Global Europe Brief: Belarus’ skyjacking woes

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A plane from an Irish company, flying on an inner-European route from Athens to Vilnius, was hijacked and escorted by a Belarusian fighter jet outside EU-territory to arrest a journalist who had sought refuge in Poland – it’s straight from the good, old KGB playbook.

It is, indeed, a remarkable (and rather bold) act of air piracy, considering Europe’s Eastern Flank is not the worst protected border in Europe.

But the Lukashenko regime and his Moscow overlords may have miscalculated, though so far they do not seem impressed by the new sanctions from Brussels and the closure of European airspace to Belarusian airline Belavia.

Lukashenko has been in power for more than 30 years, and Western sanctions have not yet brought him down, also because he can rely on Moscow’s support.

Despite the speculations about potential Russian involvement, in the forced landing of the Ryanair airliner in Minsk (which Moscow flatly denies), given the importance of Russia, EU leaders decided to decouple the issues and concentrate on sanctioning Belarus.

But the fact is, after the uproar of this week, strongman Lukashenko decided to meet one person and one person only: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

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.”

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

After all, over the years it should have become clear that Putin doesn’t play by the West’s rules.

The other rather momentous problem is what this means for freedom of movement across the European continent.

The EU flight ban might have another undesired side-effect: The move has raised the fear that the new measures could hurt dissidents fleeing regime repression.

While sanctions are indeed on their way, there can be no business as usual with a regime that treats its opponents the way Russia treats Navalny and Belarus treats Protasevich.

“European leaders have claimed they want to ‘speak the language of power,’” Benjamin Haddad, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center noted.

“This is an opportunity to demonstrate they can do more than speak” that language and actually “leverage the economic clout of the EU,” he added.

Thus, the main question, especially for the transatlantic summits to take place in Brussels in June, will be what kind of response both sides of the Atlantic will find to a Russian problem that has remained unaddressed for far too long.


EU IN THE WORLD

RUSSIA REPORT. EU leaders have tasked EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell with preparing a report on the bloc’s strategy towards Russia before June, similar to the one already presented in March on Turkey.

According to EU officials, the Russia report is to buy time until the next EU summit where a comprehensive approach towards Moscow could be presented, also because they say it will be difficult to agree on a joint position between the EU27.

EU-UK TRADE. Trade between the UK and the EU dropped by almost a quarter in the first three months after the UK left the bloc’s single market, according to fresh data published this week by the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

TRANSATLANTIC TAKE

PRE-SUMMIT DIPLOMACY. Visiting Brussels this week, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Stefano Sannino, secretary-general of the EU’s diplomatic service to reassure European allies in a pre-summit charm offensive. Topics discussed were Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as well as the recent violence in Israel and Gaza.

“They also discussed pursuing constructive engagement with China on issues such as climate change and non-proliferation, and on certain regional issues,” the State Department said.

A key quote from a background briefing with reporters: “We are so lucky to have the EU as a partner in what we do,” but it’s ‘inevitable’ that there would be policy differences. The EU-US 15 June summit will tell.

DEFENCE CORNER

MINISTERIAL WOES. NATO defence and foreign ministers are set to meet next week to prepare for the crucial summit on 14 June in Brussels. One additional headache will once again be the question of how to deal with Turkey.

Ankara pushed NATO allies into watering down an official reaction to the forced landing by Belarus of a passenger plane and the detention of a dissident journalist, Reuters revealed earlier this week.

FLYING PURCHASES. Speaking of Turkey, Warsaw announced it will buy 24 Bayraktar TB2 drones from Ankara. The planned contract is set to make Poland the second NATO member state to operate the UAV which is currently used by Turkey’s armed forces.

Croatia, in turn, said it will buy 12 Dassault Rafale fighter jets to modernise its air force.

MALI MISSION. The EU’s military training mission in Mali will continue for the time being, despite the latest crisis in the West African country, the EU’s Borrell announced this week. The news came after Mali’s interim president and prime minister resigned in what appeared to amount to the country’s second coup in nine months.

“They (the Mali military) are very much engaged in fighting all over the territory of Mali, and I don’t think it is going to help the country to stop this activity,” Borrell told reporters after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Lisbon. “But let’s see how things are going.”

SCHENGEN UPDATE. EU member states have approved changes to the European visa system aimed at increasing security in the Schengen area by providing for greater monitoring of short-stay and residence permits.

NATO HOPES. Ukrainian authorities this week condemned NATO reluctance to speed up Kyiv’s membership in the alliance following tensions with Moscow over a buildup of Russian troops along the ex-Soviet country’s borders.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

TALKS ‘ROADMAP’. After Bulgaria vetoed the start of Skopje’s formal negotiation talks for EU membership, significantly worsening relations between the two countries, Sofia said this week it expects North Macedonia to offer a “roadmap” to resume talks regarding EU accession and find a solution to the issues between the two countries.

But while Bulgaria is making efforts to improve relations with North Macedonia, the Russian embassy in Skopje issued a message that could only be seen as a provocation in Sofia.

At the same time, the US is watching and keen to see EU accession talks with North Macedonia starting soon.

NEW HIGHREP. Christian Schmidt, a former minister in the German government, has been appointed as the new international high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the office that oversees the implementation of the 1995 Dayton peace accords. Schmidt has been involved with the Western Balkans and, in particular, with Bosnia as foreign and defence policy spokesman for Germany’s governing conservative alliance.

Current envoy Valentin Inzko of Austria has held the post for 12 years, during which efforts to carry out reforms to curb divisive nationalism and improve the rule of law, needed to qualify for closer association with the EU, have stagnated.

KOSOVO RECOGNITION? Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that although Greece has assured Belgrade it would not recognise the independence of Kosovo, warming relations between Athens and Priština were “certainly not the best of news” for Serbia.

EURASIA DIGEST

WHAT GENOCIDE? Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that attempts by some in the EU to politicise trade issues by slapping sanctions on Beijing are “not acceptable and will lead nowhere” and has rejected the West’s accusations that China is perpetrating genocide on its Muslim minority.

At the same time, China has urged France to convince the EU to ratify the investment deal blocked by the European Parliament, but a French minister said that Beijing must first lift sanctions against MEPs.

17+1 EXIT. Lithuania is the first country to quit China’s 17+1 cooperation forum with central and eastern European states that include other EU members, calling it “divisive”. Vice versa, it seems Zagreb is not too unkeen to strengthen its ties with Beijing.

GREEN ALLIANCE. The EU and Japan have reaffirmed their “shared ambition of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050” at the conclusion of a bilateral summit which included the signature of an EU-Japan “Green Alliance”.

But while Japan pledged in October to slash its carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050, it still relies on coal for almost a third of its electricity generation, making it the world’s fifth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.


WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…

Europe’s everyday business is still stuck in lockdown reality, until further notice. We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe is slowly moving towards an opening after the pandemic.

  • NATO foreign and defence ministers meet
    | Tuesday, 1 June 2021 | videolink

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