It’s time to sanction Putin-Lukashenka “autocratic axis”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka pictured together in 2019 (Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin via REUTERS)

Arguments in favor of sanctioning the “autocratic axis” are emerging in Eastern Europe are gaining ground.

During a testimony on Capitol Hill before Human Rights Commission Tom Lantos In the House of Representatives last week, former Deputy Secretary of State David Kramer argued that it was time to broaden the scope of sanctions against Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka to include his facilitators in Russia from Vladimir Poutine.

“Regarding sanctions, I think it is time to cast a wider net than what we have seen so far”, Kramer said. “I congratulate the administration and the European Union for what they have done, but it is not enough. We need to tackle the so-called bags of money, the individuals linked to Lukashenka who are supporting him financially. These include Russian personalities who played a decisive role in Lukashenka’s retention in power. Stop them and you will water the thin ice that Lukashenka is on.

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Kramer, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the administration of US President George W. Bush, then named specific Russian individuals and entities who could be targeted.

He identified Russian oligarch Mikhail Gutseriev, founder of the Russneft oil company which supplies most of its crude to Belarus, and Sberbank CEO German Gref, a close ally of Putin who has enthusiastically supported Lukashenka and supervised big investments in the Belarusian real estate sector. Kramer has also identified three banks, VTB, VEB and Gazprombank, as well as natural gas company Gazprom, oil giants Rosneft and Slavneft and potash producer Uralkali.

Kramer argued that “Russian propagandists”, including pro-Kremlin journalists who took the jobs of Belarusians who quit state television in response to the crackdown on protests last August should also be targeted. “They are not journalists, they are dangerous propagandists,” he noted.

Kramer named specific Belarusian citizens who could be sanctioned including former presidential chief of staff Viktar Sheiman and petrochemical magnate Alyaksei Aleksin, as well as several other businessmen close to Lukashenka such as Mikalai Varabiou, Alyaksandr Zaitsau, Alyaksandr Mashenski and Uladzimir Peftsiyeu.

I have argued on several occasions in this space that the sanctions against the Lukashenka regime should also target its Russian facilitators, as well as the principal researcher of the Atlantic Council Anders Aslund. Likewise, Ilya Zaslavskiy, senior researcher at the Free Russia Foundation, suggested in a recent report this support for Lukashenka should be a criterion for sanctioning the oligarchs linked to the Kremlin.

But justifying the widening of sanctions in Belarus to include Russian individuals and entities portrayed by a senior former US diplomat of Kramer’s stature in congressional testimony means that the idea is now gaining popularity in the media. political community.

There is a strong case for imposing sanctions against the Putin-Lukashenka axis rather than against the Belarusian regime. Due to a number of factors, including the dominance of Russia over the Belarusian economy, the large volume of trade between Moscow and Minsk and the relatively low level of trade between Minsk and the West, the sanctions against Belarus on their own will likely be ineffective. It is also not known whether sanctioning large Belarusian state-controlled companies, without at the same time also targeting their Russian interlocutors, risks leading them into the arms of Kremlin-linked companies and oligarchs.

The arguments in favor of a widening of the opening on the penalization of the Lukashenka regime are gaining ground as the European Union is prepare a new tour sanctions in Belarus which will probably be announced in June.

The United States last month reimposed sanctions on nine Belarusian companies, including the oil and chemical company Belneftekhim, which accounts for 30 percent of the country’s industrial production, the Hrodna Azot chemical and fertilizer plant and the Naftan oil refinery.

There is, however, ample room for Washington to step up these sanctions and extend them to Russian companies. Belarusian potash giant Belaruskali, which holds around 20 percent of the world market and which Russian potash company Uralkali has reportedly attempted to acquire, was absent from the US sanctions list, for example. The Mazur oil refinery, in which the Russian oil and gas company Slavneft holds a 42.58 percent stake.

The potential sanctions against the Putin-Lukashenka axis are only part of the political picture. With the Lukashenka regime becoming increasingly Russified as Moscow expands its economic, political and military footprint, Belarusian civil society is increasingly looking to the West for inspiration and support.

Increased support and awareness for Belarusian civil society and the large Belarusian diaspora, especially in Poland and Lithuania, would send a clear message that even if the United States and its allies impose sanctions on Lukashenka and its facilitators Russians, they remain on the side of the Belarusian people, and on the good side of history.

Brian Whitmore is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Assistant Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and host of The Power Vertical Podcast. On this week Vertical power Podcast, Brian will discuss the issues raised in this column with former US Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer. The episode falls on Friday, May 14.

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