put it on my part, but I think there's something to that. Is he the ruler of a sovereign country or he is a colonial governor, a “namiestnik” as the Poles would say? Is he simply Putin's agent in a country which is nominally sovereign, but in fact a satellite country? What are the policy implications for that with respect to sanctions?

— EU exports to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan (just to name a few) and other Russian neighbors are booming, whereas at the same time exports to Russia itself have sharply fallen down. Are there any ways to detect such unusual transport routes and to cut them off? What ought to be done in such cases?

— It is up to the governments to properly control their own borders. The EU and US sanctions policy leaders, David O'Sullivan from the EU and Jim O'Brien from the State Department (recently he was promoted to the Assistant Secretary for European Affairs) — they have traveled extensively to the countries you have named. We, the US and the European Union, have also imposed sanctions on companies from these countries who we believe are engaged in sanctions violations. A lot of sanctions policy is going to be sanctions enforcement based on information.

With respect to Belarus, the democratic opposition does have a network of people inside Belarus… Let's say, the more information about Belarus circumvention of the Russia sanctions program, the better for us to enforce the sanctions and consider the next steps against Belarus' support for Putin's war against Ukraine.

— My understanding that the idea of sanctions against Russia in the first place was to disrupt the ability of Russia to continue its war of aggression. But two years on and counting, the Russian economy still stands. They even report some growth. Do you see any room for improvement in the current sanctions policy towards Russia and its implementation, and concordance with the allies?

— Sanctions had an immediate and strong impact on Russia, first in 2014, and again in 2022, when the sanctions escalation hit the Russian economy hard.

It is also true, as you said, that the Russian economy has recovered somewhat and learned how to manage given the sanctions. However, that's not the whole story. A lot of the recovery of Russian production has to do with the fact that an enormous amount of the Russian economy is being redirected to military production. In many cases, it is of lower quality because of the sanctions. It also means that the Russian civilian economy is being starved for resources.

The sanctions are working in the sense they are putting mid- and long-term pressure on the Russian economy. They are not working fast enough to force Putin to withdraw from Ukraine or settle the war on anything except terms of Ukrainian surrender, which is the current Russian position.

Sanctions have to be intensified, particularly on the enforcement — there are options. There are things we can do. There are things the US and the EU are doing.

The good news is that sanctions are hitting the Russian economy, and there are ways to intensify the effectiveness of sanctions. The bad news is that they won't help Ukraine in the immediate term. 2024 might be a very rough year for Ukraine.

Both the EU and the US have been frustrated by internal opposition to sustain the support for Ukraine, opposition which has really no good arguments except “we don't care” and “Ukraine ought to belong to Russia” — that is the heart of the arguments of the Hungarian government and many in the US Congress aligned with Donald Trump, who seems to be a pro-Putin American politician (shocking as that is to say)

We have our own challenges, but we have opportunities before us to increase the pressure on the Russian economy and on Putin — if we can maintain the political will to do so.

— Would it be a fair way to summarize, your take is that the sanctions themselves are adequate, but their the enforcement is yet to be improved?

— We need to do two things on sanctions. One is to increase enforcement, the second is to increase the sanctions. The US and the EU are doing both. They need to do it, I think, faster and more comprehensively, but they are taking action. The US is not sitting on its hands. There have been a number of steps, for example, to increase the effectiveness of the oil price cap, and the EU announced earlier this week, new steps to improve its sanctions and escalate them, including, by the way, sanctions on critical technologies such as higher end machine tools, a very good step by the European Union.

But there is more work to do. And there is a question of whether there should be a presumption that Russia sanctions should apply also to Belarus. That's the question, I think, the US government (which I am not a part of) and the US community of people who are interested in the sanctions policy and in using that policy to help Ukraine need to look at.

— Although you are not in the government, what is your take? Would the administration be able to overcome the opposition and eventually provide the adequate funding to Ukraine? Or is 2024 going to be hard for Ukraine because the support is not given?

— Right now, the US Congress is trying to work through the issues that are holding up assistance for Ukraine. It's gotten complicated because that assistance is linked to some sort of compromise on border security. I think congress will reach an agreement, but I don't know that.

There is a part of the extreme right in American politics, which opposes support for Ukraine, which has abandoned the Reaganite foreign policy and has returned to the tradition of "America first" foreign policy, which meant in essence the indifference to European security in the late 1930s and up till the US entry into World War II.

For some of the “America first” crowd back then, it meant a kind of tacit support for Hitler as someone who could be sufficiently robust and anti-communist but the “America first” tradition was indifferent to European security. That was a catastrophic mistake. It meant that the US did not play a role in trying to stop Hitler, we gave that responsibility. The British and French were not strong enough to maintain a good policy, and the result was World War II — a catastrophe.

So I have little sympathy for the “America first” crowd then and little sympathy for it now. I think it represents our worst foreign policy tradition in the past 120 years. I think we will overcome it. But it doesn't matter what I think — it is a problem for us. There are similar traditions in Europe, so we need to remember the lessons of history and not repeat the mistakes of the first half of the last century that got us into so much trouble.

— So, we will have to watch the US elections very closely in Belarus and Ukraine…

— I am afraid, you're right.

— While Ukraine, understandably, is in the focus of the world's attention, in Belarus, there are thousands of political prisoners who suffer in worst imaginable conditions for three years and the clock is ticking: some of them did not make it, many have sustained irreversible damages to their health. If you would give an advice to the current administration, are there any economic, sanction ways to speed up the release of Belarusian political prisoners?

— I don't have an easy answer. We, the US and Europe certainly need to do all we can to put pressure on Lukashenka and his regime with the hope that we can get political prisoners out of prison.

But Lukashenka is now beholden to Putin, so this is an ugly situation and it's easy for me to say that the Belarusian people should have faith and continue to support their democratic and European future — I believe those things — but I don't want to make it appear as if we, Americans, are blind to the difficulties and the pain that Lukashenka is inflicting on his own people. That's what dictators do. Belarusians know it, they don't need any American to tell them that.

I say it because I want them to know: we understand it, at least we Americans who believe that freedom ultimately is inalienable and universal.

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