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Russia's aggression can and should cost Putin dearly

Russia's aggression can and should cost Putin dearly

German authorities have stated that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok, the same substance that Russian intelligence agents used against Russian intelligence defector Sergei Skripal in Britain in March 2018. Back then, the United States responded by sanctioning the issuance of Russian sovereign debt, in accordance with America's 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act. Financial markets reacted instantly, slashing the Russian ruble’s value by 2.5 percent.

Just before the German authorities’ announcement, Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinSafeguarding US elections by sanctioning Russian sovereign debt DOJ: Russian hackers targeted 2018 Olympics, French elections Putin stands with Belarus's dictator — we should stand by its people MORE declared that he had decided how to handle unrest in Belarus: Russia would support Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and provide him with all the “law enforcement” support he may need. Soon after, Putin also promised $1 billion of additional financial support to Belarus. An intense shuttle diplomacy between Minsk and Moscow already has started. 

Both of these are reasons to consider new sanctions.

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After the Aug. 9 Belarusian presidential election, Putin took his time to assess that country’s balance of power. He realized that Lukashenko was prepared to use all the force deemed necessary and that his security vertical held. Moreover, Lukashenko was ready to accept all Russian aid, and presumably pay for it. After five phone calls from Lukashenko and two and a half weeks, Putin finally granted him full support.

The only Western countries really concerned about Belarus are Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and Estonia. The three Baltic countries have sanctioned 30 Belarusian individuals, including Lukashenko, and the European Union is likely to follow, but too slowly. The United States has maintained sanctions on 16 Belarusians and seven enterprises since 2006 but has done nothing additionally. Lukashenko and Putin have easily blocked any Western mediating role and are dealing with this as a strictly bilateral issue. This is a time of ignominy for the West. 

The massive popular protests in Belarus are admirable; protesters have behaved like a well-disciplined national front, gathering under the old national flag. They have wisely focused on just three demands: Lukashenko must go; Belarus should hold free and fair elections; political prisoners must be freed. The hundreds of thousands of protesters have been perfectly orderly and peaceful — but that was also the case in Hong Kong, and they got nothing. 

Putin has noticed that the protesters have not turned against Russia, its Eurasian Economic Union or its Collective Security Treaty Pact. Nor have they advocated for the European Union or NATO. In many ways, the Belarusian protests are reminiscent of the Polish strikes in August 1980 that created that country’s Solidarity movement.

Overtly, Putin’s position in Belarus might appear strong. As Nina Khrushcheva has pointed out, Belarus is his to lose, but revolutionary politics is a delicate game. Putin needs to walk a thin line, and the unstable Lukashenko is not the best guide. He is doing what he has always done – rounding up the usual suspects, beating and arresting them – but will Lukashenko’s ruffians, who have families in Belarus, stay loyal or will they eventually revolt?

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If the Belarusian security forces fail, Putin has promised to send in his ruthless riot police from the National Guard. As Putin put it: “Mr. Lukashenko has asked me to create a reserve group of law enforcement personnel, and I have done this. But we have also agreed that this group would not be used unless the situation becomes uncontrollable, when extremist elements – I would like to say this once again – when the extremist elements, using political slogans as a cover, overstep the mark and start plundering the country, burning vehicles, houses, banks, trying to seize administration buildings, and so on.” If Putin does so, Belarus, the nation most friendly to Russia, could well turn as hostile as Ukraine did when President Viktor Yanukovych called for a Russian invasion in 2014.

Even if Russia does not intervene militarily, it may alienate the Belarusians. Belarus’s economy is dominated by large Soviet-type enterprises, which need to be privatized and restructured; Russian oligarchs know how to do that. With its vast international currency reserves of nearly $600 billion, Russia can easily afford to bail out Belarus, but Moscow will insist on the power of the purse. In 2011, when Belarus was in a serious financial crisis, the Russian government distributed several big Belarusian companies among Russian companies, but Lukashenko clawed them back. This time, Russian oligarchs are more likely to steamroll the Belarusian workers, who are unlikely to take that lightly. The Kremlin is no master of soft power.

The West may not react sharply to recent events, but the combined impact of Russia’s aggression against Belarus and its poisoning of Navalny will be big and lasting. 

First of all, any Western discussion of easing sanctions on Russia because of its military actions in eastern Ukraine will be ended. 

Second, French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronFrench high school teacher decapitated in possible terrorist attack France sets one-day record with more than 30,000 new COVID-19 cases French ministers' homes searched in probe of response to virus MORE’s ideas of reestablishing closer relations with Russia, as well as President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE’s idea of inviting Putin to the next G-7 meeting, are stillborn. 

Third, Western foreign investment in Russia, which has been negligible since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014, will stay minimal, as the political and sanctions risks are overwhelming for any company. 

Finally, whatever Russia does in Belarus, whether as a country or as state enterprises, is likely to compel the European Union and the United States to impose financial sanctions on those. They should announce contingency sanctions that will come into force against any big Russian company that tries to take over a Belarusian company or finance Russia’s repression there.

Putin might have won one round, but Belarus’s battle for democracy is likely to continue — and the West needs to wake up, as the Belarusians have done.

Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. His latest book is “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.”