Putin likely gave Belarus the go-ahead to hijack the RyanAir plane, officials and experts say

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  • Top experts and officials say it’s unlikely Belarus would’ve hijacked a flight without Russia’s permission.
  • Belarus’s 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.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.

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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Russia is the only country to support Belarus after it intercepted a plane and detained a dissident. Experts have questioned whether Putin was involved.

Roman Protasevich Putin
A composite image of the Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • Belarus on Sunday diverted a flight and arrested the dissident Roman Protasevich, who was on board.
  • Russia on Monday called it an “absolutely reasonable approach.”
  • The UK foreign secretary said he suspects Russian knowledge. The Kremlin denied involvement.
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Russia is the sole country standing by Belarus after it intercepted a commercial flight and detained an outspoken dissident, prompting experts and officials to suspect Moscow’s involvement in the plot.

Roman Protasevich, 26, was taken into custody on Sunday after a Ryanair plane carrying him from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus after the pilots received a fake security report from local authorities. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said he believed KGB agents were on the diverted flight.

The UK, US, and the EU slammed Belarus’ move, calling it a violation of aviation law and human rights.

Meanwhile, Russia has defended Belarus’ actions and used it to accuse western nations of hypocrisy.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Belarus had treated the incident with an “absolutely reasonable approach.”

Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, also wrote in a Facebook post: “The internet remembers all cases of violent abductions, forced landings and illegal arrests made by ‘peace officers and guardians of morality,'” referring to western democracies.

Roman Protasevich
Belarus police detain journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk, Belarus, on March 26, 2017.

‘Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval’

Even before Russia’s show of support to Belarus, experts have suspected its involvement.

Belarus is heavily reliant on Russia financially, with Moscow long working to lure Belarus away from western European alliances.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has also turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin for support in the past: When anti-government protests swept Belarus last fall, Lukashenko publicly asked Putin for help, and Putin sent support in the form of state-media journalists and surveillance resources, European intelligence sources told Insider at the time.

In a series of tweets Sunday, Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, said: “Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval” and that “possibly the hijacking was even a Russian initiative.”

In response, Nigel Gould-Davies, the former UK ambassador to Belarus, said he “had no reason to believe” the theory that Russia orchestrated the plot, but added “that doesn’t mean to say Russia doesn’t approve or didn’t assist.”

On Monday, Britain’s foreign secretary also suspected Russian knowledge in the interception.

“It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” Dominic Raab said, according to Reuters , caveating that he didn’t have “any clear details” on Russian involvement so far.

Timothy Ash, a senior emerging-markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, also said Monday that Lukashenko “would not have risked his relationship with the Kremlin by undertaking such a cavalier move unless he had been first given the green light by Putin,” CNBC reported.

Russia has denied any involvement in the interception. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday dismissed the idea that his country knew anything about the Belarus plot, saying that widespread anti-Russian sentiment meant that Russia is accused of everything these days, Reuters reported.

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Protestors in Poland demand the release of a Belarusian dissident who was arrested after the government diverted his Lithuania-bound flight

Protestors in Poland demand the release of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich.
Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them hold up a placard reading ‘Freedom to Roman Protasevich’ during a demonstration in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021.

  • Protestors gathered in Warsaw, Poland, to demand the release of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich.
  • Protasevich, a vocal critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, was taken into custody after the government diverted his Lithuania-bound flight to Minsk.
  • His arrest also drew international outrage as other world leaders said Belarus should be held accountable.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Residents in Poland as well as Belarusians living in the country joined together to protest the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich on Monday. Activists condemned the arrest after Belarus authorities grounded the plane citing a bogus security threat.

Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them take part in a demonstration in Warsaw, Poland, demanding the release of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich.
Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them take part in a demonstration in front of European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021.

Protasevich, a vocal critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, was taken into custody after the Belarusian government forced his Lithuania-bound flight to land in Minsk.

Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them hold up a placard reading 'Free Roman Protasevich' during a demonstration.
A protester holds up a sign reading “Free Roman Pratasevich” (sic) during a demonstration in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021.

