World attention focused recently on Belarus because a political dissident was detained in circumstances that can only be called bizarre. The diversion to Minsk of Ryanair flight 4978 en route from Greece to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was not only unnecessary and of doubtful legality, it was a disaster for Belarus in terms of public relations, domestic reaction and international policy. And although Belarus is small (about the same size as Yugoslavia or the US state of Kansas), and landlocked, with a modest economy, its location and international links are important.
The chief executive of Ryanair, Mr Michael O’Leary, swung into action immediately, and after the New York Times reported the Lithuanian police as stating that five people who had boarded the aircraft in Athens did not arrive in Vilnius, “Mr. O’Leary said some of the passengers may have been agents of the Belarusian intelligence service, which is still known by its Soviet-era initials.” He said “We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.” This was given much publicity but went off the boil when it became apparent that although it had been a conveniently exciting assertion it was totally incorrect. There were, indeed, five fewer people on the aircraft when it arrived in Lithuania but, as noted by the BBC, in addition to the detained journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend the other three were ordinary civilians who had valid reasons for staying in Minsk.
Indignation grew in western capitals, however, with every effort being made by the media to associate Moscow with the affair in some manner. In this they were aided by the British foreign minister, Dominic Raab, who took time off from Britain’s never-ending and sadly ludicrous parliamentary pantomime, to declare it was “very difficult to believe” that diversion of the flight and detention of Mr Protasevich could have taken place “without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.” He did add that it was “unclear as yet” exactly what had happened, but when asked by reporters why the diversion could not have happened without Russia being aware he replied that his belief was “Based on all the circumstances. But we don’t know – it is just the proximity of the relationship between Minsk and Moscow.”
This is the fashion in which British foreign policy is being conducted at present, but its lightweight absurdity does not detract from the effect on the public of such pronouncements, and it is understandable that the attraction of pointing a finger of blame at Moscow proved too much for some other politicians to ignore. One of the first in the ring was US Senator Ben Sasse who, although as superficial as Mr Raab, has a ready audience for his anti-Russia policies and declared that “If President Biden wants ‘appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible,’ his administration needs to tighten the screws on Vladimir Putin. Like every puppet leader, Lukashenko doesn’t use the bathroom without asking for Moscow’s permission. It’s fanciful to imagine he’d hijack a flight between NATO allies without Moscow’s blessing. Putin’s regime is emboldened because the U.S. dropped our sanctions against his treasured Nord Stream 2 pipeline. We should impose those sanctions tonight.”
The Senator used the word “fanciful” in his denunciation, but there haven’t been many statements more fanciful than his assertion that Lukashenko’s illegal diversion of Flight 4978 was in some manner connected with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the fact that the aircraft was flying “between Nato allies”. Would he have found it equally sinister if Flight 4978 had been travelling between two countries that were not “Nato allies”? The inanity of this legislator’s line of thinking is disturbing — but his reference to Nato is unintentionally illuminating.
Mr Raab and Senator Sasse were joined by Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attempts to link Russia with the air incident. It was reported that Mr Stoltenberg spoke “on the deck of British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth . . . during NATO exercises which include drills close to Russia’s border” saying that “We know the very close relationship between Russia and Belarus and therefore it’s hard to believe that the regime in Minsk could do something like this without any kind of coordination with Russia.” None of those who assert that Russia was somehow involved has produced a shred of evidence to substantiate their “belief”, but their pronouncements have been given wide publicity in the Western mainstream media and are in consequence believed by an enormous number of people who are being prepared for another surge in confrontation with Russia. It’s all about Nato.
The enlargement of the US-Nato military grouping that began in 1999 continues to have the aim of expanding deployment of forces around Russia’s borders, in which it has largely succeeded. In order to bring what is officially called “Nato’s Forward Presence” right up to Russia’s frontier in the region between Latvia and the Black Sea it is necessary to have Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus sign up to the North Atlantic Treaty.
Georgia is already described by Nato as “one of the Alliance’s closest partners. It aspires to join the Alliance. The country actively contributes to NATO-led operations and cooperates with the Allies and other partner countries in many other areas”, and Ukraine is also a close military ally (although it hasn’t been invited to attend the Nato summit on June 14). On May 27 Radio Free Europe reported that Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy had “called on NATO to beef up its presence in the Black Sea region and asked Washington to back Kyiv’s bid for a NATO membership action plan at the summit” and while Nato was in any case in the process of expanding its operations in and around the Black Sea, it is likely the US will indeed push for Kiev’s deeper involvement in confronting Russia.
But Belarus is a problem for Nato, and Lukashenko appears to have had a policy of trying to have the best of both worlds, by playing off Nato against Moscow. The official Nato stance is that the relationship is “based on the pursuit of common interests, while also keeping open channels for dialogue. Key areas of cooperation include civil preparedness and defense reforms. NATO works with Belarus to implement reforms in these areas, while continuing to call on Belarus to increase the pace of its democratic reforms.” But the airliner fandango has opened doors for future action that could bring Belarus into Nato.
The economic sanctions imposed on Minsk by the West will encourage growing domestic discontent (energetically supported by western governments and media), and could lead to a coup in Belarus. As noted by the impartial and objective Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “Before the Ryanair incident, the drive to force Lukashenko out of power appeared to be stalling” but it has become obvious that his management of the flight diversion has been a disaster and has given impetus to his domestic opponents’ drive to dislodge him. This will be welcomed by the west (just as was the US-sponsored coup in Ukraine), as it will be seen as a victory in the campaign against Moscow.
Whoever comes to power in Minsk will be faced by a stark choice between allying with Nato or Moscow. The future for Belarus will be full of challenges, and it is to be hoped the next government doesn’t fall into the trap of embracing the Nato “Forward Presence.”
This first appeared in Strategic Culture.