People in Krakow, Poland, demonstrate for solidarity with Belarus on May 29. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto / Beata Zawrzel

The European Union is in an uproar over the forced landing of a Ryanair jet in Belarus ordered by the country’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko. In response, it banned Belarus’s national airline from flying into Europe and prohibited any European airplanes from flying into or over Belarus.

Imposition of more punishments would come with the downside of an increasing East-West divide. The distancing of Belarus from Western democracies could mean that the country, already heavily dependent on Russia, would fall fully into the hands of Vladimir Putin.  Putin has long hoped to absorb Belarus into some sort of new Slavic union he would head.

Until now, at least, Lukashenko had resisted any such merger.

Protesters embrace while holding a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a demonstration in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Prague on April 21. Photo: AFP / Michal Cizek

A Belarus forever stuck in Moscow’s embrace is clearly an EU concern. In the middle of this crisis, after pro-democracy activist Raman Pratasevich was pulled from the Ryanair plane, jailed and then probably tortured, the EU offered Belarus aid totaling three billion Euros, with a big condition: The funds would be delivered “once Belarus embarks on a democratic transition,” EU officials announced.

That kind of carrot might have worked before last year when Lukashenko was playing off the Europeans and Russia for his benefit. He got development money from the EU while Russia supplied cheap oil and loans. Lukashenko even hosted talks to resolve the Ukraine crisis as a sign of his supposed value as a neutral arbiter in possible East-West conflicts.

Lukashenko’s crackdown on Belarusian pro-democracy protestors last year reminded everyone of his authoritarian credentials. The EU imposed travel bans and asset freezes on dozens of government officials, including Lukashenko. The immediate goal was to curb official violence and obtain the release of political prisoners, of whom human rights groups say there are at least 300.

The detention of Pratasevich, along with his girlfriend and fellow Ryanair passenger Sofia Sapega, exposed the ineffectiveness of the 2020 sanctions. While the two languish in jail, the EU is mulling new punishments. Embargoes on Belarus’ meager exports – potash used to produce fertilizer, for one; products based on Russian oil, for another – might be in order, although the EU tries hard to avoid sanctions that might rebound on its own businesses in Belarus.

In any case, Lukashenko has responded with bluster. He threatened to let migrants and illicit drugs flow across Belarusian borders into Western Europe. “We stopped drugs and migrants,” he reminded the Europeans. “Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves.”

Apparently, Lukashenko can rely on Russia for support to soften economic and political blows. He met Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, where they traded niceties – Putin invited Lukashenko for a swim. Some loan money, promised before, changed hands. Putin criticized the EU for making a sanctions decision with “emotion” and said the West shouldn’t “meddle” in Belarusian affairs.

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko pose on a yacht during a trip on the Black Sea on May 29. Photo: AFP / Sergei Ilyin / Sputnik

These responses suggest that even Lukashenko’s airplane piracy – he sent up a MiG 29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane down – is okay by Putin. After all, Putin stands accused of trying to poison opposition rival and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. Despite wide Western condemnation, Navalny remains in jail. Pro-democracy dissidents from both Russia and Belarus are fleeing into exile.

Lukashenko’s ability to crush his opponents relieves Putin of the need to intervene directly to keep the Belarusian in power.

The demonstrations recalled ones in Ukraine seven years ago that sent a pro-Russian president into Moscow exile. Russia responded by invading Ukraine, supporting armed eastern Ukraine separatists and annexing Crimea.

No doubt with that precedent in mind, as Lukashenko faced down demonstrators Putin supported him with pledges of a $1.5 billion loan and access to a Russian port to replace one in Lithuania that Belarus used for exports through the Baltic Sea. Russia also issued an arrest warrant for exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya for unspecified crimes.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is the subject of a Russian arrest warrant. Photo: AFP / Romy Arroyo Fernandez /NurPhoto

There could, however, be costs for Putin. For one, should the EU further isolate Belarus, the country may need more Russian economic support. Efforts by Russia to circumvent any future EU embargo would strain Moscow’s already uneasy relations with the EU.

The dissatisfaction with Lukashenko that was expressed in 2020 by hundreds of thousands of Belarusians could, the second time around, become anti-Russian, anti-Putin sentiment. Belarusian pro-democracy activists last time were circumspect in assuring Moscow their movement was not anti-Russian.

That could quickly change and Belarus could find itself on the list of Eastern European countries – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – that face the more or less constant threat of Russian intervention to keep them tightly in its embrace, or at least keep them from drifting Westward.

For now, Putin seems to delight in Lukashenko’s seemingly erratic behavior. During a press conference Friday at the International Economic Forum in St Petersburg, Putin was asked whether, should a plane flying over Russia carry a “political foe,” he would order military jets to force it to land. He replied, “I won’t say.”

The apparently amused audience laughed.  

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.