In Depth

Russia ‘wary’ of defending ally Belarus amid plane hijack row

Moscow on defensive as EU threatens economic sanctions against Minsk

The Kremlin has accused the UK of harbouring an “obsession” with Russia after Dominic Raab suggested that Moscow must have approved the forced landing of a Ryanair plane by Belarus.

A spokesperson for Vladimir Putin said the accusation was grounded in a “Russophobic obsession, an obsession with blaming Russia for everything and everyone”, adding: “It will probably soon come to the point that Russia is accused of the very fact of its own existence.”

Countries worldwide have condemned Belarus for “hijacking” the Ryanair flight on Sunday in order to arrest one of the passengers, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. But Russia’s response has been “muted”, says The Moscow Times - a reaction that analysts reportedly believe “speaks to the Kremlin’s ambivalent view of Belarus’s longtime strongman president Alexander Lukashenko, who is at once a beleaguered ally increasingly dependent on Moscow’s goodwill, and a troublesome partner”.

Air war

Lukashenko hit back at critics of his regime on Monday, after both the UK and the EU told airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. 

In what The Times describes as a “rambling address” to the Belarusian parliament, the president accused “ill-wishers from outside and inside the country” of changing “their methods of attacking our state”. 

“They have crossed many red lines and crossed the boundaries of common sense and human morality. They have moved from organising riots to the stage of strangulation,” he told lawmakers.

Belarus had no choice but to divert the plane following reports of a bomb on board, said the president, who claimed that the warning had come from within Switzerland. Belarusian officials had previously claimed that Hamas threatened to blow up the plane, an allegation that the Palestinian militant group denies.

Lukashenko “also appeared to suggest that Belarus would have been within its rights to shoot down the Ryanair plane because it was flying near a Belarusian nuclear power station”, The Times reports.

Underlining the alleged danger, he asked: “What if the nuclear power station’s safety systems were suddenly put on full alert?” 

Critics including the UK foreign secretary remain unconvinced by Lukashenko’s claims - and by Russia’s show of outrage.

Moscow has previously “backed the Lukashenko regime with loans and cheap energy resources”, but has moved to “distance itself from the hijacking”, The Telegraph reports.

But Raab told the Commons on Monday that while Downing Street did not have “any clear details at this stage” about possible Russian involvement, it was “very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow”. 

Cooling relations

“A new wave of sanctions and restrictive measures on Belarus’s aviation industry, severing its direct links with much of Europe, looks set to increase the country’s reliance on Russia,” writes The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent Andrew Roth.

But despite the Kremlin’s long-standing support for Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, Moscow “appears wary” of backing him amid such widespread opposition, Roth adds.

In the hours immediately after Belarus “shocked the world” by forcing the plane to land in Minsk, Russian officials “maintained conspicuous radio silence on the events”, says The Moscow Times.

International security expert Mark Galeotti told The Guardian that the Kremlin was “not going to go out of its way to critique what Belarus has done”. But “conversely, it’s not leaping in with full-throated support because it does not want to be caught in the fallout”, he said.

The EU yesterday issued a joint statement saying that “the European Council strongly condemns the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk”, with the bloc threatening “further targeted economic sanctions” against Belarus.

As the Western powers mull their response, Galeotti argues that the key “question is going to be: is this it?” 

Along with “the rest of us”, Moscow is “waiting to see if the sanctions move into a new phase”, he says. “If this is all they have to face then I reckon they will feel that they got away with it.”

Meanwhile, Lukashenko is plotting his next move. Although he was elected on a “pro-Russian, Soviet nostalgic ticket”, the Belarusian leader has “always prioritised his own freedom of manoeuvre over ties with Moscow”, says The Moscow Times.

“I believe that Lukashenko acted alone, without Russian involvement,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik political consultancy, told the paper.

“The Russian leadership is shocked by this but can’t publicly show it as they have to protect their geopolitical interests,” she added. “They see now who they are dealing with.

“In the Kremlin’s eyes, Lukashenko has become a problem that needs to be addressed.”

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