Source: Insider

Pilots on flight FR4978 were ordered to “divert to the nearest airport,” citing a potential bomb threat aboard the plane. Belarusian state media reported it was Lukashenko who gave an “unequivocal order” to ground the jet.

People hold banners during a protest against the detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich
People hold banners during a protest against the detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich in front of the European Commission representative office on May 24, 2021, in Warsaw, Poland.

Source: Insider

Protestors used paper airplanes as a visual prop to symbolize the aircraft being diverted to Minsk.

Belarusians in Warsaw, Poland, hang paper aircrafts during a protest against the detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich
Belarusians hang paper aircraft during a protest against the detention of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich in front of the European Commission representative office on May 24, 2021, in Warsaw, Poland.

Protasevich’s arrest drew international outrage as EU leaders condemned the forced grounding of the flight and called for the “immediate release” of Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega, who was also escorted off the flight.

Protestors in Poland demanding the release of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich.
A protester holds a sign that says “I’m gravely concerned” during a protest in support of the release of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich in front of the European Commission representative office on May 24, 2021 in Warsaw, Poland.

Source: Insider

The European Union took action to isolate Belarus on Monday, ordering all EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. The EU also banned Belarusian airlines from occupying the bloc’s airspace and using its airports.

A protestor holds up an airplane during a demonstration demanding the release of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich.
A demonstrator holds up a paper plane that says “Free Belarus” and “Free Roman Protasevich” during a demonstration in Warsaw, May 24, 2021.

Source: Insider

The EU’s move to sever Belarus air ties isn’t the first time the bloc cracked down on the Belarusian government. Late last year, the EU imposed sanctions on several Belarusian officials – including President Aleksandr Lukashenko – in the wake of the contested presidential elections in August.

A woman holds a banner during a protest against the detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich
A woman holds a banner calling Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko a terrorist during a protest against the detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich in front of the European Commission representative office on May 24, 2021, in Warsaw, Poland.

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Belarusian journalist reportedly pleaded with crew before being detained in Minsk: ‘Don’t do this. They will kill me.’

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Roman Protasevich former editor in chief of the Nexta Telegram and youtube channel initiator covering the Belarusian protests, speaking during a rally in Gdansk, Poland on 31 August 2020.

  • Roman Protasevich pleaded with cabin crew not to land Flight 4978 in Minsk, according to Politico.
  • Passengers said the flight was “just minutes” from its destination when the pilot announced an emergency landing.
  • Protasevich told passengers he was “facing the death penalty.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian journalist and activist who was detained in Minsk on Sunday, pleaded with cabin crew not to ground the Athens-Vilnius flight in the Belarus capital, out of fear for his life, according to Politico.

Belarusian authorities on Sunday sent a fighter jet to divert the Ryanair plane, citing a bogus bomb threat. When the passenger plane was forced to land in Minsk, police officers boarded the jet and arrested Protasevich and his girlfriend, sparking international outrage.

Passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 told the outlet that the plane was “just minutes” from its destination in Lithuania when the pilot announced the plane would make an emergency landing in Minsk.

Initially, many of the flight’s 171 passengers worried there was something wrong with the plane or the Vilnius airport, Politico reported.

But Protasevich – a 26-year old dissident who has been openly critical of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule – knew what was really happening, according to multiple media reports.

Passengers on the flight told The Daily Beast that as soon as Ryanair announced the diversion, Protasevich “immediately” opened the overhead compartment to collect his electronics, handing his laptop and phone to his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

“Behind me, a man stands up and says he wants to talk to the steward,” Raselle, a Lithuanian woman who lives in Greece, told Politico. “He was shocked and scared.”

Protasevich then began to plead with the crew.

“Don’t do this. They will kill me,” he reportedly said. “I am a refugee.”

According to eyewitnesses, a flight attendant cited “legal agreements” as the reason the plane had to land.

