Russia Rejects Some Flight Plans, as Belarus Grows More Isolated
MOSCOW — The airspace over Eastern Europe turned into a geopolitical checkerboard on Thursday, as Russia rejected some European flights that were avoiding Belarus, the latest salvo in the furor over the forced landing of a passenger jet with a Belarusian dissident onboard.
New information emerged on Thursday 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, Roman Protasevich. A Swiss email provider said that the email Belarusian authorities have 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 Mr. Protasevich 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 Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Belarus’s strongman leader; the Kremlin said he would meet with President Vladimir V. Putin in Sochi, Russia, on Friday.
Russian aviation authorities on Thursday 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. With Lithuania now barring arriving flights that have crossed over Belarus, the Russian state-owned airline Aeroflot canceled a flight from Moscow to Vilnius, Lithuania, that ordinarily would have passed through Belarusian airspace, rather than rerouting it.
And at the airport in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, 13 of 36 scheduled departures were canceled as the European Union made good on its pledge to sever direct air links to that country.
Mr. Lukashenko has insisted that an emailed bomb threat had caused the country’s authorities to direct the Boeing 737 operated by Irish-based Ryanair to land in Minsk. When the plane landed, Belarusian authorities arrested Mr. Protasevich, 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 Mr. Lukashenko’s version. The email in question, the company said, was sent after the plane 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 Mr. Protasevich, 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 E.U. leaders on Monday called on air carriers based in the bloc to avoid Belarusian airspace and for E.U. 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 antigovernment protests since last summer — from most of Europe. The open border with Russia has become one of the only ways for people to enter and leave the country.
But it was becoming clear Thursday that the West’s outrage over Belarus could have wider implications. In keeping with the European Union’s directions, European airlines have started rerouting 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.
“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 canceled a scheduled flight from Paris to Moscow for similar reasons. Another Air France flight to Moscow was canceled on Thursday.
There was no official comment on the matter from Russia, and there were signs that the canceled flights did not reflect a new blanket policy. A Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt 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,” Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told reporters.
It was also not clear whether Russian airlines would heed some E.U. countries’ demands that they stay out of Belarusian airspace. Aeroflot canceled 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 E.U. and by neighboring Ukraine to close the country’s airspace drastically limited people’s ability to travel abroad. On Wednesday, a flight from Minsk to Barcelona 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 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
By Thursday, only one flight to an E.U. destination — Tallinn, Estonia — departed from the Minsk airport, Flightradar24 data showed; 13 flights to airports in the E.U. and in Ukraine were canceled.
Reporting was contributed by Oleg Matsnev in Moscow; Constant Méheut and Gaëlle Fournier in Paris; Melissa Eddy in Berlin; and Monika Pronczuk in Brussels.