Margarita Simonian, head of Putin’s propaganda channel RT, is by her own admission turning green. “I envy Lukashenko,” she said. “Beautifully done!”
Beauty is commonly known to be in the eye of the beholder. What prompted this aesthetic judgement from that particular beholder, Russia’s female answer to Dr Goebbels, was the act of air piracy perpetrated by Belarus on Lukashenko’s direct order.
The EU, the US and Britain all expressed their “deep concern”, doubtless making Lukashenko and Putin tremble with fear. Had the Ryanair plane been shot out of the sky, the response would no doubt have been upgraded to “serious concern” or, pushing the envelope, even “grave concern”. That would have definitely put paid to the two bandit regimes.
The facts of the crime have been filling newspapers since Sunday, but what matters in any reportage isn’t just the what, but also the how. Emphasis and language make a difference, and expert reporters know this. Thus Russia’s role in this crime, though not exactly ignored, has been underplayed, drowned in nonessential details.
Here are the essential ones.
Lukashenko, commonly described as Belarus’s dictator, is in fact Putin’s viceroy. His regime is propped up by Russian oil, gas, subsidies, technology, logistic and intelligence support, propaganda and trolling. It’s only for tactical reasons that Belarus still retains nominal independence.
That’s why Western papers made a significant omission when failing to report that two hours before the attack the Russian media had been told to “stand by for the publication of an important announcement”. This means the Russian government knew about the hijack in advance and in all likelihood helped to set it up. This sort of thing is called ‘aiding and abetting’ in some quarters.
The crime itself was carried out without any wholehearted attempt at subterfuge. Ryanair Flight FR4978 was carrying 126 passengers from Athens to Vilnus. Two of the passengers were the opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend. Three or four others (reports differ) were agents of the Belarusian secret service that, unlike its Russian counterpart, has nostalgically kept its Soviet name, the KGB.
A bomb scare was announced, while a Belarusian jet fighter Mig-29 began to track Flight FR4978. However, the Ryanair pilots acted in a way consistent with neither a bomb threat nor their usual pattern.
In the past, they always slowed down and started their descent some 110 miles from Vilnus. This time, however, the pilots reduced neither the speed nor the altitude. This means they at first tried to get away from the Mig, which was in a pursuit mode. This little detail wasn’t highlighted in any of the newspaper accounts I’ve read.
The pilots’ actions didn’t even remotely resemble a normal reaction to a bomb threat. Common sense would have called for the quickest possible descent and landing – not a high-speed race against a jet fighter.
However, just two minutes’ flight time from the Lithuanian airspace, Flight FR4978 sharply changed course eastwards and flew to Minsk – which was hundreds of miles farther away than Vilnus.
Hence the pilots didn’t think the bomb threat was real. So why did they suddenly change course? The answer is obvious: the Mig pilot told them he was under orders to shoot the airliner down if its pilots didn’t comply. Moreover, the threat was made in a way that left no doubt it would be carried out. The fate of Malaysian Air Flight 17 was still fresh in the pilots’ memory.
In other words, Lukashenko, aided and abetted by Putin, was ready to murder 126 passengers plus the crew for the sheer pleasure of getting rid of one opposition journalist. The youngster has since been paraded on Belarusian TV, confessing his criticism of Lukashenko, a crime for which the maximum penalty is death.
Protasevich’s face bore marks of beating and torture, and the picture reminded me of the old Vietnamese images of captured American pilots, who had been tortured so cruelly they could barely utter the requisite confessions. Russia was complicit in those crimes too.
Putin’s mouthpieces reacted in the way one would expect from members of the same gang. Foreign Minister Lavrov praised Belarus for her “absolutely reasonable approach” to the deadly threat posed by Protasevich. And the Ministry spokesman Zakharova indulged in her usual buffoonery.
She was “shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking’ ” and then launched Putin’s favourite counterattack of it takes one to know one. It’s neither Belarus nor, God forbid, Russia, she explained, but Western countries that are guilty of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”. Zakharova didn’t offer any examples of such beastliness – common knowledge was in no need of reiteration.
Other than scaring Messrs Lukashenko and Putin with their expressions of deep concern, Western leaders have done next to nothing in response to this act of state terrorism.
Lukashenko and his coterie were already under sanctions, banning them from travelling to the West and freezing their assets held there. Now these measures have been augmented by a ban for Western airlines to enter Belarusian airspace and for Belarusian planes to land in some Western countries.
I can confidently predict that these sanctions, new and old, will have no effect – other than emboldening the bandit regimes and increasing their sense of impunity.
Neither Merkel nor Macron has the stomach to face up to Putin and his vassals. No matter how deeply, seriously or gravely they are concerned, they’ll still allow Putin to flood Europe with cheap gas flowing through his new pipeline Nord Stream 2, thereby propping up his regime.
Our Foreign Secretary Raab has uttered some strong words, but words are cheap. However, freezing the purloined billions Russian gangsters keep in London would be jolly expensive indeed, which explains why such a response wasn’t even mooted.
Nor will Biden reinstate the sanctions he waived against Nord Stream 2, while his State Secretary Blinken will continue to chat with Lavrov, and his National Security Adviser Sullivan will go on holding meaningful discussions with head of Russia’s Security Council Patrushev (whose criminal activities have earned him a ban from entry into the USA).
A new Munich seems to be in the works, with the West accepting the general thrust of Russia’s hybrid war against it, while continuing to express deep concern over each new crime and to impose harmless sanctions.
Instead, Russia and her vassalages, such as Belarus, ought to be placed in airtight quarantine, with all economic, cultural and political ties severed. Let them eat their Migs, drink their oil, inhale their gas.
Alas, the West isn’t blessed with any leaders other than typological equivalents of the Chamberlains and Daladiers of yesteryear. That’s why our lot are helpless in the face of today’s typological equivalents of Stalin and Hitler.