Russia wary to support Belarus amid fallout from plane ‘hijack’

Analysis: Minsk and Moscow watching carefully to see if EU makes good on threat of targeted economic sanctions

Vladimir Putin, right, meeting Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow in April. Vladimir Putin meeting Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow in April. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty ImagesVladimir Putin meeting Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow in April. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

in Moscow

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, yet Moscow, its remaining ally, appears wary.

Kremlin officials have offered only muted support over an incident that has been described as “air piracy” and an “act of state terrorism” by Alexander Lukashenko, a leader whom Vladimir Putin treats as a junior partner, and often with open disdain.

“From the Kremlin’s point of view, it’s 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,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia and international security issues.

Both Minsk and Moscow will be watching carefully to see if the European Union makes good on its threat of targeted economic sanctions to gauge the readiness of the bloc to punish authoritarian states willing to reach into Europe to punish their own dissidents.

“The question is going to be: is this it?” said Galeotti. “They, like the rest of us, are waiting to see if the sanctions move into a new phase. If this is all they have to face then I reckon they will feel that they got away with it.”

Lukashenko appeared unrepentant on Tuesday as a court jailed seven Belarusian activists to terms of four to seven years. Three journalists from the independent news website tut.by were also reported missing and another was arrested, just a week after the site’s offices were raided and its editor-in-chief was detained. The Lukashenko government’s crackdown on dissent appears to be maintaining pace, and activists abroad have said they had increased security measures to avoid reprisals.

A senior aide to the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said in an interview that Europe needed to also take further steps to recognise the opposition-in-exile.

“It’s not a domestic issue anymore, it’s an issue of the security of Europe,” said Franak Viačorka. “If Lukashenko is not stopped now, he’ll be shooting down planes.”

One open question remains: to what degree Russia played a role in grounding the Ryanair flight carrying the opposition activist Raman Pratasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen who has been jailed during the investigation.

Early reports that several Russian citizens on board the flight had disembarked in Minsk, a potential smoking gun of Russian involvement, have turned out to be false. Western officials have said that Russia should be punished if it did play a role in the operation. “It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could be taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow, but as I say it is unclear as yet,” the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said on Monday.

Remarks from the Kremlin on the incident had largely been “equivocal”, Galeotti noted, with Moscow waiting more than a day to comment on the incident and then saying it should be assessed by international aviation authorities.

Russian state media have however offered stronger support for the operation, with RT’s head, Margarita Simonyan, tweeting that Lukashenko “played it beautifully” and news segments portraying Pratasevich as an extremist. Putin himself has not weighed in.

Viačorka said he believed that the Russian government would have been “consulted” and “agreed” to attempts to ground the plane, particularly as the air defence network in Belarus was integrated with Russia’s military.

But he also said he was worried that the focus on Russia’s role in the operation – including with sanctions – could distract attention from a campaign to put greater pressure on Lukashenko and force him to step down.

“Let’s separate two issues, Russia and Belarus, two separate topics,” he said. “If I will be speaking about Russia in the context of Belarus, we will never solve the problem … Of course [Russia] was consulted, it was agreed, they were not against. But we don’t have evidence that they organised or planned this provocation. Meanwhile, definitely Lukashenko is the one who was guilty.”

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