BRUSSELS — The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada announced new sanctions on Belarusian officials on Monday, four weeks after the country’s strongman leader forced down a commercial airliner and arrested a dissident journalist who was a passenger onboard.
The sanctions against officials allegedly involved in the May 23 arrest stopped short of the hardest-hitting type of sectoral sanctions that are likely to impose significant pressure on the Belarusian economy. But they were a strong, coordinated response from Western countries that were intended to be a blow to the base of support for President Alexander Lukashenko.
E.U. foreign ministers also agreed to draw up a list of sectors for broad business bans and to revisit the issue within days, a step that could deal a further powerful hit.
Western leaders have demanded the immediate release of the journalist, Roman Protasevich, along with his traveling companion, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen. In the weeks since they were detained, Protasevich has been forced to appear on Belarusian television on a handful of occasions, each time appearing to have been beaten. The pair was on a May 23 Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius, Lithuania, when Belarusian air traffic authorities contacted the plane’s pilots with a false bomb threat and told them to land in Minsk.
The European Union on Monday went the furthest in its sanctions, partly because it has deeper connections to Belarus than the United States, Britain or Canada. In all, 78 people and eight companies were added to the E.U. sanctions list, including people closely connected to Lukashenko, a major oil company, and two big automotive companies that are pillars of the Belarusian economy. The United States blacklisted 16 people and five companies.
“These coordinated designations demonstrate the steadfast transatlantic commitment to supporting the Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “We stand with the people of Belarus in support of their fundamental freedoms.”
European leaders said they hoped to shift Belarusian policies with the new sanctions.
“At a certain point, much stronger measures have to be taken that will affect the economic sector more deeply,” E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in Luxembourg, where E.U. foreign ministers approved the sanctions on Monday. “There are over 500 political prisoners. We witnessed the horrific spectacle of a journalist who was kidnapped, making a sort of Maoist-style confession, saying, ‘Yes I am guilty,’ in front of the television cameras. So we must use all the means that we can mobilize.”
E.U. leaders met in Brussels in May the day after Protasevich and Sapega were detained and agreed to impose wide-ranging sanctions. But the measures took some time to prepare, and Monday was the day the final details were agreed on and when they took effect. The European Union had already cut off air ties to Belarus, banning E.U. airlines from flying over Belarusian airspace, and denying E.U. airspace and landing rights to Belarusian airlines.
The European Union is considering additional sanctions against Belarus’s potash sector, its financial companies, and its oil and arms industries, among other areas, officials said.
“The mood is different now than let’s say a month ago. Because back then, we still had this feeling there was a possibility to negotiate, to discuss and debate with the regime,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Monday.
In the short run, the sanctions are likely to push Lukashenko closer to his main patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who helps subsidize the Belarusian state by selling it discounted oil and natural gas. The Belarusian leader has long oscillated between the European Union and Russia, playing the two sides off each other and favoring closer ties with whichever one offers the more attractive options at any given moment.
Putin considers keeping Belarus in Russia’s orbit vital to national security interests. But he appears to have little attachment to Lukashenko, an unpredictable leader who has resisted Russian efforts to draw Belarus into ever-closer integration. European leaders say they hope the sanctions will drive up the cost of Russia’s support for Lukashenko to unsustainable levels. But there is also a risk, some of them acknowledge, that Putin could simply pull the plug on his counterpart in Minsk and swap in a proxy leader who would be even more Russia-aligned.
The forcing down of the passenger jet shocked Western policymakers and broke precedent by using airspace to target a government critic. Few expected that any flight — let alone a tourist-heavy one ferrying home vacationers from the capital of one NATO nation to another — could become a target. Lukashenko’s opponent in the 2020 elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said she had flown the same route from Lithuania to Greece just a week before Protasevich was targeted.