NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said personnel at Belarus's diplomatic mission to the alliance will have their access restricted at its headquarters in the wake of the forced landing of a passenger plane by Minsk and the arrest of an opposition journalist who was on board the plane.
"We have decided to restrict the access of Belarusian personnel to the NATO headquarters based on our assessment of security measures at the headquarters," Stoltenberg told reporters on May 31 on the eve of a NATO defense and foreign ministers meeting.
The move is said to involve a Belarusian ambassador and four other diplomats.
"They can still enter, but only as visitors with a day pass and an escort," a NATO official was quoted as saying.
Belarus is not a member of NATO but has maintained a diplomatic mission to the Western military alliance since 1998.
Belarusian personnel can attend seminars and meetings at the alliance and in NATO countries as part of a Partnership for Peace cooperation program that tackles issues such as arms control and crisis management.
The forced landing of a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania on May 23 by Belarus and the arrest of journalist and opposition activist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, who was traveling with him, has caused international outrage.
NATO has called for an independent international investigation into the incident, saying this “unacceptable act seriously violated the norms governing civil aviation and endangered the lives of the passengers and crew.”
"This is not only something which is violating international norms and rules, but also a direct attack on the freedom of expression and the free and independent press,” Stoltenberg said, welcoming sanctions imposed on Minsk by EU and NATO member states.
Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters that Moscow -- Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s chief supporter -- will continue to provide support to Minsk in the face of Western sanctions.
"We definitely will [provide support to Belarus]. We are both part of the Union State," Ryabkov said, without specifying what measures Moscow could take.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pushing Lukashenka in recent years to take steps toward the integration of their economies in order to cement a 20-year-old agreement to form a union state.
Lukashenka has rebuffed the pressure, but unprecedented street protests over a presidential election in August 2020 and subsequent Western sanctions have weakened his negotiating position with the Russian president.
NATO foreign and defense ministers meeting in Brussels on May 31 will focus on preparations for a summit to be held in the Belgian capital on June 14.
The ministers are also to discuss issues such as the alliance’s engagement in Afghanistan, as well as developments in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, Stoltenberg said.
The meeting comes amid a low point in relations between the NATO allies and Russia, Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s chief supporter.
"What we see is a pattern of Russian behavior where Russia over the last years has invested heavily in new modern military capabilities from conventional to nuclear weapon systems," Stoltenberg said, adding that Moscow “has been willing to use military force against neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine, continuing to destabilize…eastern Ukraine, and illegally annexing Crimea.”
"And then we've seen more Russian military presence in the high north, in the Barents Sea, and in the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad, the Black Sea, and also down to the Mediterranean and Middle East. And this is one of the main reasons why NATO over the last years have increased the readiness of forces."
Stoltenberg was responding a question about Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s announcement earlier on May 31 that his country would deploy “around 20 new military formations and units” near its western borders by the end of the year to counter what he claimed was a growing threat from the transatlantic alliance.