The United States announced punitive measures against Belarus as Russia offered President Alexander Lukashenko support in his standoff with the West over the forced diversion of a European plane and the arrest of a dissident.
In a statement on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the events of May 23 a “direct affront to international norms” and said Washington – in coordination with the European Union – was drawing up a list of targeted sanctions against key members of Lukashenko’s government.
She also announced the suspension of a 2019 agreement that allowed US and Belarusian carriers to use each other’s airspace and called for “a credible international investigation” into the forced landing of the Ryanair plane.
Belarusian authorities last week scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force the plane to land, then arrested journalist Roman Protasevich who was on board.
The 26-year-old is in detention and is accused of orchestrating riots. That is in connection to historic protests that broke out against Lukashenko in August last year in the aftermath of a disputed election.
Several people died during the unrest, thousands were arrested, and hundreds reported torture in prison.
Protasevich – who worked for the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which broadcast the protests – could be jailed for up to 15 years.
Many European nations imposed flight bans on Belarusian airspace and EU officials said proposals are “on the table” to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy, including its oil products and potash sectors.
The White House also issued a “do not travel” warning for Belarus to US citizens and warned American passenger planes to “exercise extreme caution” if considering flying over Belarusian airspace.
‘Outburst of emotion’
Meanwhile, economic sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises, reimposed by Washington in April following a crackdown on pro-democracy protests, will come into effect on June 3.
In her statement, Psaki said further US moves on Belarus could also target “those that support corruption, the abuse of human rights, and attacks on democracy”.
Prior to the US announcement, an entirely different scene unfolded in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Lukashenko for talks.
Putin said he was “very glad” to see the Belarusian leader and agreed with him that the Western reaction was an “outburst of emotion”.
“At one time they forced the Bolivian president’s plane to land and took him out of the plane and nothing, silence,” the Russian president said, referring to a 2013 incident in which Evo Morales’ plane was forced to land in Austria at a time when the US was trying to intercept whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
Lukashenko, meanwhile, complained the West was seeking to stir unrest in his country, saying “an attempt is under way to rock the boat to reach the level of last August”.
The Belarusian leader, who arrived with a briefcase, told Putin he would show him some confidential documents about the Ryanair incident that would help him understand what really happened.
“There is always someone who causes problems for us. You know about them, I’ll inform you,” Lukashenko told Putin.
“I brought some documents so that you understand what is happening.”