In plane sight

The Kremlin geopolitics behind Belarus’ hijacking of a civilian airliner.

It was another red line crossed by the Putin-Lukashenka tandem – and another ratcheting up of tension between the West (that is, the EU and NATO) and Russia. And it was nothing short of air piracy.

When news of the forced landing of Ryanair Flight 4978 in Minsk was reported last week, almost nobody believed the explanation offered by the embattled and benighted authorities in Belarus. Minsk said that Palestinian group Hamas had planted a bomb on the flight and had alerted the Belarusian authorities, who reacted by sending a fighter to intercept the Athens-Vilnius flight as it passed over Belarus. Even Hamas—long used to its status as one of “the usual suspects”—was apparently furious at that.

Of course, no bomb was found. But the passengers conveniently disembarked before the search included someone Belarusian despot Alexander Lukashenka fears more than any bomb, namely 26-year-old Roman Potasevich—founder of the Telegram-based Nexta Channel and a key figure in the country’s opposition. He and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (a Russian citizen) were duly arrested and have been held since—charged with fomenting mass riots—and trotted out to give rather unconvincing confessions to the TV cameras.

Obviously it was a put-up job. And obviously Mr Lukashenka—optimistically nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator”—was being his normal reprehensible self. But let’s not fool ourselves. Russia and its president Vladimir Putin (who might deserve the nickname more) are in the picture too. Committed as he is to staying in power at all costs, Mr Lukashenka is not politically suicidal, and would never have dared risk such a standoff with the West without a prior green light directly from President Putin. Very likely there was coordination between the two countries’ secret services, but that’s an operational matter: clearance comes at the highest, head-of-state level.

Russian reactions

Russian reactions smack of well-rehearsed crisis management. Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova’s display of surprise was truly artistic. And Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of the Russia Today TV channel, pointedly sang the praises of both Mr Lukashenka and the Russian special services (pretty much in line with what amounted to a “well done” from her in April to Russian Military Intelligence for blowing up ammunition depots in the Czech Republic in 2014).

Meanwhile, president Putin played down the incident and has since underlined the point by his cordial treatment of Mr Lukashenka during the latter’s two-day visit to him in Sochi on the Black Sea. This featured a well-publicised yacht outing by the two men—and confirmation that a USD 500 million tranche of a loan from Russia to Belarus would be released by end-June. What went on behind closed doors isn’t known: ultimately the price of Moscow’s money may be that Belarus must join the Russian Federation. But if there’s tension, it was not advertised: the message was that Lukashenka is still very much in favour.

And the West’s reaction?

As to the West’s reaction, there has been no shortage of denunciations and expressions of outrage. Brussels has urged airlines not to overfly Belarus and some are already acting accordingly (with Moscow retaliating by refusing to approve amended flight plans in at least two cases). A package of sanctions against Belarus is expected to be submitted for approval at the EU’s June 21 summit, and there’s speculation on various measures that might be taken.

These include suspending EUR 3 billion euros in EU funding; adding more names to the list of sanctioned Belarussian politicians and civil servants; sanctions against big enterprises considered close to the regime; banning flights by Belarussian planes over Ukraine and the EU, as well as firming up that “no overflight of Belarus” advice into an outright ban; and restrictions on financial transactions.

This could be serious for Belarus. There are normally around 40 departures/arrivals per day at Minsk airport and numerous overflights—3,300 in the week of the incident, according to specialist sources cited by the BBC. Those earn Belarus good (though maybe not spectacular) money. Moreover. the aviation sanctions would in practice mean a complete air blockade of Belarus, and Minsk is clearly worried. In an attempt to mend fences with EU aviation authorities, the national airline Belavia’s CEO Igor Cherginetz has announced cancelation of all direct flights to Crimea until his country formally recognises its annexation by Russia. The chance that he would have taken this step ahead of the summer season without a prior nod by Mr Lukashenka is practically non-existent.

The list of regime-connected enterprises that would feel the heat of EU sanctions, moreover,  might include the giant Belaruskali, a world-class producer of the potassium fertilisers that are one of the few things Belarus going for it. If so, that would put a real dent in Belarusian exports to the EU. The oil, timber and cement industries are also reported to be possible targets. The country’s economy could, potentially, be crippled.

But there are two problems with this.

The first is that an over-general response could make things still worse for the long-suffering Belarussian public. Sanctions that make things unpleasant for Mr Lukashenka and his cronies are to be preferred, and that will take some fine-tuned targeting.

The second is that concentrating on Belarus rather misses the point. Even the deplorable Mr Lukashenko is not the core problem. The real problem is his puppet-master in the Kremlin. If he isn’t dealt with, nothing will really change. Put bluntly, stopping Mr Putin’s twin strategic projects, the Nord Stream-2 and Turk Stream-2 pipelines, is the only credible threat that could break through the shield of his arrogance.

There’s not much prospect of that and

the problem lies in Berlin.

Chancellor Merkel and Germany have proven to have a limitless repertoire of ways to support Putin’s strategic interests, regardless of the damage inflicted to Germany’s relations with Eastern Europe and its NATO partners.

They‘ve put up with everything:

  • The use of chemical weapons to poison Mr Putin’s primary opponent Alexei Navalny, his brutal imprisonment when that didn’t work, and the escalating judicial charade that has followed it;
  • The killings of opponents in Lukashenko’s prisons;
  • Attempts to destabilise the politics of EU and NATO countries;
  • The massing of troops on the Ukrainian border;
  • The annexation of Crimea and the occupation of areas of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova

None of this has produced the slightest sign of Germany wanting to kick its Russia habit, its addiction to rapprochement with Mr Putin. Effectively, Berlin has granted the Kremlin a blank cheque, leaving it free to test and cross new red lines of arrogance and extremism. While NATO and Eastern Europe are trying to build up defence capabilities against Russia, Chancellor Merkel is subverting such efforts by building bilateral “bridges” with the Kremlin that expose internal frictions in NATO and the EU and undermine collective defence efforts. And the German-led EU is gradually arriving at new levels of acquiescence to Moscow’s whims and desires.

Both Ms Merkel and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier have publicly confessed to their guilt complex about World War II—incidentally ignoring the fact that the worst-hit part of the Soviet Union was Ukraine. The United States, on the other hand, does not want to spoil relations with Berlin and test the limits of its strategic partnership. And Mr Putin revels in his virtuoso manipulation of the whole chain of complexes, concerns and fears. Whenever he pushes his threat and charm buttons in Germany, Europe steps back.

True, Berlin may sometimes look as if it’s playing NATO’s game, when the strain of duplicity gets too much. For instance, in the near future it may agree to spend more on defence. But it will do so with the clear understanding that it is buying time and indulgence while ensuring it doesn’t have to protect the democracies of Eastern Europe. And sooner or later, Berlin will act on its mix of guilt and interests to rescue the Kremlin with another shot of vintage OstPolitik.

And, for the moment, the West’s ire is directed at Mr Lukashenka – and not at Mr Putin, as it should be.

(Source: Analyses & Alternatives)

Ilian Vassilev

Diplomat, political analyst, energy expert (Bulgaria)

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