By Peter Tase
On December 2nd, 2021, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), designated 20 individuals and 12 entities and identified three aircraft as blocked property pursuant to Executive Orders (E.O.) 14038 and 13405. These actions were taken in “response to the Lukashenka regime’s blatant disregard for international norms and the wellbeing of its own citizens.” Lukashenka’s persons designated by Washington have facilitated the regime’s migrant smuggling into the European Union (EU), have taken part in the ongoing crackdown on human rights and democracy, and have financially bolstered the regime.
Despite these actions taken by the US Treasury, Biden administration blatantly failed to rally its European Allies to reinforce US sanctions in their respective territories; Belarus’ neighboring governments in the Baltics, especially Lithuania, is applying an ambiguous role and pursuing underhand tactics every time when Washington’s sanctions affect Vilnius’ short sighted economic interests.
Although in December 2021, Washington imposed sanctions against Belarus,
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė has taken a soft approach towards these sanctions and continues to allow exports of Belarusian potassium hydroxide shipments to pass through her country and reach international markets. Šimonytė’s somewhat strong public rhetoric and demagogy on this matter, has bought her time in the eyes of US Foreign Policy leadership, however the Biden – Harris Administration has failed to pressure the Government of Lithuania to further reinforce Washington’s sanctions and deliver concrete actions that would benefit Poland and the entire EU community.
The US Treasury has done its part, unfortunately it is premature to ascertain the results and outcomes of these actions knowing that Biden’s administration has not followed up, nor pressured the Lithuanian authorities to act quickly and exert further pressure against Minsk.
Conversely, President Lukashenka has overpowered Washington’s diplomatic efforts in Central Europe, by deeply pressuring the U. S. State Department to fire twenty locally hired staff in October 2021. According to Julie Fisher, the U.S. envoy to Belarus: “These actions reflect the Belarusian authorities’ deep insecurities about the role of diplomacy, people-to-people ties, and independent civil society.” Certainly, the relations between Washington and Minsk are at their lowest levels in decades; however sanctions imposed by the Biden – Harris administration must be a top priority and geographic proximity of Lithuania in serving as the beach head of Belarus, is a strategic component for Washington to reach successful results from its highly advertised sanctions.
The U. S. State Department has failed to pressure Lithuania to stop aiding and supporting Lukashenka’s regime in its international exports ventures.
The interest of the White House to maintain a normalizing path of relations with Belarus, is strongly intertwined with its ability to reinforce sanctions with the help of its NATO allies in the Baltics, especially Lithuania, a government that openly supports US foreign policy in its public discourse, but fails to take concrete actions on pressing issues that affect its national security and EU economic stability.
The essence of upholding democratic values and human rights in Belarus, are the successful implementation of U. S. economic sanctions against Lukashenka’s cronies, in the Baltics and beyond. It takes special skills and a creative leadership to officially pressure Lithuania in taking concrete actions in favor of these sanctions.
The U. S. containment policy has proved to be futile and a greater presence of US diplomats in the Baltics and Central Europe is tantamount to securing collection of highly valuable human intelligence in defense of US National Interests across the Atlantic. A special focus must be directed towards Lithuania, as Washington aims to further obstruct, limit the international financial activities of Minsk. As a country with geographic connection to Belarus, Lithuania is serving as a haven territory for Lukashenka’s autocratic regime to conduct all its business affairs and illicit financial activities.
Lithuania’s transition to vibrant, free-market democracy in the Baltics and Central Europe, has been increasingly supported by the US government; however, its government has been reluctant to take serious steps towards controlling the exports’ operation lines of Belarus that are taking place in its territory.
Washington’s disregard of Lithuania’s geographic proximity and its leaders’ active role towards indulging Belarusian oligarchy in Vilnius, has shown serious consequences, ineffective results, in the process of implementation of its recent financial sanctions imposed against Lukashenka.
Trade cooperation between Lithuania and Belarus is among the strongest in Europe, the former becoming the main source of Belarus’ economic growth. In 2019, services’ sector in Lithuania had grown up to USD 680 million and its main flow of human resources is Minsk.
Three years ago, Lithuania exported over USD 720 million in services to Belarus. Public officials continue with their business as usual thanks to the strategic support offered by Lithuania’s company: the transportation company Lietuvos Geležinkeliai (Lithuanian Railways) and the Klaipėdos Uostas (Port of Klaipėda). Therefore Belarus is using Lithuania’s territory to conduct uninterrupted business operations with the outside world: in 2019, almost 75 percent of total rail cargo – freight unloaded in Lithuania came from Belarus. In concept of cargo turnover in the Port of Klaipėda, cargo from Belarus comprises up to a third of its total amount.
The Biden White House must take immediate actions and tackle the Lithuania – Belarus connection if it really aspires to sanction and financially punish the key leaders of Minsk. Rescinding sanctions is just the beginning and Washington must take concrete steps to address seriously the geopolitical challenges that are emanating from the Minsk – Vilnius axis.