After a passenger jet travelling between two European Union capitals was forced to land in Minsk and a Belarusian journalist was arrested on the tarmac, observers are wondering whether Moscow approved what one Western official called an "act of state terrorism" -- or even made it happen.
Raman Pratasevich was detained on May 23 after Belarusian authorities scrambled a warplane to escort the Vilnius-bound Ryanair plane to Minsk, a move widely denounced in the EU and the United States as a hijacking.
The dramatic development is stoking already substantial Western anger at Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the strongman who claimed victory in an August 2020 election opponents say was rigged to extend his harsh rule of just over 26 years, setting off protests that he has met with a violent and persistent crackdown.
Does it play into Russian President Vladimir Putin's hands, or set up a new complication that could hamper efforts to reach his foreign policy goals? And if the Kremlin thinks it could be a boon for Moscow, is it possible that Russia was behind it.
Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, a staunch Kremlin opponent who is seeking to run in parliamentary elections in September, certainly thinks so.
"It looks like this was a joint operation by the FSB and the Belarusian KGB," Yashin wrote on Twitter on May 24, referring to the main security agencies of the two closely linked neighbors. "If so, it's a disgrace for our country."
Yashin based his suspicions in part on reports that the passengers on the flight from Athens included four Russian citizens who did not reboard and fly on to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, after the hourslong stop in Minsk. Those reports have sparked speculation that the Russians could have been security agents involved in the operation to deliver Pratasevich to the Belarusian authorities.
Russia's Ready Response
Another catalyst for suspicion was the Russian response: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the incident, saying little more than that "international air travel authorities” should assess whether existing standards were followed.
But in a swift response that observers said seemed closely coordinated, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and others in the Kremlin orbit drew parallels with an incident in 2013, when a flight from Moscow carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales was diverted to Austria after reports that fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden might be on board.
Critics of the Kremlin just as swiftly dismissed the suggestion that the 2013 incident justified the interception of the passenger jet carrying Pratasevich and more than 100 other people on a flight between two EU countries. But if Russia did initiate or accede to the action by the Belarusian state, one potential motive might have been to set a precedent for similar moves by Moscow in the future.
Analysts at the German Council on Foreign Relations believe that Putin's Russia could have been "testing a new method of 'rogue' action, using Belarus as a testing ground," Milan Nic, a senior fellow at the Berlin-based think tank, wrote on Twitter, citing an exchange between experts there.
That possibility could be a particularly strong source of concern for Russian opponents of Putin's government, including members of jailed Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny's organizations, which appear likely to be branded "extremist" in the near future.
Pratasevich, 26, was a key administrator of the Telegram channel NEXTA Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following the disputed August election. He and colleague Stsyapan Putsila fled Belarus late last year, fearing prosecution after a Minsk court labeled the channel and its logo extremist.
In November 2020, Minsk launched investigations into Pratasevich and Putsila on suspicion of organizing mass disorder, disrupting social order, and inciting social hatred -- similar to the accusations that Russian authorities have made, without evidence, against Navalny and his organizations.
On Twitter, Nic indicated that experts at the independent research institute believe that because the Russian and Belarusian air defense systems are integrated, the passenger jet carrying Pratasevich could not have been diverted as it was without Moscow's approval.
Regardless of whether it could have done so on its own, "Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval," Timothy Snyder, a U.S. historian and author of several books focusing on the region that includes Belarus, wrote on Twitter, adding: "Possibly the hijacking was even a Russian initiative."
Snyder suggested that Moscow's aim would be to force Belarus into an even tighter embrace with Russia by increasing its isolation from the West.
"The Russian play would be: foreseeable EU sanctions on Belarus drive Minsk closer to Moscow," he wrote.
'Kadyrov Of The West'
Putin has been seeking to integrate Belarus more closely with Russia for almost two decades and has seemed to step up the effort in the past few years. Lukashenka has long resisted moves that could compromise Belarusian sovereignty but the post-election crackdown on protests has pushed Minsk closer to Moscow by raising the ire of the West, upsetting his balancing act.
The incident could also be useful for the Kremlin as a way to try to suggest to the West that Russia's persecution of government opponents is child's play compared to the clampdown by Lukashenka, who years ago was dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by some U.S. officials.
Still, other observers believe that the Kremlin may not be happy about the drama that unfolded over Belarus on May 23, suggesting that it complicates Moscow's diplomatic efforts at a delicate time as Russia and the United States prepare for a possible summit between Putin and President Joe Biden in June.
Russia may have more influence over Belarus than it did in the past, but the dependence is a two-way street to some extent: By supporting Lukashenka in the face of street protests and Western criticism, Putin has hitched his wagon to the Lukashenka for the time being, at least.
"I doubt [the] Kremlin is excited about Lukashenka now. Putin has a stressful summit with Biden coming up," Anton Barbashin, editorial director at Riddle Russia, a platform for analysis on Russia, wrote on Twitter.
"But due to the nature of the [Russia-Belarus] relationship Putin has to back up Minsk," Barbashin wrote, referring to Lukashenka as a "Kadyrov of the West" -- a reference to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed head of Russia's Chechnya region.
Kadyrov runs Chechnya like his own fiefdom, frequently flouting Russian law, and stands accused of countless egregious human rights abuses by activists and opponents.
Critics of the Kremlin say that he should be an embarrassment to Putin, because his actions undermine efforts to cast the Russian president as the strong leader of a law-based country.
But analysts say Putin turns a blind eye to Kadyrov's conduct, because the Kremlin relies on him to keep order and control separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.