Belarus was courting its boss Russia on Friday amid continued international outrage over the forced landing of a commercial flight to seize a Belarusian opposition journalist.
As the West prepared to isolate the former country from the Soviet bloc, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the seaside resort of Sochi on the Black Sea.
The Kremlin has defended Belarus since Lukashenko, who is often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, brazenly ordered authorities to hijack a Ryanair commercial passenger plane in order to arrest a prominent dissident on board on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the NATO chief said it was hard to believe Russia was not involved in the “hijacking” of a Belarusian plane.
“We are aware of the very close relations between Russia and Belarus,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Sky News. “Therefore, it’s hard to believe that the Minsk regime can do something like this without any sort of coordination with Russia.”
Geographically, Belarus sits between Russia and Poland and Lithuania, two NATO states, and has long served as a buffer between Russia and the West.
NATO demands the release of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sophia Sapega, who are being held in Belarus.
Protasevich was traveling on the Ryanair passenger plane from Greece to Lithuania when a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet was nearby and Belarusian authorities reported what turned out to be a false alarm bomb to force the plane to land.
Sunday’s decision sparked a wave of international condemnation of Belarus and its leader Lukashenko from the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations.
Stoltenberg’s comments come as European Union leaders discuss a new round of economic sanctions against Belarus.
Lukashenko did not back down, despite pressure from European and American officials. On Wednesday, he threatened to flood Western Europe with drugs and migrants if sanctions were imposed on his country for the crash landing of the Ryanair flight.
“We have put an end to drugs and migrants – now you can have them and catch them yourself,” he said during a speech in parliament, according to Belarusian state media.
The EU has already urged its airlines to avoid Belarus and decided to close its own airspace to Belarusian carriers amid continued outrage over Sunday’s interception of the Ryanair flight.
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This decision led to a falling out with Moscow over international flights.
Russia on Wednesday and Thursday refused two European airlines, Air France and Austrian Airlines, permission to land aircraft whose flight paths avoided Belarusian airspace. Both flights were subsequently canceled.
Russia’s refusal to allow these flights to land then fueled speculation that Moscow was considering a ban on these flights in support of Minsk.
But, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the notion during a press briefing on Friday and attributed Russia’s denial of landing rights to some foreign airlines to “technical issues” while aviation officials were working on approving new flight paths.
Russia on Friday cleared an Austrian Airlines Vienna-Moscow flight that bypassed Belarusian airspace, NBC News confirmed to the company.
Peskov also denied that Moscow was involved in Belarus’ bold move to ground the plane to capture a political dissident.
“Neither the Russian aviation authorities, nor the Russian services and agencies have anything to do with what happened in Belarus with the Ryanair flight,” Peskov said on Friday. “They have nothing to do with it.”
The Kremlin spokesman objected when asked if Moscow plans to investigate the controversial stranded plane after Poland and the International Civil Aviation Organization announced their own investigations.
“President Putin will have the opportunity today to obtain information about the incident from the original source,” he replied, referring to his meeting with Lukashenko in Sochi.