Paul Niland: Did Lukashenko or Putin hijack that plane?
Over the weekend a truly shocking event took place. It was something that endangered the lives of many innocent travelers, when a Ryanair commercial airliner headed from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk, Belarus, ostensibly due to a security threat. The question is, who was behind this? Because, how much is the Belarussian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, defeated by his election rival Sviatlana Tsiskhanovska back in August 2020, in charge of his own destiny or actions at this point?
The back story
Ryanair flight FR4978 was en route from Athens to Vilnius and while traversing Belarussian airspace Minsk Air Traffic Control contacted the flight crew and told them that they had received a warning of a potential security threat in the form of a bomb or other explosive device on board, for that reason they were instructed to immediately change course and land in Minsk.
That’s where the story begins to fall apart. As the plane was just about to leave Belarussian airspace, even if there had been a bomb on board then any potential danger to Belarus was moments away from being nullified. Also had there been a genuine security concern then the most appropriate form of action would have been to allow the plane to head into the nearest airport, which would have been the original destination of the capital of Lithuania.
When the plane then arrived in Minsk the real reason for this outrageous act of international air piracy became clear. The aim was to arrest one of the passengers, a prominent blogger and the co-Founder of a Belarussian media channel called Nexta. That channel had become popular in particular during the protests that followed Lukashenko’s attempt to steal an election victory that led to the, as yet unfinished revolution in Belarus.
The target of this audacious act, in which a fully-armed MiG-29 fighter jet was dispatched to escort the civilian airliner to the ground, was a man called Roman Protasevich, had (like many other prominent anti-Lukashenko figures) been granted refugee status in Lithuania.
The status quo
Protasevich is now in custody, and in all likelihood is being subjected to some form of torture inside one of Lukashenko’s prisons. Almost all of the other passengers were permitted to continue with their journey, but 6 did not. The girlfriend of Protasevich (to whom he’d passed his electronic devices after he understood what was happening) was also arrested, the fate (and identities) of the other 4 men who remained in Minsk is unknown but it is believed that they are Russian nationals and there is reasonable speculation that they may be aligned with one of the Russian security services. Equally, they could be part of the Belarussian KGB (yes, it is still named that) but at this point the dividing line between Russia’s Federal Security Service, FSB, or military intelligence service, GRU, and the Belarussian KGB that it is so thin as to be indistinct.
As the plane descended to Minsk, Protasevich said to his fellow passengers that if they take him into custody the Lukashenko regime would likely execute him. That’s not hyperbole. Since the beginning of the revolution in Belarus, at least seven anti-regime activists have been killed. Neither Lukashenko nor Vladimir Putin really think twice about having people who inconvenience them executed. We know this from Politkovskaya, Nemtsov, Litvinenko, the Skripals, and a whole host of others who dared to stand up against this pair of autocratic thugs.
Who is responsible and why is it vital to understand this?
Since the uprising against Lukashenko’s blatantly untrue claim to have won the presidency began it has been apparent to all who observe events in the former Soviet space that, increasingly, Belarus is being managed by and for the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin cannot allow another of his cronies to fall to a popular revolution like Yanukovych, the message to the people of Russia, themselves standing up for months in Khabarovsk in Siberia and across the country to protest the trumped-up imprisonment of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, that street protests can be successful is something that absolutely terrifies the Kremlin. With that in mind, we have seen since the August vote a creeping annexation of various institutions in Belarus by Russia.
First of all the Belarussian state “media” was boosted by allies from the Russian propaganda and disinformation structures.
Putin and Lukashenko have met repeatedly, though there’s little of substance for public consumption regarding the reasons for or results of those meetings.
Lukashenko has used the laughably false claim of a Western plot to kill him and his family to lay the groundwork for succession plans, Putin himself has repeated this falsehood. In case that Lukashenko would be somehow incapacitated, presidential powers would be passed to the country’s Supreme Council, where Lukashenko’s son enjoys a great deal of strength and so if events dictate, dynastic succession is central to Russia’s short-term planning, central to the longer-term strategy is the creation of pro-Russian political parties in Belarus. In addition, there is talking of strengthening military ties between the two countries, allowing Russia to have an airbase in Belarus, and their armies working on “training exercises” together. That last part is of particular concern to Ukraine as the road from Belarus to Kyiv is a two-hour trip by car, so maybe four hours in a tank.
What Lukashenko has done, in trying to save his own skin, over the last 9 months is to have transformed an independent sovereign nation into a vassal of Moscow. He has done this relatively willingly, on the one hand, he has few cards to play when it comes to his dealings with Putin, on the other hand, his calculations are also entirely self-serving.
So with Putin now pulling all kinds of strings on his puppet, the following question must be asked; who hijacked flight FR4978? And the reason why this is important is that the consequences of that outrage must be placed on the appropriate shoulders.
If, as it is believed, the four men who didn’t continue on to Vilnius are Russian security forces then what we are now seeing is the partial capture of Belarus morphs into an actual scenario where Russia – already a terrorist state – is carrying out special operations onboard a plane registered in the European Union, owned by a European company, traveling between two European capital cities. That’s something that registers way above “grave concern” on the scale.
Indeed, that the likely culprit behind this new obscenity is Russia is an opinion shared by noted historian and respected Yale professor Tim Snyder on Twitter in the wake of these events. To quote him in full:
“Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval. Possibly the hijacking was even a Russian initiative. Worth asking before acting. The Russian play would be: foreseeable EU sanctions on Belarus drive Minsk closer to Moscow. So the EU should consider sanctioning Russia as well as Belarus. And Germany should cancel Nord Stream 2. Because of this. Because of Navalny. And because it was always an outrage to reward Russia with a pipeline for invading Ukraine.”