Russia Backs Belarus Ally Over Ryanair Jet Seizure as West Fumes

Russia is lining up firmly behind Belarus after it forced a Ryanair Holdings Plc jet to land and detained an opposition journalist aboard, provoking a storm of Western criticism, as President Vladimir Putin bets his embattled ally will fall deeper into his embrace.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended Minsk’s explanation of the dramatic operation re-routing a flight between two European capitals as “reasonable.” The 27-member bloc is considering punitive measures including banning the country’s national airline from landing at EU airports and suspending flights over Belarus.

In a public show of support, Putin is reportedly to meet Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko later this week, for the third time this year. The Kremlin has firmly backed Lukashenko as he’s mounted a brutal crackdown on massive protests against his 27-year rule, confident that he can stand up to Western criticism and face down domestic opponents.

While Russia stands to win from the likely failure of Western punitive measures to weaken the Belarus strongman, his increased isolation plays into Putin’s hands by making it much harder for him to counter-balance his reliance on Moscow.

‘Tactical Benefits’

And so far, the Kremlin is betting the Belarus tensions won’t have any wider impact on Moscow’s own troubled relationship with the West, said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council.

“There are certain tactical benefits for Moscow from this crisis as it makes Lukashenko more dependent on Russia,” Kortunov said. “Hopefully it won’t affect U.S. ties -- it wasn’t Russia that seized the plane, but another country.”

The crisis sparked by what Western politicians have branded a state-sponsored act of air piracy Sunday comes just weeks before a possible summit between Putin and U.S. counterpart Joe Biden aimed at defusing a worsening spiral in tensions between the former Cold War foes.

Officials are expected to announce a date for the meeting within days, the Associated Press reported, after U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev on Monday in Geneva.

While the international furor over Belarus’ actions caused some unease, with one senior Russian lawmaker expressing concern it would have a negative impact for Moscow as Minsk’s closest partner, others shrugged off the condemnation in Europe and the U.S. as hypocrisy.

‘Closest Possible Contact’

Kremin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on whether Moscow had advance warning of Lukashenko’s decision to scramble a Mig-29 jet to escort the passenger plane to Minsk, but noted that “our special services are in the closest possible contact.”

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Monday Russia must have known about the operation at a minimum.

“We don’t have any clear details on that,” Raab told Parliament in London. But “it is very difficult to believe that this kind of action could’ve been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.”

Russia Backs Belarus Ally Over Ryanair Jet Seizure as West Fumes

The Belarusian former collective farm boss’s increasingly erratic actions should be an embarassment to the Kremlin, said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik. “Civilized leaders don’t usually act this way,” she said.

But a Russian senator dismissed any blame on Lukashenko’s part. “Formally, there was a bomb threat, so everything was done properly,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the International Affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said in a phone interview.

The arrest of Pratasevich, the journalist, was justified, he said. “This person was sitting abroad and criticizing his homeland,” he said. “It’s a warning to Tsikhanouskaya,” he said, referring to exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who took the same flight from Athens several days earlier.

The EU must act firmly to maintain its credibility, said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former U.K. ambassador to Belarus.

“I think the strong and immediate denunciations by EU and member state leaders is welcome and clear,” said Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. “Having used that sort of unequivocal language they can’t not take significant measures.”

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