Belarusian-American Relations: In freefall

Anton Penkovsky


The entire year 2021 was marked by a deterioration of the Belarus – U. S. relationship. The new Administration in the White House took a tougher stance on the Lukashenko regime. Minsk completely abandoned its pragmatic line in relations with the United States in favor of a one-sided orientation to Russia, and, for the first time in a long while, chose to pointedly aggravate relations with America.

Sanctions and asymmetric responses have brought the Minsk-Washington relationship to its lowest point ever. The U. S. diplomatic presence in Belarus was put in question, while mutual understanding and cooperation was reduced to a minimum. Normalization and return to a pragmatic dialogue became impossible, as the Belarusian leadership was no longer perceived as a legitimate and independent actor. In the meantime, the U. S. began actively supporting the Belarusian democratic forces in exile.


New Administration with less patience

The year began with a rotation of the officials involved in building bilateral relations. In January, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Kravchenko, who was in charge of the North American region in the Foreign Ministry, and was expected to be appointed Belarus’ ambassador to the United States, was replaced by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Aleinik, who passed away in January before departing to Washington.

Changes were much more significant in the United States. Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States, and took over from the Donald Trump Administration. Experienced diplomat and strategist Anthony Blinken headed up the U. S. Department of State. Personnel reshuffles took place in the Department of State as well, but Julie Fischer, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, remained the first U. S. ambassador to Belarus since 2008, and was supposed to arrive in the country soon.

During the first months of the year, the U. S. repeatedly stated its opinion on the situation in Belarus, in particular, the infringement of the freedom of speech, arrests of journalists and trials of civil society activists. The U. S. permanent representative to the OSCE devoted his speeches to the developments in Belarus more and more often.

The United States paid much attention to the growing number of political prisoners in Belarus. Diplomats attended trials in Minsk and other cities, but the Belarusian authorities soon deprived them of this opportunity. In March, the U. S. State Department awarded the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award to jailed Maria Kolesnikova, highlighting the role of women’s leadership during the events of 2020.

On April 19, the U. S. Treasury Department in coordination with the State Department revoked the licenses issued to U. S. entities and individuals back in 2015 and extended annually since then to conduct some transactions with nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises subject to sanctions, Belneftekhim state petrochemical concern among them.1 Previously, the sanctions were suspended when Belarusian political prisoners were released, and Minsk showed some progress in the field of human rights. This reasoning became irrelevant in 2021, so it was prescribed to terminate economic relations with Belarusian counterparts within 45 days.

The “small steps policy” in Belarus – U. S. relations, which had been pursued for five years, was over due to the events of spring 2021 in Belarus. The Democratic Party in the person of President Biden and the Congress majority remained much less tolerant of suppression of the freedom of speech and reprisals against journalists than the Republicans. The U. S. resolutely condemned the closure of portal on May 18.

Five days later, the forced redirection of the Ryanair flight FR4978 to the Minsk airport and the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich brought about new restrictive measures against Belarus. The United States stopped referring to the Belarusian leadership as “government”, calling it either vaguely “the authorities of Belarus” or “the Lukashenko regime”. Seconded by the European Union, the U. S. pushed for the international isolation of Belarus even harder, as White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki stated on May 28. Economic sanctions came into force on June 3 after the expiration of the 45-day period.

Throughout the year, the Belarusian authorities put pressure on the U. S. embassy and the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office in retaliation for what was perceived as U. S. government’s hostile actions. On June 4, Belarus notified the U. S. of restrictions on the work of U. S. diplomatic and technical staff of the U. S. embassy in Minsk, which, basically, showed that the country’s leadership had no other arguments in dialogue with Washington except for limiting the U. S. diplomatic presence.

The parties still had not exchanged ambassadors. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry was in no hurry to appoint a new ambassador to the United States to replace Kravchenko. The MFA denied visa to Ambassador Fischer, yet did not revoke her agrément. Belarusian state propagandists not only demonized some American officials in every possible way, but also accused the U. S. of coup attempts in Belarus, pressure on the country, posing a military threat, making attempts to destabilize the region, and even of its involvement in the preparation of Lukashenko’s assassination and capture of his family.

Regime pushed aside. Priority given to democratic forces

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who assumed the role of the leader of the democratic forces of Belarus, visited the United States capital in mid-July. U. S. officials no longer had interaction points with Minsk, so contacts with the democratic forces as representatives of the people of Belarus intensified. Tikhanovskaya met with President Biden, the secretary of state, senators, members of the Congress, and a number of officials of various levels. Representatives of the American political establishment declared their full support for Tikhanovskaya and the people of Belarus.

