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Isolation Pushes Belarus's Lukashenko Closer to Russia's Putin -- 2nd Update

05/28/2021 | 03:51pm EDT

By Ann M. Simmons and Thomas Grove

MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin made a display of support for beleaguered Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko Friday in their first meeting since Minsk sparked Western outrage earlier this week by forcing a European airliner to land and arresting a dissident journalist onboard.

State television showed the leaders embracing, and both mocked international condemnation of the incident ahead of talks at Mr. Putin's residence at the seaside resort of Sochi. Mr. Putin even suggested the two go swimming.

But Mr. Lukashenko's increasing political and economic isolation from the West is pushing the leader dangerously close to Russia and providing Mr. Putin an opening to advance long-held plans to deepen the integration between Russia and the former Soviet republic.

European Union leaders have agreed to impose a new round of sanctions against Belarus and ban its airlines from entering the bloc's airspace and airports as punishment for forcing an Irish commercial airliner carrying a dissident journalist to land and then arresting him. The impending sanctions could target financial transactions and the country's key industries such as oil and potash, a pillar of Belarus's economy and a major source of taxes and foreign currency, EU officials said this week.

Mr. Lukashenko's gambit with Ryanair Flight 4978 may have delivered him the prize he sought when he arrested Roman Protasevich, a journalist who helped broadcast antigovernment protests last year. But the move, the latest in a series of transgressions by the Belarusian leader, gives the Kremlin an opportunity to take advantage of Mr. Lukashenko's increasingly vulnerable position.

"Every new step toward isolation of Lukashenko by the West inevitably increases his dependency on Putin," said Artyom Shraibman, founder of Minsk-based political consulting firm Sense Analytics.

Ahead of talks Friday, Mr. Lukashenko told Mr. Putin he had a briefcase of documents showing the danger the flight posed and why he grounded it. His government said the flight was grounded because it had information that a bomb was on board. No bomb, however, was found during an hourslong search of the plane.

Mr. Putin went on to compare the situation to the grounding of former Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane in 2013 when there was suspicion that the former National Security Agency contractor-turned whistleblower Edward Snowden may have been on board. He added that at the time there was no condemnation.

Mr. Putin said they would have a wide-ranging discussion on political and economic ties.

"We had agreed on these talks even before the latest...emotional outburst," said Mr. Putin, referring to criticism Mr. Lukashenko has faced from the West. "Even without these events we have a lot to talk about."

Mr. Putin emphasized that Russia is a longtime supporter of the Belarusian economy.

In recent months, as Mr. Lukashenko increasingly has become an international pariah, Mr. Putin has pledged more financial and military support for Belarus, signaling Moscow's intention to bolster its embattled junior partner -- support that could ultimately bind Minsk more tightly to Russia.

"Putin probably sees it as a way to press Lukashenko to make more concessions in the integration bargaining," said Eugene Rumer, the director of Carnegie's Russia and Eurasia Program.

For years, Mr. Putin has been trying to coax Belarus to join Russia as part of a larger, unified state, as they were during the Soviet era. But Mr. Lukashenko has largely rejected that, wary of risking his country's sovereignty.

On Friday, Mr. Lukashenko firmly ruled out the possibility of his country being absorbed by Russia.

"The world has changed. There are no idiots among us today to enslave a friendly state in a colonial manner," he told a meeting in Minsk of government representatives of the Commonwealth of Independent States, before departing to meet Mr. Putin. "This is not possible today. Any attempt to take over the state, or to unite it with some kind of force, will cause a terrible rebuff in this state."

But the fallout surrounding the Belarusian leader's decision to ground the Ryanair plane could make it harder to resist the Kremlin's longstanding efforts to draw Belarus closer, analysts said, as the country faces the threat of a financial chokehold from the West.

"Russia treats economic dependence as a political tool, [this means] political dependence, too," Mr. Shraibman said.

For years, Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has successfully played Moscow and the West off each other, using the EU as a hedge against the Kremlin. Since his violent crackdown on protesters who accused him of stealing a presidential vote last year and the political opposition who led them, his options have shrunk.

Many see his diversion of a Ryanair plane this week as a nail in the coffin of EU-Belarusian ties and the end of his flirtations with the West. His decision to meet with Mr. Putin so soon afterward is a strong statement of which camp he has joined.

"There was a time when there was an opportunity for the West to engage with Lukashenko," said Matthew Rojansky, head of the D.C.-based Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. "Now his dependence on Moscow seems pretty complete."

Last year, when the Belarusian leader was facing demonstrations by those who alleged he stole an August presidential election, Mr. Putin agreed to provide Belarus with a state loan of $1.5 billion. He assembled a law-enforcement team to help shore up Mr. Lukashenko if protests against him spiral out of control and said the two countries would conduct joint military events almost monthly for a year.

At the time, Mr. Putin congratulated the Belarusian leader on his victory in the vote. He later warned European leaders against interfering in Belarus as protests engulfed the country demanding that Mr. Lukashenko step down.

Earlier this year, Russia and Belarus agreed to establish joint training centers in each nation for paratroopers and air-defense troops, Belarus's Defense Ministry said.

The two countries will hold joint military exercises later this year with thousands of Russian troops in Belarus. Some analysts see those exercises as Moscow's way of boosting its influence over Belarus and flexing Russia's military muscle on the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"Lukashenko, for all his peculiarities, is still a person who is perceived as an enemy of the collective West, an enemy of NATO, and who will not allow the alliance to move closer to Russia at the expense of Belarus," said Stanislav Byshok, a political scientist at the CIS-Europe Monitoring Organization, an international think tank in Moscow.

And this is one reason why the Kremlin continues to throw its support behind Mr. Lukashenko, despite the fact that "the attitude towards him is far from being rosy here in Russia," Mr. Byshok said.

--Valentina Ochirova contributed to this article.

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com and Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

05-28-21 1751ET

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