Belarus hijacks Biden-Putin summit

The extraordinary May 23 interception of a Ryanair flight carrying Belarusian opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich and 132 other passengers over Minsk, the capital of Belarus, came at an awkward time for the US and Russia.

On June 16, Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin are set to meet for the first time since Biden took office. The Biden administration has signaled a desire to build a stable, predictable relationship with Russia.

Just recently, the White House waived sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia to the European Union, allowing Russia to sell more gas to the EU.

Days later, Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to force the landing of the airplane flying between two NATO allies, which carried Pratasevich as a passenger. The journalist was arrested by the Belarusian authorities upon landing.

The European Union reacted furiously, advising airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, banning Belarusian airlines from Europe and agreeing to hit Belarus with new economic sanctions.

Putin is a strong ally of Lukashenko. Days after the plane incident, he hosted Lukashenko at the Russian resort city of Sochi, where they spent five hours talking and then left on a yacht trip together on the Black Sea.

At the upcoming summit in Geneva, Biden and Putin are expected to talk about a range of pressing issues, including Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine, arms control and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, Biden must also use his personal meeting with Putin to try to ratchet up pressure on Lukashenko, who has essentially closed Belarus’ borders to prevent citizens from leaving. Russia is critical to holding Lukashenko accountable – but Putin is unlikely to endorse any effort to do so.

The Russia-Belarus relationship

Lukashenko was already on the nose with Europe and the United States after rigging a presidential election last August and brutally suppressing citizens who protested his fraudulent win. Pratasevich covered the uprising as editor-in-chief of the Telegram Nexta Live channel, which has 1.4 million subscribers.

An array of international sanctions followed Lukashenko’s August 2020 crackdown. But Moscow provided a crucial lifeline. In addition to recognizing Lukashenko as Belarus’ legitimate president – unlike at least 33 countries worldwide – Putin also promised to protect Belarus and warned foreign powers not to interfere in Belarus’ affairs.

That allowed Lukashenko to demonstrate to regime insiders and security forces that he could sustain his 26-year grip on power.

Putin’s support has not wavered with the hijacking. After the summit between Putin and Lukashenko in Sochi on May 29 and May 30, Russia announced that it would soon release a delayed $500 million credit to Belarus. It also agreed to increase flights between Belarus and Russia.

US and Russia at odds

Meanwhile, Russia-US relations are badly strained.

First there was Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Then, there was Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential vote and other elections, and its apparent involvement in the 2020 SolarWinds hacking attacks that breached the data of multiple US federal agencies and thousands of organizations globally.

In April, Biden imposed sanctions against the Kremlin for these acts.

The 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, apparently by agents of the Russian government, and his subsequent jailing has only increased tensions.

When asked if Putin is “a killer” during an interview in March, Biden said yes.

This troubled history explains why both the US and Russia are setting low expectations for the summit.

Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said the two leaders will exchange views but are unlikely to “come to an understanding” on most issues. The Biden administration says it simply hopes the summit will “normalize ties” between the two countries.

US to punish Belarus

In a May 31 interview, the US ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, said the US would “work in unison with our European partners in order to come up with appropriate responses” to Lukashenko’s plane hijacking.