Most of Belarus’s neighbours have reacted strongly to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko hijacking a flight last Sunday in order to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine have all closed their airspace to Belavia, the national carrier and banned their planes from Belarusian airspace.
Russia has publicly taken a rather different approach. President Vladimir Putin met with Lukashenko in the Black Sea city of Sochi on 28 May. Prior to the meeting, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, defended Belarus’s hijacking as “absolutely reasonable”. State TV propagandists have praised Lukashenko, with RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan saying he “played it beautifully”. As European airlines have begun avoiding Belarusian airspace, Russia has denied entry to its own airspace to at least some planes whose flight routes now bypass Belarus, effectively extending sanctions on its neighbour to itself. Nor has the Kremlin publicly called for Belarus to release Sapenga, a Russian citizen.
Similar to last summer, when Moscow decided to back Lukashenko’s repression of protests against an election widely viewed as rigged after an initial period of apparent wavering, the Kremlin, it seems, is again supporting the Belarusian regime against swathes of European and world opinion.
On the one hand, Western rejection pushing Lukashenko closer towards Russia is to the Kremlin’s advantage. Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-serving non-royal head of state, had become adept at playing off Russia and the West for his own benefit. Just a year ago, the then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo visited Belarus, the first such visit for a quarter of a century. He suggested that both countries would soon exchange ambassadors and that the US could sell oil to Belarus, reducing its reliance on Russian energy.
That budding rapprochement was swiftly extinguished after Lukashenko’s brutal response to protests demonstrating against his rule just a few months later. While Western countries imposed sanctions, Russia offered billions in loans and its political backing to Lukashenko. That drew Belarus more firmly into Russia’s orbit, but undermined Lukashenko’s traditional strategy of using his relative distance from Russia to extract concessions from Moscow.
The main reason is geopolitics. Following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and that country’s subsequent westwards turn, Belarus is now Russia’s only post-Soviet ally to its west. The Kremlin is committed to maintaining Minsk within its sphere of influence. The two countries are joined under the umbrella of the confederal “Union State”, though Lukashenko has long resisted further integration with Moscow.
Yet Lukashenko’s erratic and oftentimes costly behaviour also has costs for Russia, both financial and diplomatic. “[The] Kremlin’s tolerance [of Lukashenko] hurts Russian interests. The longer it lasts, the more bad surprises it breeds,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of Carnegie Moscow, wrote. Russia has long sought to scale back energy subsidies it provides to Belarus, which in 2018 represented a tenth of the country’s GDP, according to Obserwator Finansowy, a Polish thinktank.
“The Russian leadership is shocked by [the plane hijacking] but can’t publicly show it as they have to protect their geopolitical interests,” the political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya told the Moscow Times.
Indeed, although Moscow backed Lukashenko after last summer’s protests, it did endorse – albeit in vague terms – the principle of a political transition. That was taken by some analysts at the time to mean that Russia was growing increasingly weary of its ally, disquiet which may have grown following this week’s events.