Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL’s newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.
I’m RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I’m drilling down on two major issues: the question of whether the EU should further sanction Belarus, and what to expect when European diplomats descend on Kyiv for a summit in early February.
Brief #1: How Far Will EU Sanctions On Belarus Go?
What You Need To Know: In early January, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU would soon come up with a new package of sanctions on Belarus to punish the country for supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine. No new proposals have yet to be introduced, even though the first talks among EU member states — known as “confessionals” — started over the weekend.
The working assumption among Brussels diplomats is that the new measures on Belarus will be part of the bloc’s 10th sanctions package on the Kremlin. It could be ready for approval around the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Belarus has long been targeted by various restrictive measures by the EU, starting with five separate sanctions packages slapped on Minsk after the crackdown on people protesting the fraudulent presidential election in August 2020 and, a year later, the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk to arrest a journalist, Raman Pratasevich, and his partner, Sofia Sapega.
The restrictive measures were further tightened after what the EU claimed to be the Belarusian authorities’ active participation in organizing illegal border crossings through Belarus to the EU of nationals from the Middle East and North Africa in late 2021.
These sanctions mainly included asset freezes and visa bans on up to 200 individuals, including the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and his inner circle. There have also been other measures, such as a ban on Belarusian airlines flying over EU airspace and landing at EU airports.
Deep Background: When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Brussels quickly acknowledged Minsk’s role and included Belarus in some of the first rounds of sanctions targeting the Kremlin — even though those measures were always tougher on Moscow. The EU moved to impose trade restrictions in industries such as wood, cement, iron and steel products, and rubber. Potash, one of Belarus’s main exports to Europe, was also targeted with the sanctioning of its biggest potash producer, Belaruskali.
On top of that, several Belarusian banks were hit, including the country’s central bank. It also became illegal in the EU to accept deposits exceeding 100,000 euros ($109,000) from Belarusian nationals or residents.
Yet, the last sanctions imposed by the EU on Belarus were in June 2022 and, since then, the bloc has enacted numerous other measures on Russia, including three additional rounds of sanctions. This despite calls from hawkish EU member states such as Lithuania and Poland that the measures against Moscow should be “mirrored” on Minsk.
- According to several diplomats familiar with the matter but who are not authorized to speak publicly, one of the reasons Belarus hasn’t been hit by sanctions in recent months is that Ukraine has asked Brussels not to target Minsk.
- While Kyiv has officially dismissed this theory, the logic is that Kyiv is wary of Belarus becoming more involved in the war and concerned about pushing Minsk further into Moscow’s corner. The desire not to antagonize Minsk, so the logic goes, also explains the reluctance of Ukrainian leaders to meet with Belarusian opposition figures.
- With that in mind, it is likely that the next round of EU sanctions on Belarus will be weak. More listings are certain, as is plugging certain holes in the current legislation. For example, while wood imports are now banned, wooden furniture is not. Synthetic rubber and various glass products have still not been targeted. There is also an extensive EU ban on member states exporting various items used for tobacco production in Belarus, even though some cigarette filters can still be sent from the EU.
- There are other potentially harder-hitting measures under consideration, including a ban on exporting luxury goods to Belarus and a prohibition on EU firms offering services such as accounting, auditing, tax consulting, and public relations. Broadcasters such as Belarus 24, RTR Belarus, and NTV Belarus could also be targeted and face similar measures to Russia’s RT and Sputnik: banning them from broadcasting within the EU and making their websites inaccessible.
- And if the EU really decided to crack down, the bloc could target Belarus’s telecommunications, computer, and IT sectors, which are some of Minsk’s main exports, worth an estimated $3 billion in 2021.
Brief #2: Looking Ahead To The EU-Ukraine Summit In Kyiv
What You Need To Know: In early February, many of the EU’s key players will descend on Kyiv.
Firstly, on February 2, von der Leyen will take the majority of her 26 commissioners to the Ukrainian capital to meet with the Ukrainian government. The next day is the annual EU-Ukraine summit, in which European Council President Charles Michel will accompany von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell — along with an enormous security detail.
