Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during his meeting in Sochi on February 22, 2021.
ALEXEI DRUZHININ | AFP | Getty Images
When world leaders voiced their outrage over the “hijacking” of a Ryanair plane by Belarus and the detention of an opposition activist, Russia was known for its vocal defense of the country. Now analysts say Moscow will benefit from Belarus’ further alienation from the West.
Belarus on Sunday ordered a Ryanair flight with the well-known Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich to be diverted to the capital Minsk, whereupon the activist was arrested. Russia described the turmoil in the US and Europe as “shocking” and accused the West of double standards.
“It is shocking that the West describes the incident in Belarusian airspace as” shocking “,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook on Monday.
Russia has steadily expanded its power and influence over its neighboring country Belarus, but the heads of state and government of the countries, President Vladimir Putin and President Alexander Lukashenko, are somewhat uncomfortable allies – it is questionable whether loyalty is at best fragile and out of necessity is carried out.
For Belarus, Russia is a powerful economic and political partner and source of support as it supports Lukashenko’s leadership, now in its 27th year.
For Russia, Belarus offers the opportunity to exert economic and political influence in the region and is a convenient bulwark against what it sees as European encroachment on its former territories like Ukraine. Putin is known for promoting stability and predictability, and as such, a long-time leader like Lukashenko in power, who may be more easily influenced, is preferred to regime change.
Was Putin involved?
Experts who are closely following Russia say Putin would have known about the “kidnapping” incident had he not been authorized. Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, noted on Monday that Lukashenko is now completely dependent on Putin for his survival in office and would not have risked his relationship with the Kremlin if he had taken such a careless move if he did had not been given the green light by Putin first. “
“I think if anyone doubted whether Lukashenko was ‘all in’ with Putin in his vertical / sovereign democratic power model and indeed with the deeper integration of Belarus in Russia, then I think that sends a clear answer … there are no more bridges. He is stepping back to the West and ready to give up Belarusian sovereignty in order to save his own skin. “
Putin’s influence over Lukashenko recently intensified when Putin granted Belarus a $ 1.5 billion loan last September and agreed to boost trade. The move was widely viewed as a gesture of support for Lukashenko after weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation after winning an election that the opposition said had been rigged. Lukashenko denied this claim.
Further sanctions are unlikely to work
Like Russia, Belarus is subject to international sanctions, in particular for the intimidation and repression of demonstrators, members of the opposition and journalists.
On Monday, the heads of state and government of the EU agreed to impose further sanctions on Belarus. However, analysts believe that new restrictions on Lukashenko or anyone else involved in the incident are likely to be ineffective.
Indeed, Emre Peker, director of Europe at Eurasia Group’s political risk advisory group, noted on Monday that the Ryanair “hijacking” incident would likely benefit Russia by bringing Belarus closer to the country – a sentiment that was reproduced elsewhere.
“President Vladimir Putin is likely to welcome the incident as another problem that drives a wedge between Belarus and the West,” said Peker in a note.
“Allegations of Russian involvement will further hamper the EU’s ability to respond effectively to Belarus. Moscow accused the EU and its members of double standards and will defend Minsk’s handling of the incident. Likewise, any new EU sanctions will result in Russian condemnation as Western interference … While Berlin will push for a strong EU response if Protasevich is not released, Germany is unlikely to target Nord Stream 2 in connection with the Ryanair incident. “
Matthew Sherwood, senior European analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said Monday that the entire episode sheds light on “how little sanctions affect domestic politics in Belarus”.
“The latest sanctions were imposed after the controversial presidential elections in August 2020, which led to protests lasting several months. However, with continued political and economic support from Russia, Lukashenka and his allies were able to crack down on them.” The domestic opposition movement and protests have largely stalled, “he said.
“We don’t expect a new wave of Western sanctions to have any real impact on the domestic situation and they will likely bring Belarus even closer to Russia.”
Other analysts note that the Lukashenko regime is becoming increasingly unpredictable, which may be encouraged by its relations with Russia.
Nigel Gould-Davies is a former British Ambassador to Belarus and a Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the IISS. He told CNBC on Monday that the Ryanair incident showed that “Lukashenko is now an international threat, not just a threat to his own people”.
“Second, it shows how insecure he feels when he goes to the lengths to arrest an individual journalist and risk international outrage and conviction for breaking international rules in the most blatant manner,” he added.
“It shows that he really doesn’t care about threatening the lives of European and American citizens just to find one person who has made known the oppression of his own people.”
Gould-Davies said if it was true that Belarusian KGB officials were on board the flight – as Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said he believed it was – it shows that KGB officials are overseas be active. It demonstrated the “international dimension of the threat that this regime poses to surrounding countries,” he added, noting that other countries, particularly Russia, are watching closely how the EU reacts.
“We recently saw examples of cooperation between the Russian and Belarusian security services, so we need to look at that angle too … It is imperative that the EU and I hope that with American support it becomes much stronger and more concerted stand now. “
Bluebays Ash agreed that the incident “represents a massive test for the EU and the West. Understand the threat to Western liberal market democracy now,” he asked.
“This is not just a defensive move by Lukashenko, but a full frontal attack on the EU – an EU plane that flies between two EU capitals and is being forced out of the air by an autocratic regime. If the West lets Lukashenko get away with it, no The western airline is safe and flies through every autocratic country. Heaven and the dissidents are not safe. “