Russia Calls EU 'Irresponsible' for Asking European Airlines to Avoid Belarus

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday following the pushback from the European Union after Belarusian flight controllers forced a commercial plane to land and arrested a journalist, the Associated Press reported.

In addition to sanctions EU leaders placed on Belarus, they advised European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned the move, calling it "utterly irresponsible and threatening passengers' safety."

Moscow quickly offered its political support to Belarus and argued that Lukashenko acted in accordance with international law because he believed there was a bomb threat on the plane.

Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko said "growing Western pressure" has pushed Belarus closer to Russia.

"The EU has made a political decision to introduce sectoral sanctions in an apparent attempt to ruin our economy and create conditions for the repeat of coup attempts," he said during a meeting. "In this situation, we count on the support of our closest ally, the Russian Federation."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Belarus and Russia
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a meeting with Commonwealth of Independent States officials in Minsk on May 28, 2021. Lukashenko was to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday to discuss their economic relationship following pushback from the European Union over Belarus' diversion of a Ryanair flight. Dmitry Astakhov/AFP via Getty Images

Lukashenko has found himself increasingly isolated after Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair plane to land because there was a bomb threat against it. No bomb was found once the plane was on the ground, but 26-year-old journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were arrested.

EU leaders denounced it as a hijacking and piracy and responded by barring Belarusian carriers from the bloc's airspace and airports and advising European airlines to skirt Belarus. The bloc's foreign ministers sketched out tougher sanctions Thursday to target the country's lucrative potash industry and other sectors that are the main cash-earners for Lukashenko's government.

The International Civil Aviation Organization said Thursday that it will investigate the diversion, as many Western countries have asked.

The dispute has pushed Lukashenko, who has relentlessly stifled dissent during his rule of more than a quarter-century, even closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the two will meet Friday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks on closer economic ties, according to the Kremlin. Earlier in the day, the countries' prime ministers met in Minsk to pave the way for the presidents' talks.

The two ex-Soviet nations have signed a union agreement that calls for close political, economic and military ties, but that stops short of a full merger. Moscow has helped buttress Belarus' economy with cheap energy supplies and loans, but the ties have often been strained with Lukashenko scolding Moscow for trying to force him to relinquish control over prized economic assets and eventually abandon Belarus' independence.

In the past, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader has tried to play the West against Russia, raising the prospect of a rapprochement with the EU and the United States to wring more aid out of Moscow.

Such tactics no longer work after Lukashenko's brutal crackdown on protests last fall in the wake of a vote that handed him a sixth term but that the opposition said was rigged. More than 35,000 people were arrested amid the protests and thousands beaten—moves that made him a pariah in the West. The flight's diversion has now cornered the Belarusian strongman even more.

On Friday, the EU's executive European Commission presented a 3 billion-euro ($3.7 billion) aid plan to support "a future democratic Belarus" that could be activated if the country moves toward a "democratic transition."

"To the people of Belarus: We see and hear your desire for change, for democracy, and for a bright future," said Ursula von der Leyen, the commission's president. "And to the Belarusian authorities: No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime."

The West had already slapped sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in the vote and crackdown against protesters and is now promising more. Many observers warn that Lukashenko has become easy prey for the Kremlin, which may use his isolation to push for closer integration.

"Lukashenko is scared, and the Kremlin may demand payment for its political support by pushing for the introduction of a single currency, the deployment of military bases and more," said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. "In this situation, it would be much more difficult for him to resist and bargain with Putin."

Lukashenko said Friday before departing for Russia that he hopes to reach an agreement with Putin on resuming regular flights between the two countries that have been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some in the West have alleged Russia was involved in the Ryanair flight's diversion—something Moscow angrily denies—and warned that it could exploit the situation to draw Belarus ever closer and possibly even incorporate it.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis charged Thursday that "Lukashenko is playing with Putin, and trying and helping Putin to annex the country," adding that "we should send the signals to Russia as well that annexation wouldn't go well with Europe."

As European airlines seek to skirt Belarus, Russia has refused some requests to change the flight paths of service to Moscow over the past two days in an apparent gesture of support for Lukashenko but allowed some flights to proceed Friday.

Austrian Airlines, for instance, canceled a flight from Vienna on Thursday, though the carrier said it was given permission to avoid Belarus for flights on the route Friday, according to the Austria Press Agency. It is still awaiting word on further flights. Air France canceled flights from Paris to Moscow on Thursday and Friday.

Belarus Ryanair Flight
A Ryanair jet that carried opposition figure Raman Pratasevich was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, after a bomb threat on May 23, 2021. Pratasevich, who ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize demonstrations against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, was arrested after the plane landed. He had left his homeland in 2019 to try to escape the reach of the Belarusian KGB but now faces 15 years in prison on a charge of inciting disturbances. Mindaugas Kulbis