Belarus: is the EU too cautious regarding Putin?

After weeks of protests following the Belarusian elections, Aleksander Lukashenka asked Russia for help. Putin has now set up a reserve force for the neighbouring country. Commentators fear a Russian invasion and demand that the EU take a more decisive stand to defend the Belarusian opposition against Kremlin intervention.

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La Stampa (IT) /

A country can only belong to the people

With his announcement of plans to set up a reserve police force for Belarus Putin has made his first statement on the situation in the neighbouring country. Europe must not abandon Belarus to its fate now, La Stampa warns:

“Sitting back and watching while an announced invasion is carried out means accepting a probable annexation. ... When Tikhanovskaya said in the European Parliament that this is neither an anti-Russian nor a pro-European protest, she did so in order not to anger Putin or frighten the Europeans, who shy away from challenging him. However, a country cannot belong to anyone except its people. And if this people wants more democracy, Europe cannot turn its back on them - unless it gives up on being Europe.”

El País (ES) /

Belarus is at the heart of Europe

Political scientist Carmen Claudín speculates in El País on whether Lukashenka's plea for help to Putin will lead to an invasion and how the European Union would have to respond:

“Does Russia really have to invade Belarus, since it already belongs to it? The Kremlin has been subsidising and controlling the Belarusian economy for years ... ... Russia's influence is also very powerful in other areas, because of the use of the Russian language, control of the media and the prevalence of the Soviet mentality. ... The European Union currently has little room for manoeuvre beyond a policy of targeted sanctions and backing civil society and the opposition. However, Moscow takes it for granted that Europe has no voice or vote in this matter. ... Brussels must neither accept nor allow this, especially since this is about a country that is at the heart of the European continent.”

Lrytas (LT) /

A mistaken "Russia first" policy

Petras Vaitiekūnas, former Lithuanian ambassador to Ukraine and Belarus, criticises in Lrytas the primacy of Russian interests in Western foreign policy:

“Although mistaken, this flawed 'Russia first' paradigm has dominated Europe and the West for three decades now, ever since the collapse of the USSR. And the consequences are clear for all to see: Russia's war in Ukraine, borders redrawn by brute force, territories torn off Georgia and Moldova - Russia no longer knows any boundaries. And if Russia wins in Belarus, its empire will continue to expand. But if Ukraine and Belarus achieve success, it will mean a collapse of the megalomaniac 'Russkij Mir' idea ['Russian world', a cultural concept from an ideology which is used to legitimise Russian influence in post-Soviet territories] and of the Putin regime, and with it Russia's first step towards democracy.”

Magyar Hírlap (HU) /

Restraint is the responsible approach here

The EU must take a cautious approach in dealing with the situation in Belarus:

“We remember well how the heroes of the Maidan in 2014 were celebrated in the European Parliament. People only wanted to see the positive aspects. ... But back then, the less likeable, nationalist political forces made headway, half the country became mired in war and chaos and economic collapse ensued. ... Many different geopolitical interests are clashing. The common purpose should be to strive for stability. By no means must the EU act irresponsibly and on the basis of individual players' interests.”

Die Welt (DE) /

Time to reassure Moscow

Die Welt ponders how the EU can allay Putin's fear that a democratic Belarus would follow Ukraine and depart from Russia's orbit:

“It's time for Europe to send its 'foreign minister' Josep Borrell or a special envoy to Moscow. That person should conduct talks with the Kremlin to reassure the Russian government that the European Union recognises Moscow's geostrategic sphere of interests and would not admit a democratic Belarus to the web of Western alliances. Instead, a free and democratic Belarus should be granted the status Finland had during the Cold War: internally free, but bound to neutrality in foreign policy.”

NRC Handelsblad (NL) /

Putin must be on board

NRC Handelsblad also stresses the importance of Moscow's role:

“Once again we see the classical image of the EU as a dog that barks, but can't and won't bite. ... As to that, Europe has learned from Ukraine. When the EU enthusiastically took Ukraine in its arms and a part of the country sought to seal its independence from the Soviet Union with EU membership, this had the opposite effect. ... After all, changes in the country cannot take place without the Kremlin's consent. If the European Union really wants to see changes in Belarus, the leaders of the EU will have to speak with Russian President Putin first.”

