Saturday, May 25, 2024

Western Sanctions on Belarus Bely a Deep Misunderstanding of the Region’s Realpolitik

In a speech given to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss asserted that Russian aggression ‘threatens security and stability for us all’ and entreated Putin ‘to step back from the brink’.

With the aid of Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, Russia is on the verge of a military incursion into Ukraine, with the Belarus-Ukraine border providing the perfect launchpad for an assault on Kyiv.

While Putin is the clear aggressor, Truss is naïve if she thinks that the West has played no part in fomenting the current instability in Eastern Europe.

Indeed, while NATO is demonstrably not a threat to Russia, a mistruth disseminated by the British left, Western policy in the region has irrefutably been reflexive and short-sighted.

The sanctioning of Belarus last summer, for example, has been to Putin’s economic and military advantage and has reverberated painfully on global agriculture.

Cooler heads are now hoping that popular pressure in the West will push its leaders to develop a more nuanced, holistic approach to the region.  

A thorough analysis of the West’s failed policy is certainly required, but it should be clear to all that Putin has no excuse for his naked aggression towards Ukraine.

190,000 troops are now amassed on its borders, with the largest number of units stationed to the South-East, an area of the country dominated by Russian separatists.

The Kyiv government will be just as concerned, however, with the confirmation this week that the 30,000 Russian troops participating in joint exercises in Belarus will stay in the country indefinitely.

Just 150km separates Kyiv from Belarus’ southern border and while Russia is unlikely to plump for a full-scale occupation, having Ukraine’s capital in striking distance delivers Putin significant leverage.

With this leverage now apparent, Western leaders must surely be asking themselves how tiny Belarus became the chink in Ukraine’s armour.

Belarus was once a nation that pivoted between the powers to its East and West. However, its sanctioning by the US, UK, and EU last summer ended this multi-vectored foreign policy.

Alexander Lukashenko’s regime turned to Putin for assistance and was not disappointed, with the Kremlin coughing up dollar-denominated loans and military aid.

In return, Lukashenko became Europe’s agent provocateur-in-chief, flying in desperate refugees from the Middle East and busing them to EU’s border.  

While crisis now reigns in Eastern Europe, all was calm in the region prior to the imposition of sanctions on Belarus in June 2021.

Putin, as ever, made menacing noises but the precipice of war over which Europe now looks was simply unimaginable at the time.

By estranging Belarus, the West sparked off a chain reaction of instability, incensing the irascible Lukashenko and delivering Putin a strategic vantagepoint over Ukraine.

Sanctions have also had severe economic ramifications – more for the West, than for the East.

While global supply chains are slowly but surely recovering from the entanglement of the pandemic, farmers and agriculturalists are living in the shadows of skyrocketing fertiliser prices.

Prices have doubled in the past year and fears are growing of a spate of bad harvests and the resulting price inflation of basic foodstuffs.

Indeed, US agriculture’s five main trade bodies wrote to the Biden administration late last year to warn of this exact scenario, identifying sanctions on Belarus as the cause.

An analysis of the fertiliser market shows they have reason to do so: Belarus is the world’s largest supplier of potash, a critical ingredient in fertiliser, with its exports making up 20% of the global market.

Sanctions explicitly ban the import of Belarussian potash into the US and EU, while Lithuania is now blocking the product from being transported across its territory to the port of Klaipeda.

Shortages have spelt pain for American farmers, but the Belarussian industry simply switched to Plan B, with its potash now being transported by Russian vehicles to the Russian port of Ust-Luga.

This is not, however, Putin doing a good deed.

Instead, the provision to Belarus of a new route to export is a clever strategic manoeuvre, winning the Kremlin control over a key global commodity.

The situation for global agriculture will be made worse still by Ust-Luga, the new export hub for Belarussian potash, not having anywhere near enough capacity to handle the minimum 6 million tonnes that Belarus exports a year.

The result will be a further blockage in the already bunged up global fertiliser market, a blow to Western agriculture and a boon for Putin’s anti-Western agenda.

Looking forward, electoral pressure on the Biden Administration, the Conservatives, and the EU will undoubtedly build if the price of basic foodstuffs continues to inflate, and perhaps this will cajole them into action.

There’s no doubt that a resolution to the current crisis on Ukraine’s borders will require long-lasting negotiations between Russia and the NATO allies at both the bilateral NATO-Russia council and the UN.

In the meantime, the West can dull its current economic headache and start the process of eroding Russian power in Eastern Europe by ending Belarus’ ill-conceived isolation.

Dealing with Lukashenko will require the holding of diplomatic noses, but the West can simply not afford for Putin to retain a direct line of attack to Kyiv, a window to the EU’s Eastern border, and a grip on global agriculture.

The removal of sanctions on Belarussian potash would neutralise these three sources of Russian leverage, while throwing a bone to inflation-panicked consumers in the West.

This is the realpolitik and Western leaders would do well to recognise it for the sake of Eastern Europe, and for the sake of their own administrations.

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