Flying the unfriendly skies: Russia-EU tensions rise over Belarus airspace

Moscow: The airspace over Eastern Europe turned into a geopolitical checkerboard, as Russia rejected some European flights that were avoiding Belarus, the latest salvo in the furore over the forced landing of a passenger jet with a Belarusian dissident on-board.

New information emerged on Thursday (Friday AEST) that further undermined the Belarusian government’s claim that it brought down the flight on Sunday because of a bomb threat, and not for the purpose of seizing the dissident, Raman Pratasevich.

Planes avoid the Belarus airspace.Credit:FlightRadar24

A Swiss email provider said that the email Belarusian authorities cited as the bomb threat was in fact sent after the plane had already been diverted.

In the skies, the swift developments showed how the diversion of the flight from Greece to Lithuania and the arrest of Pratasevich were having widening repercussions for travel and commerce, and for relations between Russia and most of Europe.

They indicated that Moscow could be prepared to double down on its support of Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman leader of Belarus; the Kremlin said he would meet with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on Friday.

Russian aviation authorities declined to approve new flight plans for an Air France flight and an Austrian Airlines flight to Moscow that would have looped around Belarusian airspace.

Raman Pratasevich was detained when the plane landed.Credit:Euroradio via AP

With Lithuania now barring arriving flights that have crossed over Belarus, the Russian state-owned airline Aeroflot cancelled a flight from Moscow to Vilnius, Lithuania, that ordinarily would have passed through Belarusian airspace, rather than re-routing it.

And at the airport in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, 13 of 36 scheduled departures were cancelled as the European Union made good on its pledge to sever direct air links to that country.

The scheduling scramble came as the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a United Nations agency, decided to conduct an investigation into the diversion of Pratasevich’s flight. The decision was made at an emergency meeting of the agency’s 36-member governing council on Thursday, after countries including the United States, Britain, Ireland and Lithuania demanded it. An interim report is due June 25.

In 2020, an embattled Alexander Lukashenko turned to Vladimir Putin for help as protests continued.Credit:AP

“These unacceptable actions were an attack on European aviation security and put in danger the lives of the passengers and crew as they travelled between two EU capitals,” Ireland’s transport minister, Eamon Ryan, said in a statement welcoming the investigation.

Lukashenko has insisted that an emailed bomb threat had caused the country’s authorities to direct the Boeing 737 operated by Ryanair, which is based in Ireland, to land in Minsk. When the plane landed, Belarusian authorities arrested Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

But Protonmail, a Swiss email provider whose service the Belarusian authorities said was used in sending the bomb threat, on Thursday countered Lukashenko’s version. The email in question, the company said, was sent after the Athens-to-Vilnius flight had already been diverted by Belarusian air traffic controllers to Minsk.

The revelation backed up the widely held view that the claim of a bomb threat was a ruse to capture Pratasevich, who had been living in exile since 2019.

“We can confirm that the message in question was sent after the plane was redirected,” Protonmail said in a statement.

“We have not seen credible evidence that the Belarusian claims are true, and we will support European authorities in their investigations upon receiving a legal request.”

Angry EU leaders on Monday called on air carriers based in the bloc to avoid Belarusian airspace and for EU airports to bar flights from Belarusian airlines. The result has been to largely cut off Belarus — a country of 9.5 million people riven by anti-government protests since last northern summer — from most of Europe. The open border with Russia has become one of the few ways for people to enter and leave the country.

But it was becoming clear on Thursday that the West’s outrage over Belarus could have wider implications. In keeping with the European Union’s directions, European airlines have started re-routing their flights to and from Russia to avoid the airspace of Belarus. Austrian Airlines said on Thursday that it had sought Russian approval for such a new route.

A new uncertainty for Europe: travel over and into Belarus. Credit:AP

“The Russian authorities did not grant us this approval,” a spokeswoman for the airline, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, said. “As a result, Austrian Airlines had to cancel today’s flight from Vienna to Moscow.”

On Wednesday evening, Air France said it cancelled a scheduled flight from Paris to Moscow for similar reasons. Another Air France flight to Moscow was cancelled on Thursday.

There was no official comment on the matter from Russia, and there were signs that the cancelled flights did not reflect a new blanket policy.

A Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, Germany, landed in Moscow Wednesday evening, for instance, despite deviating from its typical flight path to avoid Belarus; so did a LOT Polish Airlines flight from Warsaw on Thursday.

“The presidential administration does not control air traffic,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters.

It was also not clear whether Russian airlines would heed some EU countries’ demands that they stay out of Belarusian airspace. Aeroflot cancelled the flight to Vilnius scheduled for Friday without explanation.

But the biggest impact of the flight bans was felt in Belarus, where moves by the EU and by neighbouring Ukraine to close the country’s airspace drastically limited people’s ability to travel abroad. On Wednesday, a flight from Minsk to Barcelona, Spain, by Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, spent about two hours circling near the Polish border before returning to Minsk.

The reason, according to Belavia: The authorities in France, which was in the plane’s planned flight path, “manually deactivated the flight plan without notifying the airline” three minutes before takeoff; French authorities confirmed that the plane “was not authorised to enter French airspace.”

By Thursday, only one flight to an EU destination — Tallinn, Estonia — departed from the Minsk airport, Flightradar24 data showed; 13 flights to airports in the EU and in Ukraine were cancelled.

The New York Times

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