Though other passengers remained mostly calm, passengers told AFP reporter Katy Lee that Protasevich expressed fear and told other passengers he was “facing the death penalty.”

“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid,” passenger Edvinas Disma told Lee. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”

Once in Minsk, authorities removed passengers from the plane in groups of five, while dogs sniffed them and their bags, Politico reported.

One passenger, Saulius Danauskas, told Baltic news site Delfi, that he quickly realized the bomb threat had been a ruse.

“When we landed people were standing around the plane doing nothing, looking pleased with themselves,” Danauskas told the outlet. “They didn’t let us out for half an hour. If there was a bomb on the plane, why would they not let us out?”

Passengers told The New York Times that Protasevich’s luggage was checked twice before a security officer took him to the terminal, where he was then arrested.

“Roman was with us and after we arrived they took him and his girlfriend,” Raselle told Politico. “All very discreetly. He was very calm, didn’t shout, he followed them, somehow accepting his destiny.”

For the next seven hours, passengers said they waited.

“The Belarusian authorities treated us like prisoners, we were so many hours in the bus, then at the airport for hours without water or being able to go to the toilet, all in order to have this show that they were actually searching for something, when they only wanted to get the guy,” Raselle told Politico. “It was a circus, a fiasco.”

Belarusian state media has reported that it was Lukashenko who gave the “unequivocal order” to ground the plane in Minsk. Flightradar.com data that shows the jet was closer to its destination in Lithuania than Minsk, Insider’s Cheryl Teh reported.

Lawyers looking to help Protasevich told The Times they believe he is being held in a jail in Minsk operated by the Belarusian intelligence service.

On Monday, Belarusian authorities posted a video of Protasevich, in which he said he was cooperating with authorities.

The international response has been swift. On Monday, the European Union moved to isolate Belarus, ordering all EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banning Belarusian airlines from entering EU airspace and landing in its airports.

The White House has called for an international investigation into the flight’s diversion and President Joe Biden released a statement applauding the European Union’s call for economic sanctions.

“The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus in their struggle,” Biden said.

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Senators urge Biden to prohibit US flights over Belarus after ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ of dissident

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A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president Roman Protasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, March 25, 2012.

  • Two US Senators sent a letter Monday urging President Joe Biden to prohibit US flights over Belarus.
  • The request comes after Belarus arrested Roman Protasevich after forcing the flight he was on to land.
  • The letter was signed by Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The “state-sponsored hijacking” of a civilian flight in order to arrest a dissident activist should prompt President Joe Biden to ban US airlines from flying over Belarus, two US senators said in a letter on Monday.

Over the weekend, authorities in Belarus forced the landing of a Ryanair flight – sending up a fighter jet and claiming a possible terrorist threat – in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and critic of the authoritarian regime led by President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarusian authorities have since posted a video of Protasevich that his allies say appears to have been delivered under duress, Reuters reported.

President Biden condemned the arrest in a statement Monday evening, calling it “a direct affront to international norms.” Biden said he asked advisers “to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible.”

In the meantime, Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, want the president to keep US flights away from Eastern European nation.

“In an effort to keep passengers and crew safe, we urge you to prohibit all US airlines from entering Belarusian airspace,” they wrote in a joint missive. The US has imposed a similar prohibition on flights over North Korea, the senators note. “We must protect innocent passengers from despotic regimes and stand in solidarity with dissidents who are being targeted.”

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994, was ostensibly reelected last year. But that vote has been widely criticized as fraudulent, with the European Union refusing to recognize the results.

The vote was followed by widespread protests in Belarus that were brutally repressed, with authorities detaining thousands, “many of them tortured or otherwise ill-treated,” according to Amnesty International. Belarus accuses Protasevich of orchestrating the protests to overthrow the government.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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The EU moves to isolate Belarus after the government diverted a flight carrying a Belarusian dissident

ryanair activist Roman Protasevich lukashenko
A woman stands with a poster reading ‘Where is Roman (Protasevich)?!’at Vilnius International Airport, on May 23, 2021.

