Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised his country’s close ties with Belarus as he hosted powerful leader Alexander Lukashenko amid global outrage following a forced European air strike.
Observers took a closer look at Friday’s talks to see how far the Kremlin would go in supporting Mr Lukashenko’s rule after Belarus turned down a Ryanair plane last Sunday and launched a military jet to arrest an opposition journalist.
Following the forced deployment of the Ranier aircraft, the European Union urged EU-based carriers to stay away from Belarusian airspace and promised new sanctions against Mr Lukashenko and government officials.
During talks in Russia’s Black Sea Research Sochi, Mr Putin warmly greeted Mr Lukashenko and agreed that the Western outcry on the plane was a “rise of emotion”.
Mr Putin said he was happy to see Mr Lukashenko and that the two had to go swimming.
Mr Putin also said in a statement to reporters that there had been “a lot of noise from the Western community” when Bolivian President Ivo Morales’ plane crashed in 2019.
“The president was taken off the plane, and nothing happened,” said Mr Putin at the start of the talks.
Mr Morales was flown from Moscow to Vienna for hours on a plane, with fugitive American whiteblower Edward Snowden aboard.
Mr Lukashenko complained that the West was trying to provoke unrest in Belarus.
“Efforts are being made to board the boat to reach the level of last August,” Mr Lukashenko said. Protests against his rule erupted after a disputed election.
“It’s clear what these Western friends want from us.”
The Belarussian hardliner, who came with a briefcase, said he wanted to show Mr Putin “some documents” about the Rayner incident and thanked him for his support in his recent stance with the West.
The talks lasted more than five hours but no results were announced.
Both leaders praised the growing bilateral cooperation.
“We are building a union state,” Mr Putin told Mr Lukashenko. “We are confidently moving in that direction, and that work is bringing tangible results to our citizens.”
Russia and Belarus have formed a “union state” that connects their economies and armies, but the Kremlin has called for closer integration.
Over the years, Mr Lukashenko has had a volatile relationship with Moscow, playing with the West and maintaining full unity with Russia.
But after the Ryanair plane crash, Mr Lukashenko’s options seem limited.
Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko have been meeting regularly since August, when the disputed election sparked historic protests against Mr Lukashenko’s nearly decade-long rule.
The 66-year-old powerful Belarussian leader has cracked down on his opponents and has leaned towards Mr Putin in the face of criticism from the West.
During the unrest in Belarus, many were killed, thousands were arrested, and hundreds were imprisoned.
Sunday’s flight delays were a dramatic increase, with EU leaders accusing Minsk of hijacking a European flight to arrest 226-year-old opposition journalist and activist Roman Protsevic.
The overflight ban has helped cancel flights between Russia and Europe after Russian authorities rejected flight plans to leave Belarusian airspace.
Russia has called the cancellation “purely technical” but said it was concerned that Russia would systematically refuse to take over European airlines if Belarus was ignored.
Moscow’s flight ban is politically motivated and dangerous.
“What the West has done for political reasons … is completely irresponsible for political reasons and endangers the safety of passengers,” said Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Black was monitoring Russia’s broader policy, but the Kremlin said the blockade was by no means political.
Belarussian authorities have blamed the blast on a flight from Athens to Vilnius and to Rainer.
Based on a message from the pro-mail address of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, Minsk said he had demanded flying land in Minsk.
‘Must Be Brave’
The Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council announced on Thursday that it was launching an investigation.
Protsevich, who helped protest against Mr Lukashenko’s rule last year, was arrested along with his two-year-old Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, when the plane landed in Minsk.
Mr Borrell said a proposal to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy, including oil products and the potash sector, was on the table.
Belarus’s opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Friday called on the EU to be “brave” and impose further sanctions against the Minsk regime.
After meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague, Ms Tikhanovskaya said the steps being taken by EU countries to target Belarusian economic zone had not been reached.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned Mr Lukashenko on Friday that “the time has come to change.”
“Any kind of oppression, cruelty or coercion will not bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian rule,” she said.
The European Commission’s president has resigned, and Mr Lukashenko has offered a अर्ब 1 billion package to the opposition to help “democratic Belarus”.
Mr Lukashenko has held sway in power in the former Soviet Union since 1991, by imprisoning dissidents, imprisoning and allegedly torturing dissidents and mocking independent media.