EU hesitant over potential ‘Putin connection’ in Belarus plane ‘hijacking’

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 22 April 2021. [EPA-EFE/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV / KREMLIN]

Despite the speculations about a Russian involvement in the forced landing of the Ryanair airliner in Minsk, given the importance of Russia, EU leaders who met in Brussels for a two-day summit decided to decouple the issues and concentrate on sanctioning Belarus.

EU leaders agreed to pile sanctions on Belarus and cut off its aviation links on Monday (24 May), furious after it scrambled a warplane to intercept a Ryanair airliner and arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, an act some leaders denounced as ‘state piracy’.

“That there is a close relationship between Belarus and Russia, that is known,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday after the EU summit in Brussels, adding that there would be still unanswered questions about Moscow’s role in the incident.

According to reports when the plane entered Belarus airspace, passengers with Russian passports initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there was a bomb onboard. After the landing in Minsk these passengers disappeared.

Merkel said she had told EU leaders she would address the suspicions that his country was involved in the forced landing with Russian President Vladimir Putin if she will have the chance to speak to him.

According to the German Chancellor, EU leaders during the summit discussions had “touched briefly on whether Russia could have anything to do with that but since we had no hard evidence, we passed over that one.”

Belarus topped the agenda at a summit that was set to discuss the EU’s strategic relations with Russia.

According to EU sources, the two cases have not been linked in deliberations.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose country was departure point of the hijacked Ryanair flight, said there was no information about any Russian involvement in Belarus state hijacking.

The statement plays in the hands of Russia, because Greece should have information who boarded the airplane in Athens.

Asked about the statements of Ryanair’s CEO that there were agents inside the flight, the Greek PM replied: “There is absolutely no indication that anyone inside the aircraft was involved in the flight’s diversion”.

Greek PM: No information about Russian involvement in Belarus state hijacking

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said there is no information about any Russian involvement in the Belarus state hijacking of a plane at the weekend.

“The discussion on Russia was more general of strategic nature,” Mitsotakis told journalists after the …

French President Emmanuel Macron, in turn, has called for a new approach of the EU in dealing with Russia and Belarus.

The EU’s sanctions policy has its limits in both cases, Macron said on Tuesday after the EU summit in Brussels.

“The policy of gradual sanctions “in response” to deadlocked situations is no longer one effective policy,” he said, adding that the EU should ask itself how “effective responses “could look like.

In the case of Russia, the EU must “very profoundly redesign its relations design,” Macron said. Europeans can not only be “reactive”, they needed a “short, medium and long-term strategy”.

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.”

Cornering Russia a bad idea

Commentators said EU leaders hesitate cornering Russia for a number of reasons, including its size and military might, but also because under too much pressure its reactions would become unpredictable.

Speaking to a group of journalists, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev warned that pushing Russia too hard could be dangerous. He said:

“I reminded EU leaders that it is absolutely necessary that we use all mechanisms for cooperation with Russia in the fields of security, climate change, Covid-19. And this perspective was shared by other leaders. The perspective of us widening the gap with Russia poses the question where this country will go. We know it can take another road. You know about their ever greater rapprochement with China. Therefore we must seek balance and dialogue. ”

EU leaders to task Borrell with preparation of Russia report

EU leaders will task EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell with preparing a report on the bloc’s strategy towards Russia, similar to the one presented in March on Turkey, according to summit conclusions seen by EURACTIV.

Russia denies involvement

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has defended Belarus’ actions and has so far rejected alleged Russian involvement in Sunday’s operation.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday (24 May) Minsk was taking an “absolutely reasonable approach” while Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation.

“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,’” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.

Zakharova denied reports that four Russian nationals got off the plane in Minsk. She said the others apart from Sofia Sapega, the girlfriend of  journalist Roman Protasevich, were Belarusian and Greek nationals.

As expected, EU leaders in their summit conclusions tasked EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell with preparing a report on the bloc’s strategy towards Russia, similar to the one presented in March on Turkey.

They also called on the International Civil Aviation Organization “to urgently investigate this unprecedented and unacceptable incident”. It is highly doubtful that ICAO could have the capacity to investigate covert action by state actors such as Russia.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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