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EU locks Belarus out of airspace, escalates sanctions after Lukashenko-ordered skyjacking

Such are the wages of air piracy. In exchange for arresting a dissident blogger, Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko finds his state airline persona non grata in the rest of Europe — and his restive population grinding their teeth at renewed isolation. The European Union wasted no time in responding to the skyjacking of Ryanair’s flight between Athens and Vilnius, escalating existing sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime and forbidding Belarus’ airline from entering its airspace.

Just how effective these sanctions will be is a question worth considering — but at the moment, it’s a fairly low-cost reaction for the EU:

European leaders on Monday agreed to significantly toughen sanctions on Belarus and to bar European Union airlines from flying over the country’s airspace, dealing a potentially crushing blow to the economy, a day after Belarusian authorities forced down a civilian jet and pulled off a dissident journalist.

The measures, backed by all 27 E.U. leaders, were an unusually fast and powerful response to the brazen move by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who on Sunday sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to snatch a Ryanair plane out of the sky as it was flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, and arrest one of its passengers, Roman Protasevich, the founder of an opposition media outlet. Protasevich faces 12 years or more in prison.

E.U. leaders meeting for a prescheduled summit in Brussels asked the bloc’s foreign policy team to draw up a list of targeted economic sanctions to impose “without delay” and said the country’s national airline would be barred from flying over or landing in E.U. territory. Officials involved in forcing down the plane will also face personal sanctions.

The US isn’t going to be far behind, at least in principle. Joe Biden endorsed the EU’s surprisingly united front and pledged to pressure Belarus through our own actions in coordination with Europe:

President Joe Biden has condemned Belarus for forcing a civilian airliner transiting the country’s airspace to divert and land in its capital city, where a journalist was taken off the flight and into custody. In a statement issued on Monday evening, Mr. Biden called it an “outrageous” affront to international norms and joined other nations in calling for the immediate release of blogger Raman Pratasevich.

Mr. Biden called for an international investigation and backed the European Union’s call for “targeted economic sanctions and other measures” against Belarus in response. He said his administration would “develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations.”

And here we come to the crux of the matter, both for the US and the EU — Russia. Belarus is a Russian client state, a key partner for Vladimir Putin, whose drive to ensure buffer states between NATO and Russia proper has prompted Putin to seize territory in both Ukraine and Georgia over the last thirteen years. Putin keeps Lukashenko in power and floats Belarus economically as much as possible to keep those frontiers in place. If Belarus finds itself economically isolated from the EU, so much the better for Putin, who wants Belarus to continue facing east rather than west — as Ukraine and Georgia tried.

To get tough on Belarus, the West will have to get tough with Putin. Are they getting tough with Putin? Er … no. Germany is still proceeding with the Nord Stream 2 project to make themselves even more dependent on Russian energy, and Biden’s removing the pressure against the project put in place by Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, Biden’s making arrangements to meet with Putin in Switzerland for a summit to enhance cooperation between the US and Russia:

President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin are likely to hold their first summit next month in Geneva, Switzerland, according to a U.S. official familiar with the issue.

The exact date of the summit was not immediately clear, but it is expected to be held around the same time that Biden is visiting Europe in mid-June to meet with NATO and European Union leaders. …

“In the most general terms I can say that, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed more than once, we are prepared to consider and address any issues on the bilateral agenda and also to work together on settling regional problems and regional conflicts and crises,” Lavrov is quoted as saying.

Among those regional crises are Belarus, obviously, but also Ukraine. Trump wanted to use Nord Stream 2 to pressure Russia into making a deal on the latter as well as limiting Putin’s economic resources in a more general competitive sense. That was one strategic value to ramping up domestic oil and natural-gas production — keeping energy prices low enough to limit Putin’s options for adventurism.

Biden’s reversal on Nord Stream 2 — and his moves to limit American energy production — give Putin a much stronger hand in negotiations, and especially in Belarus. If nothing else, Putin can redirect the economic benefits of higher oil and gas prices and added sales toward Lukashenko, buffering the economic effects of sanctions from the West. That might not help with the political effects of isolation on Lukashenko’s unhappy subjects, but it still undermines the impact of the other sanctions being applied by the EU and US.

This is emblematic of the Biden approach to all issues, especially foreign policy. Biden is entirely reactive, apparently incapable of seeing strategically at all. Both Biden and the EU are playing into Putin’s hands, including in Belarus.