It is January 2022 and Russian troops are massing close to the border with Ukraine. Depending on who you ask, invasion is imminent, or the Russians are simply conducting standard exercises planned for February… involving thousands of troops, supported by aircraft, armour, and S-400 missile systems. Where are these troops? Belarus.
While plenty has been said about Russia’s troop build-up along its Western border with Ukraine, with many outlets reporting the presence of infantry numbering over 100,000 men, Moscow’s military activity in Belarus has received comparatively little coverage. Perhaps that is because media genuinely believe the Russians when they say their military activity in the country is simply part of planned ‘Union Courage–2022’ training exercises.
Alternatively (and depressingly), the lack of interest in Russian activity in Belarus might be a tacit admission that the country is, for all intents and purposes, a province of Russia.
It didn’t have to be this way. Belarus could have been a useful ally of the West against Russia’s naked aggression. Instead, an ill-conceived sanctions regime devised in Brussels, Washington D.C., and London has driven Minsk further and further into Moscow’s orbit.
Publicly, US, UK, and EU officials would argue that their sanctions have been carefully designed in order to spark democratic change in Belarus. They might add that, with sufficient democratisation, Belarus could be gradually inducted into the West’s economic sphere of influence, raising living standards and sundering Minsk’s bond with Moscow once and for all.
This is disingenuous at best, and deliberately pernicious at worst.
Privately, those same officials would more likely admit they have no intention of accepting Belarus into their club. EU-Belarus trade makes up roughly 19 per cent of the country’s total, and trade with the UK or US is almost non-existent.
So, without much to gain from the country in terms of economic opportunity, the Western powers have decided on another path – to exert as much economic damage on the people of Belarus as possible. Their hope? That instability in the country will spill over into its largest trading partner, Russia. With this in mind, it is easier to see why certain sanctions targets have been chosen.
Take the case of Mikhail Gutseriev, for example. Gutseriev has been sanctioned by the UK government since August 2021. Yet, during a so-called ‘energy spat’ between Russia and Belarus in January 2020, during which the Kremlin cut off all oil exports to the country as a means to extort ‘deeper political and economic integration’, it was Gutseriev’s companies Russneft and Neftisia which worked to maintain essential oil supplies. Had Gutseriev not stepped in to plug the gap left when Russia flexed its muscles, any extant vestige of Belarusian independence may have evaporated.
So, why did Western jurisdictions sanction Gutseriev if he was working to secure Belarusian energy supplies in spite of Russian efforts to the contrary? Surely a thorn in Moscow’s side is a friend of the West? Because the Western powers aren’t interested in building a working relationship with Belarus. They would be happier to see the country consumed by Russia.
This example goes right to the heart of how wrong-headed and malicious Western sanctions against Belarus are. Instead of supporting the self-determination of the Belarusian people, the governments in Brussels, London, and Washington D.C. would rather weaken Belarus and see it formally join the Russian Federation (and serve as an economic trojan horse in the process). Therefore, anyone in a position to help secure Belarusian independence from Moscow should be attacked.
The Western powers may yet come to rue this choice, however. In the absence of an independent foreign policy, and enslaved to the will of the Kremlin, Belarus has had no choice but to allow Russian forces into the country – forces which are now just 56 miles from Kyiv. Maybe the Russians will keep their word and simply carry out training exercises. If ‘Union Courage–2022’ is a pretext for the wider invasion of Ukraine, however, the West will only have itself to blame.
Sanctions against Belarus need to end now, and dialogue must resume. Until that happens, Belarus will remain a potentially lethal stepping off point for the Russian military and the people of Belarus will retain their right to self-determination in name only.