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The Ryanair flight pictured at Minsk airport after it was diverted on May 23, 2021.

How Russia benefits from Western sanctions against Belarus

Belarus could soon become a no-fly zone for most European airlines, as the Eastern European country strains relations with the West. Following the diversion of a Ryanair flight by the Belarusian authorities, and the arrest of Roman Protasevich – co-founder of anti-Lukashenko Nexta TV – several European capitals have already summoned Belarusian ambassadors. Belarusian state airline Belavia is banned from EU airports and airspace.

By Nikola Mikovic
The EU officials accused Minsk of “hijacking” the Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius to arrest Protasevich – the vocal critic of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarusian officials in their turn claim their actions were lawful and within international rules on aviation safety.

The mayor of Latvia’s capital Riga – where the Ice Hockey World Championship is taking place –reportedly substituted the official red and green Belarusian flag outside the arena with the red and white banner used by the opposition.

Minsk reacted promptly. Belarus expelled all Latvian diplomatic and administrative staff from the embassy in Minsk, and Riga responded the same way. It is worth noting, however, that Russia – Lukashenko’s major ally – is participating in the ice hockey competition under a neutral flag.

According to last year’s ruling of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Russian athletes are prohibited until December 2022 from participating in world championships and Olympic Games under the national flag and to the tune of the national anthem. Thus, unlike the Kremlin, Minsk has demonstrated that it is not willing to accept anything that could be interpreted as a political humiliation.

Flight suspensions
Meanwhile, several European countries have summoned Belarusian ambassadors, and British Secretary of State for Transport has suspended Belarusian state airline Belavia from operating in the United Kingdom and has recommended British airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

Moreover, neighboring Ukraine announced that it will suspend flights to Belarus, and as of May 24 Latvian AirBaltic and Hungarian WizzAir reportedly no longer fly over the former Soviet republic. Germany’s Lufthansa also suspended air operations in Belarusian airspace, and Dutch KLM halted flights over Belarus. Who will benefit from such actions?

The EU has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus. Minsk responded by gradually cutting off cargo transit through the Lithuanian ports and switching to the Russian ports. After the EU imposed flight embargo on Belarus, Minsk’s response will likely be symmetrical, which means that flights to Minsk will have to go via Russian airports.

In other words, the more sanctions the European Union imposes on Belarus, the less room for political maneuver Alexander Lukashenko will have. Consequently, Minsk will move even deeper into the Russian orbit.

Nord Stream 2 pipeline
There are fears, however, that the West could use the case of Roman Protasevich – accused by the Russian media of fighting in the Donbass as part of the Ukrainian neo-Nazi battalion Azov – to effectively suspend the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, although at this point there is no evidence of Moscow’s alleged involvement in the arrest of the Belarusian dissident.

The Kremlin already dismissed the West’s actions against Belarus as hypocritical, and the Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to meet with Lukashenko on May 28. Russia will undoubtedly keep supporting Lukashenko.

With the Kremlin’s help in 2020, he managed to defeat the Western-backed opposition and consolidate his power. He won the battle, but the new Cold War still goes on. Belarus is merely a chessboard where the big power game is being played, and its Western-backed opposition may fall another victim to the alleged rivalry between Moscow and its “dear Western partners”. Protasevich himself is expected to be convicted and imprisoned.

The fate of Protasevich will largely depend on his willingness to cooperate with the authorities and provide valuable information about other high-ranked exiled Belarusian activists and their rumored ties with foreign security services.

The opposition that is still in the country will have a hard time trying to topple Lukashenko, especially after he signed a law which bars journalists from covering unsanctioned rallies. Mass events in Belarus are now allowed to be carried out only with the permission of local authorities, and it is forbidden to do live stream or post online videos from any unlawful protests.

Hence it will be much easier for the Belarusian security structures to turn off cellular communications and Internet during unauthorized events, and more difficult for the opposition to organize and resist.

As a result, Lukashenko is expected to additionally solidify his position at home. His “multi-vector” foreign policy, however, will unlikely ever be restored, and Belarus’ dependence on the Kremlin will continue to grow.

Nikola Mikovic is a Serbian journalist and a senior Geopolitical Analyst he publishes often for The Levant News.

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