The West should respond adequatly to Lukashenko’s hijacking operation.
The US waives sanctions on key players in Nord Stream 2 construction, while Anthony Blinken meets with Lavrov for the first time. The U.S. lawmakers respond with anger.
Russian state media go on the offensive with the Ryanair incident, blame the West for “double standards.”
Good Old Soviet Joke
One old bolshevik says to another: “No, my friend, we will not live long enough to see communism, but our children… our poor children!”
Policy & Research News
Lukashenko, the Hijacker
The despicable arrest of the exiled opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega shocked, but not surprised, the world. The Belarus regime arrested 480 journalists only in 2020 and more than 35 000 people have been apprehended, but this case is, nevertheless, special. The Belarus authorities forced the Ryanair plane with 171 passengers and crew to land in Minsk due to the alleged suspicion of a bomb on board. Nothing indicates that the threat was real, the Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described it as a state-sponsored hijacking. Most probably, there were KGB agents aboard. Protasevich texted his friend that he is being tailed by a Russian-speaking man at the airport in Athens. In Minsk, four more people were deplaned which suggests that he was correct.
Later, the video of Protasevich was released by state television Belarus 1. Belarusian activist acknowledged his role in the organization of mass protests after the presidential election, declared good health, and stated that he is being held in a pretrial detention facility in Minsk where everybody is treating him well. Protasevich is charged with terrorism and inciting mass riots. His allies believe that the statement was given under duress. Similarly, the international community does not believe in Belarus’s innocence. The EU and the USA demand the prisoners be released. The EU states agreed on new economic sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime and banned its state airlines from EU airspace and airports. The Council further appealed to the members’ airlines to avoid overflight of Belarus. The UK mirrored the EU sanctions and similar steps were taken by Ukraine as well.
And the answer of Belarus? New law forbidding journalists to inform about unallowed protests, ban on presenting results of opinion polls without approval, and stricter rules for organizing demonstrations. The legislature comes into force next month. Manifestly, Lukashenko demonstrates that he has no boundaries and the international community, led by the EU, has to react accordingly. Here are some suggestions: recognize the airspace over Belarus as unsafe, forbid Belarussian aircraft at the EU airports, strong and well-targeted sanctions, support of Belarusian society and independent journalism, reconsideration of Nord Steam 2, the expulsion of Belarus from Interpol, the expulsion of Belarus ambassadors and representatives of Belarusian KGB, and speedy investigation of the case with the clarification what role did Russia possibly play in it.
US waives sanctions on key players in Nord Stream 2 construction
On Wednesday, May 19th, the US Department of State waived sanctions placed upon the Nord Stream 2 operator, Nord Stream 2 AG, and Matthias Warnig, the companies CEO and long-time associate of President Putin.
A report detailing the planned waiver was leaked on the eve of a meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov. The timing of the leak and nature of the waiver could suggest that the US is attempting to lay the groundwork for a more stable relationship with Russia ahead of a proposed meeting between Biden and Putin. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that the waiver was “definitely a positive signal”.
The move was also well received by German officials, who took the view that the waiver is a signal from the US that they are committed to rebuilding ties with Germany after the damage caused by the previous US administration. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated, “It’s an expression of the fact that Germany is an important partner for the US”. Germany’s unwavering support has led to accusations that they are prioritizing relations with Russia over EU unity and integrity.
As expected, this reaction was in complete contrast to that of Ukraine. On May 21st, the Ukrainian parliament backed a resolution calling on the US Congress to re-apply all sanctions in order to prevent the construction of Nord Stream 2. President Zelensky declared that the completion of Nord Stream 2 would be a “serious political victory” for the Kremlin, and the leader of the Holos Party, Kira Rudyk, added that Nord Stream 2 is “Russia’s weapon in a hybrid war”. Further condemnation came from Poland, also a vociferous opponent of the project, with the government spokesman Piotr Muller stating “this information is definitely not positive from the security point of view”. This public criticism is particularly noteworthy, given how highly Poland values its cooperation and partnership with the United States. The former Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs noted that the waiver “is certainly a big win for Kremlin and big disappointment for Ukraine”.
At the current rate of construction, the pipeline is likely to be completed before the end of 2021, with some analysts suggesting that this sanctions waiver will speed up the process.
U.S. officials describe first Blinken-Lavrov meeting as “productive”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, met for the first time since President Biden took office. While U.S. officials reported that “no substantive agreements were reached”, they described the discussion as an “open dialogue which could help to bridge the gap between the two countries.” Blinken highlighted areas for cooperation between the two adversaries, such as fighting climate change and addressing the challenges posed by Covid-19: “There are many areas where our interests intersect and overlap, and we believe that we can work together and, indeed, build on those interests.”
This meeting comes at a moment when bilateral relations between the two nations are particularly tense. In March and April of this year, President Biden issued multiple rounds of stringent sanctions against Russia, responding to cyber attacks levied against the U.S., the treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine, and other malign actions.
U.S. lawmakers respond with anger to waived Nord Stream 2 sanctions
During his confirmation hearing, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken asserted his commitment to do whatever he could “to prevent the completion” of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This week’s shocking digression from these previously stated aims was met with immediate anger from Members of Congress. “Two months ago, President Biden called Putin a ‘killer,’ but today he’s planning to give Putin, his regime, and his cronies massive strategic leverage in Europe,” declared Republican Senator Ben Sasse.
On Thursday, May 20, a group of Republican Senators introduced a bill that would reimpose the removed sanctions. Democratic lawmakers also expressed their displeasure with this decision. In a statement, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez highlighted the discrepancy between the Biden administration’s aforementioned goals and this recent action: “The administration has said that the pipeline is a bad idea and that it is a Russian malign influence project. I share that sentiment, but fail to see how today’s decision will advance U.S. efforts to counter Russian aggression in Europe.”
This debate has emerged as a likely point of bipartisan cooperation between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in an otherwise highly polarized Congress.
Kremlin’s Current Narrative
Russian state media goes on the offensive with the Ryanair incident, blames the West for “double standards”
The reaction of Russian state-funded media to the ‘hijacking’ of Ryanair flight has been more offensive than defensive. Immediately, the messaging was formulated in a way to represent Roman Protasevich as “an activist suspected of involvement in terrorist activities” working for an “extremist outlet”. Riafan quotes political scientist Sergei Markov and writes that “The scale of information that Protasevich can give out to the Belarusian authorities about Western sponsors is amazing and frightens the countries of the West”.
All the articles confirm that the Ryanair plane had to land in Minsk “due to a bomb threat” without allowing alternatives to be part of the discourse. Russian state media fails to mention anywhere that besides Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, one more citizen of Belarus and three other citizens of Russia didn’t continue their flight to Vilnius.
RIA Novosti quotes the interview with the press secretary of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Anatoly Glaz, who said that the Ryanair incident is being “intentionally politicised with baseless accusations and labelling”. TASS also actively promoted the comments of the Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Leonid Slutsky, as he blamed his Western counterparts for having “double standards”.
The same narrative was promoted by the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova. In an interview with Vesti FM radio station, she has labelled the Western reaction to the Ryanair incident as “nothing more than hysteria”, adding that for the West, “Seizure through force was used to detain people and arrest them without a court ruling, only based on material planted by intelligence agencies and staged provocations.”
She has additionally posted comments on Facebook saying that the West is “following ‘quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi’ [What is permissible for Jupiter may not be permissible for a bull] principle“. All the major state media outlets, channelling her comments, constantly mention in reporting that “This is not the first time a plane was forced to land in Europe in an attempt to detain a wanted person” (referring to the cases of Edward Snowden & an anti-Maidan protester).
Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.