Letter From the Editors

This week’s issue features a surprising number of vignettes concerning aviation. Passengers arriving in Bishkek from Dushanbe were surprised to learn that they would not be allowed to leave the airport because Kyrgyzstan had closed its border with Tajikistan mid-flight. Turkey has added a further degree of awkwardness to its purchases of Russian missile systems by selling its own strike-capable drones to Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Elon Musk stopped by Moscow in part to ease Russian fears over his Starlink satellite internet program, while Vladimir Zelensky launched his “President 2.0” pre-pre-election campaign from a Soviet-era aircraft plant.

And then there were the very peculiar events of May 23.

“A case of state-sponsored hijacking – state sponsored piracy,” is how Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described the sudden rerouting of one of his airline’s planes to Minsk shortly before its scheduled descent to its intended destination of Vilnius. Media outlets and European law enforcement are still working through the convoluted details of the incident, but it somehow involved a number of Belarussian secret agents, a fighter jet, and a fake bomb threat in an apparent scheme to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega.

Protasevich faces decades in prison for allegedly organizing riots and inciting enmity toward officials during the protests that followed Belarus’s disputed 2020 presidential election. The charges against Russian citizen Sapega, and the possibility of her repatriation to Russia, have not yet been determined. But while we now know where the Ryanair flight was diverted and to what purpose, the incident raises a more nebulous question about the trajectory of Belarus’s sitting president, Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Prior to the 2020 election, Lukashenko had been firmly seated in the cockpit for 26 years, with only occasional bouts of turbulence, seeming to chart a zigzag course between Russia and the EU. Afterward, given Europe’s support for the protest movement, an eastward course was Lukashenko’s obvious option. In separate interviews, both Sergei Lavrov and his deputy Andrei Rudenko emphasize the recent progress toward Union State integration: Only two of the road map’s 28 programs remain to be hammered out. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Lukashenko wants to remind everyone that he, and not his Russian partners, is steering the controls.

In response to a question about the supposed assassination plot against Lukashenko in April, Lavrov supports the Belarussian president’s narrative by saying the scheme “completely fits the Western course toward meddling . . . It is hard to imagine actions being planned on such a scale without the knowledge of US intelligence agencies,” before making plain that “Russia will not leave Belarus in the lurch.” Notably, in these interviews, which took place just as the EU and Ukraine were cutting off all air travel to or through Belarus, neither Lavrov nor Rudenko mentioned the Ryanair controversy.

Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya offers a possible explanation: “The Russian leadership is shocked by this but can’t publicly show it, since they have to protect their geopolitical interests. . . . They see now whom they are dealing with.”

Next came Lukashenko’s public account of how the plane was grounded. According to Lukashenko, Belarussian authorities received word that Hamas had planted a bomb on the plane, and he scrambled the MiG­‑29 either to prevent an attack on the country’s nuclear power plant or to help rescue teams find the airliner in the event of a crash. He then claimed that other East European airports had also heard of the Hamas threat and refused to let the plane land: “Were they afraid of taking responsibility? Or did someone have a serious interest in having the plane land in Minsk?”

Russia, meanwhile, would prefer to focus on Putin’s journey to Geneva. Bilateral relations with the US may be bumpy, but anything is better than a mid-air collision. Or being grounded in Minsk.