Kleine Zeitung (AT) /

Too much credibility has been lost

Die Kleine Zeitung does not consider the EU's appeals credible:

“Lukashenka's repressive post-Stalinist regime has a sadistic quality. That is why it is right for the EU to urge him to step down and to call for a transition to democracy in Belarus. Yet the reason why this policy's prospects for success are so meagre is also that lately the EU has increasingly failed to base its actions on its values. He who not only tolerates a hybrid, semi-democratic regime such as Viktor Orbán's Hungary, but also props it up with hundreds of billions of euros, will lose credibility in the long run. Incidentally, this is also true of German policy towards Eastern Europe, with Nord Stream as a prime example of this. ... In any case, the Belarusians have good reasons not to wave EU flags in their current revolt for freedom, as the Ukrainians did on the Maidan.”

Pravda (SK) /

Belarusians are being abandoned

Clearly, the expectations for the EU summit were too high, Pravda writes:

“For the EU, Lukashenko is not the legitimate head of state. But he has not been asked to pack his bags by the highest representatives of the member states. ... The prevailing opinion seems to be that the Belarusians must be supported - also financially - but at the same time it's mainly up to them to solve the situation in the country. ... The EU is clearly trying to avoid turning Belarus into a conflict between itself and Russia. But what if Lukashenko finds a way to stay in power? What if he manages to at least partially suppress the protests using violence and political tricks? Will the EU then be prepared to tell him more clearly that his time is up?”

Rzeczpospolita (PL) /

The Merkel-Macron-Putin pact

Rzeczpospolita sees the EU's strategy as cynical:

“As always when it comes to a country close to Russia, the powerful in the West consider Moscow's welfare but at the same time threaten it a little so that the people in their own countries also feel comfortable. ... Right now it looks as if we will be following the usual plan in the case of Belarus: we leave our neighbour in the care of Moscow in order to ensure that there is no invasion, occupation or murdering of Belarusians on the streets or in the prisons. This is the Merkel-Macron-Putin Pact.”

The Daily Telegraph (GB) /

Western Europe doesn't see Eastern Europe as its equal

The Daily Telegraph explains its theory as to why in the EU is not giving the democratic movement in Belarus more support:

“Western Europe doesn’t view its central and eastern partners as equals - not even the ones it has let into its club. ... Instead, they are people in need of firm governance by strongmen, beyond the help of the enlightened, whose state of existence, though not of their own making, cannot be overcome. ... If Belarus is to really emerge from its long winter, it needs that attitude abroad to change. Until then, it will remain firmly in the grip of thugs, acting not as a functioning state but as a buffer between East and West, and providing an ominous reminder to the European states in the Baltic just how isolated they are.”

L'Echo (BE) /

Soft power cannot be relied upon

Although the European Council has announced sanctions against those responsible for violence, repression and electoral fraud, the EU is not taking a clear position on Lukashenko, L'Echo notes:

“It seems incapable of saying whether the president himself will be on the list. So up to now the Europeans have acted with a certain amount of ambiguity towards him, and he is committed to Moscow. Could the autocrat still save face in a political transition? At any rate, the 27 have called on 'the Belarusian leadership' to 'find a way out of the crisis' by ending the violence and opening an inclusive national dialogue. This is not the EU chiming in with the workers in Minsk shouting 'Step down!' at the president, who has refused to be weakened. As always, the EU is using its soft power, the effectiveness of which varies greatly.” (DE) /

A clear message to the demonstrators

In contrast, is pleased about the outcome of the emergency summit, as the EU hasn't given Putin any excuse for intervention:

“Any appearance of direct interference in Belarus was avoided. The diplomats worked on the summit declaration until the very end, fine-tuned the wording and deleted anything that could have given the Kremlin cause to step in with its military to resolve the crisis in the neighbouring republic. ... The Europeans have resisted the temptation to put on a show of strength to the rulers in Moscow and Minsk and instead sent a clear message to the people of Belarus. The message is: Europe's leaders stand united on the side of the peaceful demonstrators, they condemn the brutal violence of the security forces. ... These are just words for now, of course. But anyone who calls this half-hearted must say what the alternative should be.”