Putin likely gave Belarus the go-ahead to divert the Ryanair plane, officials and experts say
- Top experts and officials say it's unlikely Belarus would've diverted a flight without Russia's permission.
- Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko relies heavily on Putin for support.
- Belarus is facing swift consequences over the incident, which could make it more reliant on Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin likely gave Belarus the green light to force a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk so that authorities could arrest a prominent dissident, top officials and experts say.
Belarus's authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko is heavily reliant on Putin's support from an economic, military, and political standpoint. It's therefore thought to be unlikely that the Belarusian dictator would make such an audacious move without the Russian leader's blessing.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Monday said that it was "very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow." Raab added that there was no firm evidence of Russia's involvement.
"Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval," Yale historian Timothy Snyder tweeted.
As world leaders have denounced Belarus's actions as state-sanctioned hijacking, Russia has continued to offer Belarus support following the incident, and dismissed suspicions of its involvement as "obsessive Russophobia."
The Ryainair flight, which was en route from Greece to Lithuania, was grounded under a fake bomb threat and escorted into Minsk by a fighter jet.
After the forced landing, Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich was taken into custody. Protasevich has been a leading critic of Lukashenko, who faced mass protests in 2020 after he won a sixth term in an election widely viewed as rigged. The 26-year-old dissident fled Belarus in 2019 over fear of arrest, but continued to criticize Lukashenko while in exile.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned the Belarusian government over the "brazen and shocking act," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended Belarus's actions as "reasonable."
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova in a Facebook post accused Western countries of hypocrisy over the response. "It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace 'shocking'," she wrote.
Though there is suspicion of Russian involvement, the Biden administration has avoided making any explicit allegations. Discussing whether the US believed Russia played a role in the forced landing and arrest of Protasevich, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday said, "I did not give any indication that we had that view yesterday, and that has not changed. We don't have a belief that that is the case."
The White House on Tuesday announced that President Joe Biden will meet with Putin face-to-face for the first time since becoming commander-in-chief. Psaki during Tuesday's briefing indicated that Belarus would be discussed.
-CBS News (@CBSNews) May 25, 2021
Biden on Monday said he supported the EU's push to sanction Belarus and called for Protasevich's immediate release, adding that his administration would "develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations."
Meanwhile, Putin is set to meet with Lukashenko later this week in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
With the EU sanctioning Belarus, barring flights over the county, and banning Belarusian airlines from using its airspace or airports, some analysts say that the incident has benefited Russia in the sense it's pushed Lukashenko even further away from the West.
"Lukashenko will become an increasingly easy prey for the Kremlin," Alexander Klaskouski, an independent Minsk-based political analyst, told the Associated Press. "As a pariah country, Belarus will find it much more difficult to fend off the Kremlin demands for the introduction of a single currency, the deployment of air bases and access to lucrative Belarusian economic assets."
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