Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko defended his decision to intercept an international Ryanair flight over the weekend and force it to land, saying in a speech to parliament that the country was under a “hybrid attack” from the part of the Western governments which tried to “suffocate” it. Western governments have indeed condemned the brazen in-flight robbery of a commercial airliner, which by all accounts seemed to target Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist and vocal critic of Lukashenko. Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega were then arrested when the plane landed in Minsk. The European Union responded, promising punitive measures and started aligning retaliatory sanctions against the regime, as well as revoking permission for Belarusian carriers to enter European airspace. “As we predicted, our bad guys from outside and inside the country have changed the methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said of these measures on Wednesday. “As soon as the plane landed in Minsk, accusations from the West and flight bans started pouring in.”
Lukashenko, an autocrat backed by the Kremlin for years, accused Brussels of plotting to target Russia afterwards. The inflammatory and often contradictory statements draw directly from the Kremlin’s propaganda handbook, alluding to the close interplay of interests between the two regimes and the likely influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, potentially in the open-air provocation of the former soviet republic. Using the language of the international community, making vague justifications based on terrorism and national security, Lukashenko said he acted in the interest of the state by requisitioning the plane and arresting Protasevich, who was qualified as “terrorist” and subjected to criminal prosecution for organizing. political protests in the wake of the contested 2020 presidential election. The contest was widely viewed as a sham by outside observers and opposition parties and sparked protests across the country ahead of a crackdown on the Lukashenko regime.
Lukashenko now says that the military plane that was scrambled and intercepted the Ryanair flight, which had boarded from Athens and was already approaching its final destination in Vilnius, Lithuania, was to “communicate” with the plane, not to intimidate him into changing course. The Lukashenko government first said it approached the plane because there was a bomb on it, linking it to the Palestinian militant organization Hamas. On Wednesday, he said the bomb threat had been relayed from Switzerland. “Hamas or no Hamas – it doesn’t matter today,” Lukashenko said. “I acted legally, protecting people, in accordance with all international rules.”
When the plane landed, shockingly, no bomb was found on board. Asked about developments in its neighbor, the Kremlin said it saw “no reason” to doubt the sincerity of Lukashenko’s allegations of terrorism. “We haven’t seen any denials,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “So far, we haven’t even heard any statements from European countries to somehow resolve this situation. They’re just shooting from the hip. The UN Security Council is expected to meet to discuss the incident on Wednesday.