Russia on Thursday blocked at least two European airliners from landing in Moscow because they planned to avoid Belarusian airspace – an indication Russian President Vladimir Putin is ramping up protection of the former Soviet state following its brazen arrest of a dissident journalist aboard a Ryanair flight earlier this week.
Austrian Airlines confirms to U.S. News that Russia refused to grant permission for a planned flight from Vienna to land in Moscow because of the new measures EU countries have imposed to isolate Minsk, forcing its cancellation.
“Based on a recommendation by the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Austrian Airlines has suspended flights through Belarusian airspace until further notice,” spokeswoman Yvonne Wachholder wrote in an email. “For this reason, adjustments to the flight route from Vienna to Moscow are necessary. A change in flight routes must be approved by the authorities. The Russian authorities did not give us this permit. As a result, Austrian Airlines had to cancel today’s flight from Vienna to Moscow.”
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Air France came under similar punitive measures from Moscow.
“Air France confirms that it had to postpone flight AF1154 from Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Moscow by Boeing B787 on 26 May 2021 for operational reasons linked to the bypassing of Belarusian airspace, requiring a new authorization from the Russian authorities to enter their territory,” a spokesperson tells U.S. News. “The flight has been postponed to 27 May and a further update will be provided this evening. The passengers have been assisted by Air France staff at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. Air France regrets any inconvenience caused by this situation.”
Analysts believe the move is clearly aimed at undermining European powers, which through the EU have imposed rare and swift unified condemnation of Belarus, including new orders for flights to avoid its airspace and the consideration of new sanctions against it.
“Russia wants to try to create constituencies to oppose these ‘sanctions,'” says Tim Morrison, who served as the top Russia adviser in the White House’s National Security Council in the Trump administration, and is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Lukasz Adamski, deputy director for the Warsaw-based Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, tweeted that Russia is “hitting the weaker links in the chain of EU solidarity, hoping that it will lead to a breach,” according to a translation.
Russia this week expressed passive support for Belarus after its autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to force the landing of a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania.
While on the ground in Minsk, local authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, a leading critic of Lukashenko – particularly following an election last year broadly seen as rigged – as well as his girlfriend, who is Russian. Four other passengers did not reboard the flight before taking off, prompting assertions by Ryanair executives and other European leaders that they were members of either Belarusian or Russian secret services.
Moscow’s escalating support for Belarus – which in recent years has expressed some interest in greater ties with the West – forces a series of pitfalls for European countries in the near future, particularly if they give in to new pressure for Moscow.
“I hope that European countries remain strong and united in this,” says retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who until 2018 oversaw all U.S. forces in Europe. He began his command in 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed Crimea. “They should be condemning the Kremlin for its support and praise of Lukashenko’s actions.
“If they buckle to this, then it only invites further bullying by the Kremlin.”