As migrants camped out in the woods prepared for another night of sub-zero temperatures, the Estonian foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, on Tuesday revealed to an evening news programme the gist of what Alexander Lukashenko demanded of Angela Merkel in the first call between a European leader and Belarus’s dictator in more than a year.
“He wants the sanctions to be halted, [and] to be recognised as head of state so he can continue,” she said he told Merkel.
It was never much of a secret what Lukashenko wanted, but indications of an effective quid pro quo proposed to the German leader are nonetheless stunning. Even more surprising are the lengths that Lukashenko had gone to deliver that message.
In the last year, the Belarusian leader has gone from something of a nuisance on Europe’s borders to a far greater threat, one who grounds Ryanair flights or engineers migrant crises on Europe’s borders on a whim. And yet, Lukashenko appears to remain convinced that his best way out of trouble is to escalate further, desperate to resume contact with Europe by becoming ever more repellant.
To a certain degree, he can claim to have succeeded. Merkel called Lukashenko for a second time on Wednesday. His press service said that the two sides had agreed to hold direct talks with the EU on solving the crisis and that Merkel had passed on a request from the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, to allow international organisations to provide aid.
This is the kind of attention that Lukashenko, who has been blacklisted since he brutally crushed his opposition in 2020, has craved. (His spokesperson has denied that he brought up sanctions or his recognition as president during the talks.) The talks have riled top officials in the governments of countries that border Lukashenko. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said he would not recognise any deals cut “over our heads”.
“No serious leader has spoken with Lukashenko so far,” he said, promising Poland would enforce its sovereignty “ruthlessly”.
But fundamentally, Lukashenko’s gambit has appeared a miscalculation. Europe has shown that it is ready to back Poland, despite concern over its extreme border measures, to show Minsk that it cannot be blackmailed. New sanctions have been confirmed that will drive Belarus further into isolation, leaving Putin as Lukashenko’s only real lifeline.
And European leaders will not be extorted to recognise a leader whose “gangster-style tactics” have created its worst border crisis in decades. “In our view, it is important that the European Union remains united and exerts its influence on Belarus through action,” said Liimets.
The Belarusian leader’s endgame remains opaque. “He is not afraid of deaths at the border,” noted a panel of experts from the European Council on Foreign Relations. “For him, this is about vengeance and is a matter of regime survival – meaning that he is ready to escalate further, and to seek Russia’s backing in the process.”
On Wednesday alone, Belarus said it would temporarily need to limit oil supplies to Poland and suspend electricity deliveries to Ukraine. The government has claimed both are due to technical issues.
On the other hand, it may be as good a time as any for him to declare victory. On Wednesday, the Kremlin hailed Lukashenko’s talks with Merkel, calling them “very important”. Belarus’s main press agency has crowed about the new talks with Brussels, despite a lack of confirmation from European officials.
And in the past day, Belarus has begun housing as many as 1,000 migrants in a transport and logistics facility, allowing state and foreign journalists to film officials delivering asylum-seekers a hot meal delivered by the same government that helped to engineer the crisis.
For a Belarusian leader deeper and deeper in disfavour, this may be as good as it gets.