The regime’s response to that visit was rather erratic. Judging by the comments that followed, the degree of America’s willingness to publicly support the Belarus democratic community was largely misestimated. Lukashenko looked disgruntled. He awkwardly joked about Biden “serving cookies” to Tikhanovskaya, and accused the U. S. President of short-sightedness.2

On August 9, the anniversary of the rigged 2020 presidential election in Belarus, the U. S. President extended the state of emergency declared by Executive Order 13405 of June 16, 2006 (to block the property of the individuals who undermine democratic processes or institutions in Belarus). According to the Order, the restrictions were imposed on the officials, heads and top executives of the political institutions that damaged the sovereignty and security of Belarus, violated human rights, and were involved in election fraud and corruption.3

Two days later, Minsk responded by banning new U. S. government programs in Belarus (this did not apply to ongoing projects), demanded that the number of American diplomats in Minsk be reduced to five by September 1, and revoked Ambassador Fisher’s agrément. It was just a formality for the ambassador, as nobody believed in August that she would be allowed to go to Minsk anyway, which would mean that the United States had recognized the Lukashenko Administration’s legitimacy. A little later, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said that given the sanctions, he saw no sense in sending an ambassador of Belarus to the United States, although there was a candidate for this position.

In October, Julie Fischer was given the status of a U. S. special envoy for Belarus, and headed the Belarus Affairs Unit in Vilnius, while retaining the diplomatic rank of ambassador. This promoted the United States’ contacts with the exiled Belarusian democrats (represented primarily by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Office) even more.

In response to the summer restriction on the number of U. S. diplomats in Minsk, the United States demanded that Belarus reduce its diplomatic presence in the United States as well, in particular, by closing the Consulate General in New York. The Belarusian leadership interpreted this as escalation, and demanded on October 20 the closure of the American Center in Minsk and the Public Affairs and USAID offices, and dismissal of around two dozen local employees.4

This step had no precedent in Belarusian-American relations. The Belarusian leadership stated that operations of the U. S. embassy in Minsk were no longer desirable. For the regime and its propaganda, the closure of the embassy was only a symbolic victory, as no really sensitive retaliatory measures against the United States were possible. At the same time, the termination of USAID projects in the fields of health care, COVID-19 response, academic, professional, and cultural exchanges, preservation of the historical and cultural heritage of Belarus, and the closure of the All About the USA partner centers in the regions, affected Belarusian civil society. The pressure on the U. S. diplomatic mission is generally in line with Russia’s policy towards the U. S. Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s statements on this topic are made as comments to the Russian media.

Nevertheless, the mutual trade turnover between the United States and Belarus increased significantly in 2021. In the first half of the year, the U. S. moved up from the 10th to the 8th position on the list of Belarus’ major trading partners. America’s share increased from 1.3% to 1.5% of the total turnover. This growth was interrupted in the middle of the year due to the resumption of the U. S. sanctions.

The mutual trade turnover increased in 2021 by 38.8% year on year to slightly over USD 1 billion, while exports of goods from Belarus to the U. S. rose by almost 150% (USD 491 million), the highest of the past 10 years.5 Imports of goods to Belarus decreased by 1.1% (USD 529 million). Exports of services to the U. S. stood at USD 1.51 billion, mainly thanks to the IT sector (89.8% of the total). Imports of services from the U. S. look insignificant, totaling USD 189.9 million.


The Lukashenko Administration has abandoned its long-standing policy of balancing between the U. S. and Russia’s interests in the region. Although the Belarusian Foreign Ministry was still trying to sell the argument “if you do not close your eyes to human rights violations, we would become totally dependent on Russia”, these tactics were applied rather out of habit, and did not correlate with the strategic decision of Minsk to completely follow the Kremlin’s lead.

The new Presidential Administration in Washington took an extremely tough stance on the regime in Belarus. The U. S. has actually recognized the inevitable role of the Lukashenko regime as a satellite of the Kremlin, and does not intend to make any more concessions on sanctions or other issues.

Even during the very difficult years in bilateral relations, the U. S. Department of State showed incredible patience, pragmatically assessing Belarus’ chances for reducing its dependence on Russia. In the current situation, the pragmatic approach dictates that the U. S. authorities should stop wasting time and energy on convincing Minsk to play nice. During the year, the sanctions on Belarus became much heavier. The new Belarus Democracy, Human Rights and Sovereignty Act of 2020 inherits the Act of 2004. However, the tools of the harshest economic coercion were still not applied in 2021.

It is noteworthy that the U. S. Department of State has intensified its cooperation with representatives of the Belarusian democratic forces in exile. Special Envoy Julie Fischer works from Vilnius, and the State Department clearly favors Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Office. It can be expected that efforts in this area will increase in proportion to the reduction in interaction with the Lukashenko Administration.

At the end of the year, the Belarus – U. S. relationship was at an extremely low point, from which it is unlikely to rise in the near future. Any noticeable changes for the better are only possible in case the democratic forces come to power in Belarus.

Washington will not resume dialogue with the incumbent Belarusian authorities any time soon. New economic sanctions will be applied in 2022, and for the once promising IT companies, their presence in Belarus will carry unreasonable risks. Sanctions will be used as a tool to increase the price of the Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko, rather than to influence the regime directly. The U. S. will discuss the fate of the Belarusian authorities without them.

December 26, 2021 was the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Belarus – U. S. official relations. On Christmas Day 1991, the United States became the second country after Ukraine to recognize the sovereignty of the young republic after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This anniversary went unnoticed in December 2021. The sovereignty of Belarus, apparently, raises great doubts in the United States. The Belarusian authorities are thus hardly in the mood to think about their unrealized ambitions in the international arena.