Vladimir Putin accuses West of double standards over Belarus plane diversion

Meeting in Black Sea resort of Sochi comes as Belarus shunned by the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Friday, May 28, 2021. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly welcomed his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks on cementing closer ties amid international outcry over the forced landing of a European plane in Minsk and the arrest of a dissident journalist.

Mr Putin indicated the West had double standards and compared Belarus's attempt to arrest an opposition journalist to one involving the grounding of a plane carrying Bolivia's former president Evo Morales.
In carefully worded remarks in front of reporters, Mr Putin said that when Mr Morales's plane was grounded in 2013, there was little Western outcry.

"The president was led out of the plane, and nothing, silence," Mr Putin said at the start of the talks.

Mr Lukashenko complained the West was looking to cause unrest in Belarus.

"It’s an attempt to destabilise the situation like last August," he said, referring to the outbreak of protests against his regime following a disputed election. "It's clear what these western friends want from us."

The summit is a critical show of support by Moscow for Mr Lukashenko’s regime a day after the UN civil aviation agency announced it would investigate Sunday's interception of the Ryanair aircraft by a MiG-29 fighter jet.

On a flight from Athens in Greece to Lithuania, prominent dissident Roman Protasevich, who had been living in exile, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested upon landing in Belarus. Protasevich, 26, faces a 15-year prison sentence.

The Sochi meeting is particularly symbolic as Mr Lukashenko has become increasingly dependent on President Vladimir Putin's backing to maintain his grip on power.

The Belarus president will want to demonstrate that he can ride out the international opprobrium that includes potentially harsh European Union sanctions and a demand from the G7 for the immediate release of Protasevich.

Mr Lukashenko, who has resisted several challenges during his 27-year rule, is increasingly dependent on Moscow's support.

This is in contrast to before presidential elections last August, which Mr Lukashenko claimed he won, when Belarus expelled the Russian ambassador, seized a state-owned Moscow bank and arrested 32 Russian mercenaries. The country had also tried to reduce its reliance on Russian oil.

But since last summer Mr Putin has lent Belarus billions of dollars and defended the Ryanair interception, because he is keen to avoid his immediate neighbour falling under the influence of western countries.

The Russian leader is also seeking further integration between the two economies.

Mr Lukashenko, 66, has yet to identify a potential successor who would prove a loyal Moscow ally and he continues to play off Russia against other partners such as India and China.

Despite the Sochi meeting, there is still a possibility that after the Ryanair interception Mr Lukashenko might be an increasingly problematic ally who has lost international respect.

The UN civil aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation Council, announced on Thursday that it had “decided to undertake a fact-finding investigation of this event”.

The subsequent report is unlikely to put Belarus in a good light.