U.S. sanctions against Belarus, calls Putin ally Lukashenko 'fraudulent' leader

U.S. sanctions against Belarus, calls Putin ally Lukashenko ‘fraudulent’ leader

The Biden administration leveled economic sanctions against a slate of individuals and entities tied to the government of Belarus on Wednesday, timing the move to mark the anniversary of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko “fraudulent” re-election three years ago.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, claimed victory in a widely-discredited election in 2020, cracking down on top opposition figures and regime critics after the vote set off massive popular demonstrations and international criticism.

“Since 2020, the Lukashenko regime has repressed Belarusian citizens, arrested peaceful protesters and community leaders, cracked down on opposition groups and civil society organizations, and subjected those detained to sham trials, all to maintain Lukashenko’s illegitimately acquired authority,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing the sanctions.

“The United States will continue to support the people of Belarus in their pursuit of a democratic future in free Belarus where human rights are respected,” Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and long known by critics as “Europe’s last dictator,” refused to leave office in 2020 after an election that most international observers said was won by pro-democracy activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya fled the country shortly after the vote and was later sentenced by the regime in absentia to 15 years in prison.

U.S. officials sharply criticized the election at the time, as well as an aggressive crackdown that the Lukashenko government engaged in after the vote, jailing thousands who had flooded the streets in several Belarusian cities calling for the autocratic leader’s ouster.

Shunned by the West, Mr. Lukashenko has moved closer to Mr. Putin and strongly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Belarusian leader helped defuse the June insurrection by Russian Wagner Group mercenaries against Mr. Putin.

In early 2023, meanwhile, Mr. Putin announced that Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a move widely seen as a provocation toward Europe amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Thursday’s sanctions announcement by the State Department said eight individuals and five entities were being targeted for “enabling Lukashenko’s domestic repression and facilitating Russia’s war against Ukraine.”

Visa restrictions were also announced against “101 regime officials and their affiliates for undermining or harming democratic institutions in Belarus, including several judges responsible for issuing politically-motivated sentences against Belarusans for exercising their fundamental freedoms.”

The U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees sanctions against foreign targets, said the measures were also aimed at individuals involved in the “enrichment” of Mr. Lukashenko’s “repressive” regime. A Treasury press release said that as a result of the actions announced Wednesday, “all property and interests” that those targeted have in the United States or in possession or control of U.S. persons are now “blocked.”

The impact of such sanctions, which some U.S. national security analysts describe as largely symbolic, can be difficult to gauge.