MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a sweeping display of support Friday for his embattled ally in Belarus, as the West looked to further isolate Alexander Lukashenko's regime over its interception of a jetliner to arrest an opposition journalist.
His pariah status deepened after Belarus claimed it had received a bomb threat for a Ryanair plane and scrambled a fighter jet to divert the flight — bound from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania — to the airport in Minsk. Prominent dissident Roman Protasevich, who had been living in exile, was arrested upon landing and now faces a 15-year prison sentence in Belarus.
In Sochi, Putin made no immediate comments on possible steps to strengthen Russia's commitments to Belarus. But the cozy body language and banter — even joking about swimming in the Black Sea — conveyed a message that Russia was fully behind Lukashenko.
“Thank you for coming to this meeting. We agreed on this even before the next round of . . . ” Putin said as he turned to Lukashenko, who jumped in to finish the sentence: “A surge of emotions.”
“Yes, a surge of emotions,” Putin agreed.
“We have things to talk about even without these events,” added Putin, who also made note of the forced landing in Austria of a plane carrying Bolivian leader Evo Morales in 2013 — part of the hunt for fugitive U.S. secret-spiller Edward Snowden.
“There was nothing, just silence,” Putin said of the response.
Lukashenko, making a dig at his Western critics, said he had brought “documents” to brief Putin.
“I will show you so that you understand what is happening, so that you understand what kind of people these are,” Lukashenko said.
Belarus said there was an in-flight bomb threat against the Ryanair flight, but an email cited by Belarusian authorities containing the alleged threat was sent after the plane was diverted, Swiss email provider ProtonMail said Thursday, further challenging the Belarusian regime’s version of events.
Russia’s backing for Belarus also became clear when two European airlines, Air France and Austrian Airlines, said they had to cancel flights to Moscow on Thursday because Russian aviation authorities did not approve new flight paths that avoided Belarus’s airspace. E.U. leaders on Monday had barred the bloc’s airlines from flying over Belarus.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter that the Kremlin’s tolerance of Lukashenko “hurts Russian interests.”
“The longer it lasts, the more bad surprises it breeds,” he said.
Moscow and Minsk have drawn closer to each other as both countries’ relations with the West have grown increasingly adversarial. Putin is a known opponent of regime change and prefers the stability of a long-serving ruler in a country that has so far served as an allied buffer between Russia and the West. Belarus geographically separates Russia from the NATO states of Poland and Lithuania.
“The message to Putin is that there will be no more anti-Western Belarusian leader, which means that we must hold on to this,” Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based analyst, wrote in a commentary. “Any change of power in Minsk in such a situation is a drift towards the Belarusian rapprochement with Europe.”
Yet Lukashenko has occasionally irritated the Kremlin by resisting plans to implement a more than two-decade-old unification plan for the two countries and by cozying up to Europe when he saw it benefiting his rule.
When the two countries were unable to agree on a new price for the oil Russia sells to Belarus in December 2019, Moscow cut the supply. A few months later, Belarus ordered its first shipment of U.S. oil in an attempt to show Russia that it would be willing to turn to its rivals, if necessary.
But Lukashenko no longer has the leverage to play the East against the West. Much of the international community considers his regime illegitimate after last August’s election — in which he claimed a resounding victory — was widely denounced as rigged.
As mass anti-government protests broke out in the aftermath, Lukashenko turned to Putin for help. Putin backed him then, too, promising to dispatch a military contingent to aid Belarusian authorities, if necessary.
All 27 E.U. leaders agreed Monday to toughen sanctions on Lukashenko’s government. On Friday, the White House announced that Washington will reimpose full sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises. Biden administration officials are also coordinating with allies in the European Union and elsewhere to develop “a list of targeted sanctions against key members” of Lukashenko’s regime, press secretary Jen Psaki said.
E.U. foreign ministers suggested during informal talks Thursday in Lisbon that coming sanctions could target Belarus’s exports of oil products and potash, a primary cash-earner for the Lukashenko government. State-owned giant Belaruskali says it produces about 20 percent of the world’s supply of the potassium-rich salt used in fertilizers.
If Lukashenko does not make concessions, “one must assume that this will be just the beginning of a large and long spiral of sanctions,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.
The Kremlin has said that could also harm the Russian economy.
“Clearly, considering the direct and indirect assistance we have been providing to our Belarusian partners on a permanent basis, of course, the certain unfavorable atmosphere around Belarus is complicating things,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.
Khurshudyan reported from Vladivostok, Russia. Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report.