The European Union (EU) last week adopted its fourth and most far-reaching sanctions package against Belarus a month after it hijacked a Ryanair flight to arrest a journalist. The bloc added 78 public officials, including judges, investigators, propaganda journalists, and even university rectors, to the already large list (88 people) of representatives of the Aliaksandr Lukashenka regime. Collectively, they are viewed as directly responsible for the flood of repression that has swept the country since last August’s fraudulent presidential election.

The sanctions impose a freeze on the individuals’ assets in the EU and ban them from entry. In addition, eight more companies closely associated with the regime are also targeted, joining seven firms already sanctioned.

Yet the bloc went much further, through unprecedented sectoral sanctions. These were expected to deal a serious blow to Belarus’ economic relations with the EU, affecting, among other things, elements of Belarus’ trade in potash, oil, tobacco, and arms. The EU intended to send a double-signal — to the Lukashenka regime to stop repressing civil society at home, and to the world’s other autocrats that hijacking planes carrying dissidents (the target, in this case, was Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich) would not be tolerated.

Yet the details of the EU decision reveal that it has opted for a more cautious approach than initially appeared, intending to intensify the sanctions gradually, and thereby send a “last warning” to the regime in Belarus, rather than exposing it to concrete coercive action now. For example, the sanctions omit the potash fertilizer category, Belarus’ main potash export component, whilst the restrictions on other exports do not affect existing contracts (and their potential future addenda). This means that the sanctions will have no effect at least until the end of the year and in some cases until 2023. Similarly, despite the tough wording, the financial sanctions in practice formalize the already existing de-facto ban for Belarus to the European financial markets.

Hence the immediate effect of the new sectoral sanctions will be significantly milder than initially thought. The Belarusian regime is celebrating a victory. After weeks of bravado on how the Belarusian economy was braced to overcome the EU’s “unprecedented illegitimate pressure,” Belarus’ state-owned media have quickly switched to mocking the EU’s “powerlessness and inability to inflict any serious damage.” The reserved approach will certainly grant the regime time to prepare — expect new gray schemes and smuggling avenues to the EU to emerge, whilst also widening domestic corruption.

Belarusian civil society is somewhat disappointed. It believes that the absence of strong and decisive action by the EU to date has unintentionally exacerbated domestic repression, as the regime has used it also as a way to retaliate. Indeed, since the last package of EU sanctions was adopted in December, the number of political prisoners has doubled to over 500, more human lives have been lost, and the ferocious tightening of the legal framework to outlaw dissent has continued unabated.

On the other hand, the practicalities of the EU decision are understandable — the termination of existing contracts may entail legal disputes and high fines for European firms. The EU is also seeking to retain some tools for future action. Once the sanctions do come into force (provided the regime does not change its behavior), they will still have an enormous impact on the Belarusian economy — an estimated 5-10% of GDP.

For example, pre-pandemic, Belarus’ exports in oil and oil products, most of which goes to the EU, the UK, and Ukraine (it is unclear whether the last two countries will join the sanctions program) accounted for 16% of all Belarus’ exports, or $7bn — compared with Belarus’ $15bn of national budgetary income. Although potash makes up around 9% of total exports, and only 10% of it is sold to the EU, the sanctions will also hit potash shipments, which will no longer be accepted at the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda.

It is inevitable that the sanctions will push Belarus towards Russia, as the regime will beg the Kremlin for more help to overcome the consequences. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will, however, push his own line — he will likely promise support and happily act on those aspects that may be to his own regime’s benefit (e.g. setting up new intermediary firms for Belarusian companies hit by the sanctions.) But direct financial assistance on a big scale, as Lukashenka wants, is less likely. Since last August’s election, Lukashenka has gone to see Putin five times, with talks lasting for five hours on each occasion, and yet, after all, Russia has given Belarus just over $1bn — much less than it needs, even without the new sanctions. Moreover, Russia’s Rosneft (controlled by oligarch Igor Sechin, who is close to Putin), which had been supplying oil to the Belarusian Naftan refinery, appears now to have pulled back following recent U.S. sanctions against Belarus.

The question at stake is what effect the sanctions will have on repression and the political crisis in Belarus? Raman Pratasevich and his Russian partner Sofia Sapega were transferred from prison to house arrest on the same day the sanctions were adopted. But house arrest is not freedom. Those under house arrest are confined and live with security agents under the same roof and are deprived of any communication with the outside world.

The EU has managed to overcome disagreements and demonstrated unity in its decisions on Belarus. Demanding a new presidential election is unrealistic, but the EU can insist that all political prisoners are released and broader political repression be halted in return for lifting or easing of sanctions.

Releasing such heavyweights as Marya Kalesnikava, Siarhei Tsikhanousky, and Viktar Babaryka (who, according to an April opinion poll, remains the most popular presidential candidate, with 34% popular support) would swiftly mobilize society and give the united opposition the opportunity to press the regime for a realistic transition plan. Stopping the persecution of civil society will also help it to self-organize into action.