Belarus crisis heightens stakes of Biden-Putin summit

An extraordinary crisis in Belarus is pushing a months-long simmering conflict to the forefront of President Biden’s agenda and raising the stakes for an upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Biden is likely to confront Putin in Switzerland, when the two leaders will meet on June 16, for his role in enabling Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has carried out a brutal crackdown on dissidents since he fraudulently claimed victory in the August presidential elections.

Lukashenko this week ordered that a passenger plane be diverted to Minsk so that an opposition journalist could be taken from the plane and arrested, likely ensuring a higher position for Belarus on the summit’s agenda.

“I’m virtually positive that Belarus will be on the agenda with Putin, but I think we’re going to be looking at Belarus as part of the broader tableau of issues that we have to deal with Russia on,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, a former ambassador to Belarus and veteran State Department diplomat. 

Biden issued a lengthy statement on Monday calling the plane’s forced diversion a “direct affront to international norms.”

He condemned the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich and said the U.S. is prepared to issue sanctions in coordination with the European Union (EU).

The U.S. joined fellow Group of Seven countries Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom in a joint statement condemning the arrest. 

Russia has so far stood alongside Belarus despite Putin’s complicated relationship with Lukashenko. The so-called last dictator in Europe has aligned himself more firmly with Moscow in the face of an international pressure campaign of sanctions over the fraudulent presidential elections in August.

Lukashenko has brutally repressed popular protests, jailing and reportedly torturing dissidents contesting his so-called victory over opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who remains in exile in Lithuania.

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU have done little to roll back his behavior. 

Lukashenko “has given up on any improved relations with the West and has just cast his lot with the Russians,” said Yalowitz, though he added that the relationship between Moscow and Minsk is complicated.

Lukashenko “is indebted to the Russians now and really, having them as his sole ally, but he still wants to be an independent leader and doesn’t want to fully get integrated into Russia,” he added.

Joerg Forbrig, the German Marshall Fund’s director for Central and Eastern Europe, questioned whether Russia played a role in what he described as the “hijacking” of the Ryanair flight. He said the operation was beyond the scope of the Belarusian intelligence services and questioned whether the summit should take place.

“There is the question of the Biden-Putin summit, whether it should actually take place against the background like this, because Russia is the sole sponsor of the [Lukashenko] regime. None of this would have happened if Russia wasn’t protecting him and keeping him in power,” said Forbrig. 

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for Biden to “tighten the screws on Vladimir Putin” over the Ryanair flight diversion. 

“Like every puppet leader, Lukashenko doesn’t use the bathroom without asking for Moscow’s permission. It’s fanciful to imagine he’d hijack a flight between NATO allies without Moscow’s blessing,” Sasse said in his statement. He called for instituting federally mandated sanctions on the almost complete Russian pipeline Nord Stream 2, which is sending natural gas to Europe.

The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization has ordered a fact-finding investigation into the circumstances surrounding the plane’s diversion.

Biden is unlikely to cancel his summit with Putin.

Administration officials are framing the summit as a necessary meeting to lay out frankly the issues between the U.S. and Russia and work toward a “stable and predictable relationship,” attempting to address areas of cooperation on issues of mutual concern such as nuclear nonproliferation, including in North Korea and Iran, climate change, the Arctic and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The U.S. has sanctioned Russian officials over the alleged state-sponsored poisoning and arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and for the arrests of Navalny supporters and the banning of their participation in politics.

The U.S. also has condemned Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, military provocations on Ukraine’s eastern border and Russia’s involvement in Syria. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline has also been a point of contention. 

Fallout from the SolarWinds hack, Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and alleged Russian bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan are also outstanding points of conflict.

Forbig said the summit risks legitimizing Putin on the world stage and to his domestic audience, but that it is a calculated risk on the part of the Biden team.

“I think that it’s very well understood in the administration that there’s a reputational gain that Putin will derive from this. The question is, do you want to give him that gain or not?” he said. 

Yalowitz said Biden’s long history on the world stage and in foreign affairs and his candid agreement with a reporter that he thinks Putin is a “killer” strengthens his position with Putin.

“Biden has made no bones whatsoever about the fact of Russian aggression, the nature of the regime. He is very realistic and very outspoken,” he said.

“But by the same token, that should allow him to have a good dialogue with Putin because Putin will recognize that this is no pushover, that this is no neophyte in foreign affairs and that this is a guy that you really have to take account of,” he added.

Tags Belarus Ben Sasse Joe Biden Russia Vladimir Putin
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