Russia’s power over Belarus is in the spotlight after plane ‘hijacking’ incident

As global leaders expressed outrage at Belarus’ “hijacking” of a Ryanair plane and the detention of an opposition activist, Russia was notable for its vociferous defense of the country. Now, analysts are saying Moscow stands to benefit from Belarus’ further estrangement from the West.

Belarus on Sunday ordered a Ryanair flight carrying prominent Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich to divert to its capital Minsk, whereupon the activist was detained. Russia described the uproar in the U.S. and Europe as “shocking” and accused the West of having double standards.

“It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook on Monday.

Russia has been steadily increasing its power and influence over its neighbor Belarus, but the countries’ leaders President Vladimir Putin and President Alexander Lukashenko are somewhat uncomfortable allies — it’s arguable that any allegiance is fragile at best, and borne out of necessity.

For Belarus, Russia is a powerful economic and political partner and a source of support, having backed Lukashenko’s leadership which is now in its 27th year.

For Russia, Belarus offers an opportunity to exert economic and political influence in the region, and is a convenient bulwark against what it sees as the European encroachment upon its former territories, such as Ukraine. Putin is known to favor stability and predictability and, as such, a longstanding leader like Lukashenko in power — who can potentially be more easily influenced — is favored over regime change.

Experts who follow Russia closely say Putin would have known, if not authorized, the “hijacking” incident. Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, noted on Monday that “”Lukashenko is now totally dependent on Putin for his survival in office and would not have risked his relationship with the Kremlin by undertaking such a cavalier move unless he had been first given the green light by Putin.”

“I think if anyone doubted whether Lukashenko was ‘all in’ with Putin, in his power vertical/sovereign democratic model, and indeed of Belarus’s deeper integration into Russia, then I think this sends a resounding answer … there are no bridges left standing back to the West, and he is willing to surrender Belarus’ sovereignty to save his own skin.”

Read more: Belarus accused of ‘hijacking’ plane to arrest activist, provoking outrage in the West

Putin’s leverage over Lukashenko strengthened recently when, last September, Putin gave Belarus a $1.5 billion loan and agreed to boost trade. The move was widely seen as a gesture of support for Lukashenko following weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation after he won an election which the opposition said was rigged. Lukashenko denied this allegation.

More sanctions unlikely to work
Like Russia, Belarus is also subject to international sanctions, namely for its intimidation and repression of protesters, opposition members and journalists.

On Monday, EU leaders agreed to impose more sanctions on Belarus but analysts believe any new restrictions on Lukashenko, or other individuals or entities involved in the incident, are likely to be ineffective.

In fact, Emre Peker, director of Europe at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, noted Monday that the Ryanair plane “hijacking” incident was likely to benefit Russia by pushing Belarus closer to it — sentiment that was echoed elsewhere.

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“President Vladimir Putin is likely to welcome the incident as a further issue driving a wedge between Belarus and the West,” Peker said in a note.

“Allegations of Russian involvement, meanwhile, will further complicate the EU’s ability to effectively respond to Belarus. Moscow accused the EU and its members of double standards, and will defend Minsk’s handling of the incident. Similarly, any new EU sanctions will draw Russian condemnation as Western interference … While Berlin will push for a strong EU reaction if Protasevich is not released, Germany is unlikely to target Nord Stream 2 in connection with the Ryanair incident.”

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