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LONDON—Rumors in Moscow continue to suggest that Vladimir Putin is growing sick of his out-of-control Belarusian sidekick. The relationship has always been tense and Alexander Lukashenko has jailed Russian soldiers and critics who pushed for closer ties to Russia, but Vladimir Putin isn’t about to take the West’s side in any flare-up.
Dozens of world leaders condemned Lukashenko for ordering a fighter plane to force a Ryanair flight to land at an airport in Belarus so that a leading opposition journalist and his girlfriend could be arrested. Days passed by but the Kremlin said little about the unprecedented and wildly inflammatory hijacking of a passenger jet. Instead, Putin has responded by inviting Europe’s last dictator to visit him at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi later this week.
As yet, it is unclear if Russia knew about the plot to ground the plane in advance or even took part in the scheme. “It is easy to suspect that the four mysterious Russian citizens on board of the plane that Lukashenko downed were FSB; and that it was a joint Russian-Belarusian special operation,” Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin told The Daily Beast.
If Putin was in on the plot, which was bound to cause international outrage, that poses yet more questions for Kremlinologists. Has Putin gone all-in on rescuing his main ally West of Russia? Or was this a cunning ploy to finally isolate Belarus from its European neighbors and force Minsk into Moscow’s embrace?
Britain apparently suspects that Russia was indeed involved. “I’ll be careful what I say at this point,” said Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary. “It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could be taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.”
According to Belarusian opposition, there were at least five Russian citizens heading from Athens to Vilnius on the plane with Roman Protasevich, a prominent 26-year-old journalist who helped to spread anti-Lukashenko news from outside Belarus during the uprising against last year’s stolen election.
The Belarusian KGB arrested one of those Russians, Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega, when the Ryanair flight was grounded on Sunday. She is now behind bars in the most notorious Minsk prison, Okrestina, and authorities announced on Tuesday that she would be held for two months.
Even with a Russian jailed, the Kremlin’s spokesman refused to comment. Would the Kremlin be involved in helping the Russian citizens in Belarus? “Not the Kremlin. We have aviation authorities, that is their responsibility,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
It’s not even clear that Moscow could get Sapega out if Putin wanted to release her. Sapega’s mother appealed to Putin, asking to facilitate access for diplomats and lawyers to see her daughter on Tuesday.
Lukashenko—who has been in power since 1994, six years longer than Putin—threw a pro-Russian presidential rival in jail last year after he emerged as a real threat. Viktor Babaryko, who was the head of the local Kremlin-controlled Gazprom banking subsidiary until he entered politics, denied being a Russian stooge but had close ties in Moscow.
In February, Lukashenko said he “wanted to spit” on Babaryko after months of protests against his regime had been repressed with Putin’s help. “Putin cannot pull his own Babaryko out of the Belarusian prison, what to say about Protasevich,” said the editor-in-chief of the independent radio Echo of Moscow, Aleksey Venediktov, on Telegram.
Putin must figure out how best to control an unruly ally.
“This is one of the situations, when the Kremlin does not know what words to use. Lukashenko has turned both Belarus and its successful Belarusian airline, Belavia, into pariahs,” said Olga Bychkova, a Moscow-based political analyst.
“Moscow cannot send somebody like [Putin henchman Igor] Sechin to rule Belarus, it needs to be a local guy; at the moment they have no alternative,” she told The Daily Beast.
Russian politicians have been debating what to do about the Belarusian leader and his scandalous rule for years—even before he began to lose his grip on the country.
On the surface, Moscow has been doing everything to demonstrate that Lukashenko is a sovereign leader and its closest ally, not an embarrassment. Putin hugged him in front of the cameras and took the Belarusian leader on a ski trip in February, just a few months after Lukashenko had ordered the arrest of 33 Russian soldiers in Minsk. Lukashenko hinted that the Russian mercenaries had been planning to meddle in last August’s Belarusian presidential election, which Lukashenko won with a claimed 80 percent of the vote.
Last month Lukashenko claimed he was being targeted by Western coup-plotters. This time he claimed that the U.S. leadership was planning to assassinate him and his son, and deploy NATO forces to Belarusian territory. Both the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, and the Belarusian KGB issued statements saying there had been a joint special operation to prevent a military coup.
Amid the frenzied reaction to the Ryanair incident, Lukashenko cast around desperately for a fall guy. First he claimed Hamas were somehow involved as they demanded a cease-fire in Gaza, even though a cease-fire in Gaza had already been agreed.
Two days later, he claimed the “ill-wishers from outside the country changed their methods of attacking us.” Less than 24 hours after the Kremlin confirmed the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva, Lukashenko said Minsk had received fake information about a bomb being on board the plane from the authorities in Switzerland.
These claims of being targeted by international plots play right into Putin’s personal obsessions. He often talks about America-staged coups—citing revolutions in Libya and in Ukraine.
The murder of old comrade Muammar Gaddafi, in particular, still haunts him. “The entire world saw it. Drones, including American ones, delivered a strike on his motorcade,” he said. “Then commandos, who were not supposed to be there, brought in so-called opposition and militants. And killed him without trial.”
Putin was convinced that the West was preparing the same fate for Ukraine’s leader, Victor Yanukovych. During the revolution in Ukraine, Putin said he was ready to put Russia’s nuclear weapons into a state of combat. “We were ready to do that,” he said later. Putin admitted he had personally ordered his men to help Yanukovych to escape, first to Crimea and then to Russia. “Otherwise he would have been simply killed,” he said in a film made by Rossiya-1 television channel.
The Belarusian leader has had ample opportunity to hone his appeals to Putin over the years. “Lukashenko has been using Moscow to stay in power. He skillfully manipulates the Kremlin in the most cynical way, using Putin’s support for his economic and political benefits, while Russia is not getting any profit back from him,” Yashin told The Daily Beast.
One area where Putin is likely to applaud Lukashenko is his latest crackdown on independent media. After amending the law on Monday, journalists are now banned from live coverage of opposition rallies and from publishing the results of social polls without the government’s approval. According to the Moscow-based human rights group Vesna, there were already more than a dozen journalists behind bars in Belarus before Protasevich was snatched from the skies.
Lukashenko will head to Sochi this week keen to remind Putin that his nation is the last former Soviet bastion on Russia’s western border, and this week’s events will only make him more loyal to the Kremlin. For now—as the analyst Bychkova explains—“Moscow is stuck with Lukashenko.”