The aim is for Brussels to show its support and solidarity with Ukraine, as the country is facing increased Russian attacks in the east, and to encourage Kyiv to continue the reforms needed for eventual membership in the EU.
Deep Background: The EU will bring to Kyiv some “deliverables,” even though many of them already will be announced by the time of the summit. The first tranche of 3 billion euros in macro-financial assistance to Ukraine was disbursed recently, with an additional 15 billion euros due in the course of 2023.
With stories about countries sending heavy weaponry dominating the news, the EU will also announce another 500 million euros of military support to Kyiv, bringing the total since the war began to 3.6 billion euros. In the grand scheme of things, it is not a huge amount, especially when compared to the United States’ spending of $27.5 billion. But considering that the EU money comes from the common coffers and that the union has never before directly armed a third country, it is significant, nonetheless.
Brussels also hopes that, by then, it can announce that 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been trained on EU territory since it launched a training program last fall across the bloc. https://www.rferl.org/a/wider-europe-jozwiak-eu-ukraine-military-kosovo-visas/32087041.html Then there’s the EU’s assistance for the estimated 8 million Ukrainians who have fled the country over the past year and are now living in the bloc. The Temporary Protection Directive — which allows them to stay and work in the EU — was recently extended to March 2024.
- Much of the run-up to the summit has already been dominated by EU officials haggling over the summit declaration. A draft of it, seen by RFE/RL, outlines a few more potential outcomes from the meeting. It notes, among other things, that the European Union and Ukraine will sign a memorandum of understanding on a strategic partnership on renewable gases, even though, as of now, no concrete details are provided.
- Another paragraph in the text advocates for Ukraine to join the EU’s roaming-free zone https://www.rferl.org/a/32129600.html by noting that “Ukraine welcomed the EU’s ongoing determination and efforts to include Ukraine in the European roaming area as soon as possible. The EU acknowledged the efforts that Ukraine has made in aligning its telecommunications sector with European provisions and encouraged the country to continue on this path.”
- According to sources familiar with the discussions but who aren’t allowed to speak on the record, the biggest fight among diplomats, regarding the draft summit declaration, has been about Ukraine’s EU membership perspective, with the three Baltic states and Poland pushing for language that would indicate to Kyiv that its membership application can be sped up.
- In the end, the vast majority of EU member states have pushed back against that fast track and would prefer to stick with the already agreed upon “choreography” — meaning that the European Commission will provide everyone with an update on how Ukraine is doing, in terms of fulfilling the seven requirements that Brussels set in order to start EU accession talks. And then, in October, the assessment and further recommendations would be published.
- It is, of course, impossible to predict if the commission will recommend that accession talks start soon and if EU member states will, by the end of 2023, unanimously endorse such a recommendation. Speaking to EU officials familiar with the matter, they believe that the best-case scenario for Ukraine would be to start EU accession talks in late 2024 or even early 2025.
- The officials note that Ukraine has made good progress in enacting a new media law and pushing forward with key nominations on the country’s Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. More needs to be done, though, in other judicial areas, with the draft declaration stating that “reform of the Constitutional Court and the selection procedure of politically independent and qualified constitutional judges, remains vital for strengthening Ukraine’s resilience.”
EU foreign ministers gather in Brussels on January 23, and one of the decisions they are set to take will be to green-light a new civilian EU mission to Armenia. The EU employed 40 observers in Armenia between October and December 2022, but the idea now is to have a larger mission (around 100 people) ready to start in February that will cover the whole (de facto) territory of Armenia for two years. According to an EU document seen by RFE/RL, the mission should play “a significant role in supporting efforts toward the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
And last but not least, there’s likely to be plenty of talk this week about price caps. Firstly, the EU and countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States will review the price cap on Russian crude oil that was set at $60 per barrel in early December. Considering that the current market price is lower than $50, there might be a push to lower that cap. From February 5, there will also be a new price cap introduced — with the price still to be set — on other Russian petroleum products such as diesel and kerosene.
That’s all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at [email protected].
Until next time,
If you enjoyed this briefing and don’t want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Monday.
And you can always reach us at [email protected].