Belarus courted its patron saint, Russia, on Friday amid ongoing international outrage over the forced landing of a commercial flight to seize a Belarusian opposition journalist.
When the West tried to isolate the former Soviet bloc, the Belarusian strong President Alexander Lukashenko was supposed to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea town of Sochi.
The Kremlin has championed Belarus since Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, brazenly ordered authorities to divert a Ryanair commercial passenger plane to arrest a prominent dissident on board on Sunday.
In the meantime, the NATO chief said it was hard to believe that Russia was not involved in the “hijacking” of Belarusian planes.
“We know the very close relationship between Russia and Belarus,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Sky News.
Geographically, Belarus lies between Russia and Poland and Lithuania, two NATO countries, and has long served as a buffer between Russia and the West.
NATO demands the release of the opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sophia Sapega, who are imprisoned in Belarus.
Protasevich was traveling to Lithuania from Greece on board the Ryanair passenger plane when a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter aircraft was nearby and Belarusian authorities reported a false bomb alert to force the plane to land.
Sunday’s parade sparked a wave of international condemnation of Belarus and its leader Lukashenko from the US, UK, European Union, NATO and the United Nations.
Stoltenberg’s comments come as the heads of state and government of the European Union discussed a new round of economic sanctions against Belarus.
Lukashenko has not retired despite pressure from European and US officials. On Wednesday, he threatened to flood Western Europe with drugs and migrants if sanctions were imposed on his country for the emergency landing of the Ryanair flight.
“We put an end to drugs and migrants – now you can have them and catch them yourself,” he said during a speech to parliament, according to the Belarusian state media.
The EU has already urged its airlines to avoid Belarus and has decided to close its own airspace to Belarusian airlines amid outrage over the interception of the Ryanair flight on Sunday.
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This move led to an uproar with Moscow over international flights.
Russia refused to allow two European airlines, Air France and Austrian Airlines, to land planes on Wednesday and Thursday whose routes avoid Belarusian airspace. Both flights were subsequently canceled.
Russia’s refusal to allow these flights to land has led to speculation that Moscow is considering banning such flights in support of Minsk.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the idea during a press conference on Friday, addressing Russia’s denial of landing rights to some foreign airlines as “technical problems” while aviation officials worked to approve new flight routes.
On Friday, Russia allowed an Austrian Airlines Vienna-Moscow flight that bypassed Belarusian airspace to land, NBC News confirmed to the company.
Peskov also denied that Moscow was involved in Belarus’ bold attempt to ground the plane to trap a political dissident.
“Neither the Russian aviation authorities nor the Russian services and agencies have anything to do with what happened to the Ryanair flight in Belarus,” said Peskov on Friday. “You have nothing to do with it.”
The Kremlin spokesman declined when asked if Moscow planned any investigation into the controversial aircraft base after Poland and the International Civil Aviation Organization announced their own probes.
“Today President Putin will have the opportunity to get information about the incident from the original source,” he replied, referring to his meeting with Lukashenko in Sochi.