2021 was characterised by growing confrontation in relations between Belarus and Western countries. The forced landing of the Ryanair aircraft on May 23rd constituted an inflexion point that elevated the conflict between Minsk and the West to a qualitatively new level and fixed the Belarusian crisis as a problem on the global agenda. Western elites were united in their perception of Belarusian actions as a threat to regional (and even international) security leading to the phased introduction of sanctions. Lukashenka attempted to force the EU and the United States into direct dialogue with his regime by provoking a migration crisis to undermine regional stability. Under these conditions, Western countries increasingly began to turn to Russia to find a joint solution to the Belarusian problem.
The first half of the year was primarily defined by simmering tension between Minsk and Western capitals, which could not align on a common strategy to address the Belarusian crisis. Consequently, the first three packages of EU sanctions were largely symbolic, inspiring confidence in the Belarusian authorities that the West would prove unable to act decisively and in concert.
The forced landing of a Ryanair plane at Minsk National Airport on May 23rd and the arrest of Roman Protasevich, an opposition activist and blogger, crossed the Rubicon and made the normalisation of relations almost impossible. Belarus’ image as a source of regional stability was wholly overturned, leading Western countries to conclude that the Lukashenka regime threatens regional and global security and secures Belarus' reputation as a pariah country and global problem.
The second half of the year was marked by a rapid escalation of tensions between Minsk and Western capitals. For the first time in the recent history of bilateral relations, the EU, the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western allies introduced sectoral sanctions (Package 4) in response to the actions of the Belarusian regime, signalling a transition to a joint and uncompromising strategy towards the Belarusian crisis. This implies a progressive increase in pressure on the Lukashenka regime until several demands are met: stop violence against civilians, release all political prisoners, halt all political trials, start a dialogue with society, hold new presidential elections under supervision of the OSCE and other international organisations.
In response, the Belarusian regime followed a twofold strategy, clearly not expecting such solidarity among the Euro-Atlantic allies. On the one hand, Lukashenka constantly escalated regional tension and rhetorically toyed with talk of war in an attempt to force Western capitals to enter into direct dialogue, lift sanctions and recognise Lukashenka’s legitimacy.
The escalation of the migration crisis on the Belarusian-European border in October-November led to technical dialogue with the EU but did nothing to legitimise the regime in the eyes of the West and served only to accelerate the adoption by Western capitals of a new (5th) package of sanctions, and development of a 6th.
After the failure of the migration blackmail campaign and in response to the new sanctions, Minsk retaliated with threats of a new migration crisis (this time using Afghan refugees) and various measures to penalise Western businesses and exploit gas shortages by interdicting transit pipelines.
On the other hand, the Belarusian regime signalled a desire to normalise relations. Minsk tried to establish communication channels with some Western countries (Austria, the Vatican, Hungary, Turkey, Finland), seeming to speculate on threats to the independence of Belarus from Russia. However, unlike in prior cases, the West ignored these overtures. Russia is looking for a solution to the Belarusian problem in a broader geopolitical security agreement. It has become apparent that the West no longer regards Lukashenka as the guarantor of Belarusian independence, as was typical in the period 2008-2010 and 2014-2020.
Under these conditions, the Belarusian regime tried to balance the pressure from the West and Russia by pivoting to more distant foreign policy, principally deepening the strategic partnership with China. For this reason, at the end of the year, Minsk attempted to initiate contacts at the highest level with Beijing. The increasing toxicity of the Belarusian regime under growing Western sanctions pressure, as well as the actions of the Belarusian authorities, created risks even for Chinese investors and called into question the logic of China's work with Belarus within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, in which Belarus constitutes a logistics and industrial hub, as well as a springboard for entering Western markets.
What to expect in 2022
- Relations between Belarus and the West will continue to deteriorate, and Western sanctions pressure on The Lukashenka regime will intensify, particularly after the February referendum on the new constitution.
- Belarus international standing will continue to decline. The Belarusian crisis and its solution will be an issue in negotiations between Russia and the United States/NATO on a geopolitical deal on security guarantees.
- The geopolitical impasse and growing pressure from the West and Russia may push the Lukashenka regime to start a dialogue and meet some of the demands of the West, which in turn will make a decision based on the results of negotiations with Russia.
- The breakdown of negotiations and Russia's aggressiveness may open a window of opportunity for a new round of multi-vector policy of the Belarusian regime.