Officials also caution that the crisis remains extremely fluid. Much will depend on how the protests evolve and how Lukashenko’s administration reacts. And EU officials are aware that their influence is limited, while other outside powers, principally Putin, can have a big say in the outcome. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel all spoke separately by phone with Putin about the crisis on Tuesday.
“It’s more a question of support [for the Belarusian people] rather than intervening,” said an EU diplomat, summing up the bloc’s position.
Wednesday’s videoconference is intended as a statement in itself. It is rare for EU leaders to hold a meeting where the agenda consists of one foreign policy issue. (Something similar happened in March 2014, when leaders discussed the revolution in Ukraine. That crisis, to which Russia responded with military action, is at the front of many minds this time around, even though many officials stress that Belarus now is quite different from Ukraine six years ago.)
The leaders are expected to endorse the view expressed by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Friday, after a meeting with the bloc’s foreign ministers, that the election in Belarus was “neither free nor fair.” At that meeting, the ministers agreed — rather quickly, by EU standards — to set in motion plans to sanction those responsible for violence and election fraud. The leaders are expected to give their backing to that move, and a provisional list of sanctions could be ready next week, according to officials.
“They are expected to back what the foreign ministers decided — it’s a message at a different level, it has another kind of relevance,” said the EU diplomat.
During a meeting of EU ambassadors on Tuesday afternoon, some potential issues emerged including Cyprus potentially linking measures against Belarus to new sanctions on Turkey over its drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, although diplomats said they expect this to be a problem for the future and not for the summit.
Diplomats and officials are hoping the crisis can be resolved primarily within Belarus. In her phone call with Putin, Merkel called for Lukashenko’s government to “engage in a national dialogue with opposition and society.”
Whether the longtime leader nicknamed Europe’s last dictator is willing to heed that call remains to be seen.
EU diplomats and officials have also been discussing other possible measures, such as some kind of diplomatic mission to try to assist political dialogue. But even that carries risks. Officials fear it could be used as a ploy by Lukashenko to buy time and they worry that direct EU involvement could be played up by others as evidence of a foreign plot.
“We have to be very careful” not to be seen as “part of the game,” since that would fuel conspiracy theories put about by Lukashenko’s camp, said a senior EU official. The EU is preparing for a range of scenarios, the official said, “including an ugly, very drawn-out one.”
Foreign policy chief Borrell has suggested he could go to Belarus but that idea has yet to find widespread approval, according to two officials. An official at the EU’s foreign policy arm said Borrell “can take initiatives in this regard,” but “conditions are not right at the moment for him to undertake any concrete steps as President Lukashenko denies they need such a dialogue.”
Rather than the EU, the onus for some kind of mission could fall on the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which both Belarus and Russia are members.
Officials have also discussed increasing financial support to civil society in Belarus. A Lithuanian idea to set up a fund to support victims of repression in Belarus is under consideration.
But the EU already pours significant sums into civil society in Belarus. In recent years, EU assistance to Belarus has doubled to around €30 million annually as long-frosty relations between the two sides warmed.
In 2016, after Belarus released a number of political prisoners, the EU decided to drop most of its sanctions on Belarus and senior officials including Lukashenko himself. But the bloc still has some sanctions in place, including an arms embargo.
The big question for many EU officials is how Putin decides to play his hand. Although the Russian leader spoke to both Macron and Merkel, the Kremlin sent signals it was not thrilled by their involvement. In a statement, it stressed the call with Merkel was an “initiative of the German side” and that Moscow “emphasized the unacceptability of any attempts to interfere from the outside.”
The bet of many diplomats and analysts is that, unlike in Ukraine, Putin will not send in Russian forces this time around. Given Lukashenko’s deep unpopularity, such a move would carry significant risks.
“We don’t know what Russia is going to do … but militarily it is very hard to see Russia supporting Lukashenko,” said Judy Dempsey, an analyst at the Carnegie Europe think tank. “It would be unbelievably counterproductive.”
A senior EU diplomat said that after Lukashenko spoke to Putin a few days ago, Belarusian officials had the impression Moscow was ready to provide military support. But, the diplomat added, “that’s not my interpretation.”
Yet the situation on the ground could change, officials warn. And if Russia were to intervene, it would present a major test for the EU, with at least some member countries sure to be reluctant to impose further sanctions on Moscow.
“It would be hardly possible to agree on full sanctions, for example stopping buying Russian gas,” argued a third diplomat.
Germany’s role in the EU’s response to the crisis is likely to be key, due to its economic power, its current position holding the presidency of the Council of the EU and its role as a bridge between East and West. One German diplomat said Berlin is still examining options but is wary of going too far and provoking some kind of Russian reaction.
Andrew Gray, Miles Herszenhorn and Matthew Karnitschnig contributed reporting