  • The EU moved to isolate Belarus after the government diverted a flight to arrest a journalist.
  • Roman Protasevich was on the Ryanair flight when it landed in Minsk due to a bogus security threat.
  • The bloc ordered EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned Belarusian airlines from its airspace and airports.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The European Union moved to isolate Belarus in light of the arrest of a journalist who was arrested after the government diverted a Ryanair flight on Sunday.

The EU ordered all EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned Belarusian airlines from entering EU airspace and landing in its airports. The move was announced Monday during a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels.

Journalist Roman Protasevich was taken into custody after the Lithuania-bound flight he was aboard was grounded in Minsk due to a bogus security threat. Protasevich is a vocal critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who gave an “unequivocal order” to ground the Ryanair jet in Minsk, according to state media.

Protasevich’s arrest drew international outrage as EU leaders condemned the forced grounding of the flight and called for the “immediate release” of Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega, who was also escorted off the flight. World leaders also demanded “their freedom of movement be guaranteed.”

Read more: Don’t let Ryanair ignore your right not to be kidnapped

Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union’s European Commission, said the “outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.”

“Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” von der Leyen said in a statement on Twitter. “Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also called the incident an “unprecedented act of state terrorism.”

“Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished,” Morawiecki said in a statement, adding that he would petition for sanctions against Belarus in light of Protasevich’s arrest.

At the Brussels summit, Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, described the incident as “madness,” according to a report by The New York Times.

“It’s like something out of a very bad movie,” Bettel said. “It shows the state of the regime.”

EU officials said few raised objections to the move to avoid Belarusian airspace – a rare occurrence as the bloc does not tend to come to a consensus on controversial issues so quickly and easily, The Times reported.

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White House calls for ‘immediate’ investigation into forced diversion of Ryanair flight carrying Belarusian dissident

roman protasevich protest
A woman holds a poster reading “Where is Roman?!” as she waits to see passengers of the Ryanair plane with registration number SP-RSM, carrying opposition figure Raman Pratasevich which was traveling from Athens to Vilnius and was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat.

  • The White House has called for an international investigation into the diversion of a Ryanair flight into Belarus.
  • Roman Protasevich, a journalist and prominent dissident, was detained from the flight after authorities reported a bogus security threat.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The White House on Monday called for an immediate international investigation into the diversion of a Ryanair flight into Minsk, Belarus, where authorities claimed a bogus security threat and arrested Roman Protasevich, 26, a journalist and vocal dissident against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki added that President Joe Biden was briefed on the situation and spoke with NATO allies.

Ryanair said in a statement that the pilots of flight FR4978, which was en route from Athens to Lithuania, were informed by Belarusian air traffic operators that there was a “potential security threat on board.” The pilots were told instructed to “divert to the nearest airport,” which was in Minsk.

Authorities reportedly came on board to assess the threat, detained Protasevich, and left. Belarusian state TV posted a video of Protasevich “confessing” to planning riots on Monday.

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A routine commercial flight from Athens to Lithuania spiraled into a dramatic international incident that has world leaders outraged. Here’s what happened, and why it’s a huge deal.

Ryanair plane
Ryanair.

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A routine commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, spiraled into a dramatic international incident after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko forced the flight to make an unscheduled pit stop in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

How it happened: As soon as the plane approached Lithuanian airspace, Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to accompany the plane to Minsk on account of a “bomb threat,” but that turned out to be a ruse. Lukashenko was after one of the passengers, dissident journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich, who was arrested once the plane landed in Minsk.

European leaders were stunned and outraged by Lukashenko’s move. Poland’s prime minister called it “an “unprecedented act of state terrorism” and Lithuania’s president asked NATO and the EU to “immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime.”

Big picture: Considered “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has held power in Belarus for almost 27 years, and his authoritarian actions-including a brutal crackdown on protesters last year following a disputed election-are increasing tensions with the West.

Looking ahead…EU leaders are meeting in Brussels today for a summit. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said officials will discuss taking action in response to the “outrageous and illegal behavior” of the Belarusian regime.

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