The Biden administration announced it would re-impose sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises and is developing additional penalties to target officials in the administration of President Alexander Lukashenko over the forced landing of a Ryanair Holdings Plc jetliner and the arrest of a dissident journalist.
The administration has also issued a "Do Not Travel" warning to American citizens urging them to steer clear of Belarus, and issued a notice to American pilots to "exercise extreme caution" when considering flying in Belarusian airspace, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Friday night.
The Treasury Department is also crafting an executive order that will "provide the United States increased authorities to impose sanctions on elements of the Lukashenko regime, its support network, and those that support corruption, the abuse of human rights, and attacks on democracy," Psaki said.
"Belarus's forced diversion of a commercial Ryanair flight under false pretenses, traveling between two member states of the European Union, and the subsequent removal and arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian journalist, are a direct affront to international norms," Psaki said in the statement.
Belarus earlier this week forced the landing of a jetliner carrying Pratasevich, a Belarusian journalist and outspoken critic of the Lukashenko regime, as it was traveling between Greece and Lithuania. Pratasevich, 26, has been detained in Minsk alongside his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, despite international demands for their release.
European Union officials on Thursday detailed plans for their own sanctions against Belarus that would hit economic sectors close to Lukashenko, including the country's potash industry. Those are likely to have a greater effect than the penalties announced by the White House; US trade with Belarus amounted to only about $112 million in 2020, according to the US Census Bureau.
The announcement came after some lawmakers earlier this week called for the Federal Aviation Administration to fully prohibit US aircraft from entering Belarus air space after the episode. The US is suspending its discretionary application of the 2019 US-Belarus Air Services Agreement, the White House said.
The FAA on Friday urged flight crews operating over Belarus to exercise "extreme caution," but stopped short of a ban on overflights of the region. The European Union's air-safety regulator has advised airlines to avoid Belarus airspace.
Russia has backed Lukashenko over the past quarter century, including during a brutal crackdown on the opposition last year, even as he resisted Moscow's push for closer economic and political union. He has been deft at playing off the EU and Russia against each other to retain his independence, but now the Kremlin sees an opportunity to lure the country into its orbit.
President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania, which borders Belarus, told Bloomberg TV Friday that Russia intends to exploit the crisis. "There are efforts of the Russian government to swallow Belarus as an independent state," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is to meet with President Joe Biden in Geneva next month, played host to Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, warmly greeting him on Friday.
"I'm very happy to see you," Putin said, agreeing as Lukashenko belittled Western criticism of the airliner incident as "a surge of emotions."