Israel Shamir

The Fighting Optimist

The Abduction of NEXTA

What does Lukashenko think of himself and of his country? Doesn’t he act like the King of Israel? Israel permits itself to kill and kidnap its enemies, wherever they are. The US also entitles itself to do whatever it finds necessary; kidnapping hundreds and dumping them in Guantanamo, or just killing them, as they killed Soleimani. But other states? No, God forbid! They should placidly accept whatever their betters decide and play by the rules.

However, Luka (as he is called affectionately) is made of a sterner stuff. This is the man who flatly refused to lockdown his nation; he carried out the VE-day parade in his capital Minsk on May 9, 2020, when the rest of the world was scared witless to leave their homes. And now he detained the NEXTA guy, Roman Protasevich, the organiser of last year’s protests in Minsk. Roman P. laughed at the extradition requests in safety of Warsaw; his NEXTA has offered millions in reward for Luka’s arrest. Now unexpectedly he is in the jail. He laughs best who laughs last.

The Russian social networks were very pleased. They cooked up the photo of their James Bonds, of Petrov and Boshirov of Salisbury fame, flying the plane into Minsk. Though cautious Russians probably weren’t involved, the hearts of Russians were all for Luka who arrested the Hipster.

At Sochi, the Black Sea resort and warm-climate-residence of Russian presidents, Putin received Lukashenko well, offered him a dip in the sea, and pooh-poohed Western threats. It’s just emotions, he said, an outburst of emotions. It will pass soon.

He referred to the disturbing EU recommendation to close the skies over Belarus, a direct threat to Russia, another tightening of the Iron Curtain. It would be uncomfortable for Russia and expensive for Belarus if these limitations were to persist. However, Russian support means that Belarus has nothing to worry about. And the US didn’t order its aviation to avoid Belarus, as opposed to Europeans. It is expensive to fly around Belarus; let the Europeans foot the bill.

Russia is coping with the New World Order, and doing well. It is the freest country in the world today, with theatres, museums and churches open, restaurants full of visitors, and there is a vaccine for everyone willing to take it. But this freedom was achieved through tremendous efforts, and Russia’s allies are not as capable of resisting the West. They are smaller, and it is easier to put pressure on them. Belarus, the Russian balcony over Europe, sticks out between US satellite states, and is vulnerable. The encirclement of Russia and its allies would have become a reality but for the long and friendly Chinese border.

Belarus has positioned itself as the Western hub of Chinese influence, as the westernmost ally and friend of China. Russian nationalists say Belarus is more pro-Chinese than pro-Russian. Belarus is a Eurasian state, says Lukashenko, thus connecting his country to both Russia and China. If the skies over Belarus were closed, Chinese access to Europe would suffer. It would also open a window for a sudden missile attack on Russia. For this reason among others, many Russian analysts consider the Ryanair affair a provocation. They say the West primed the trap and knew of all in advance. The Western states responded so fast and so massively that an advanced knowledge seems inescapable conclusion.

The CIA played a gambit: they sacrificed a young man of little importance in order to undermine China and Russia and strengthen the hand of Biden, due to meet Putin shortly. Others say just the opposite, the Belarus KGB achieved a great success, while the Western-sponsored Belarusian opposition have received a terrible blow. Even more conspiratorially-minded experts say it was a Russian operation, aiming to tie too-independent Belarus to its giant neighbour.

Indeed there isn’t enough certainty about the Ryanair events to rule out a provocation. Lukashenko says he would have demanded that the plane land in Minsk if he had known Roman P. was on board the plane. But he didn’t know, he says. We know for certain that a Minsk airport traffic controller informed the captain of the Ryanair aircraft that an email had been received (ostensibly from Hamas) claiming that there was a bomb onboard the aircraft that would explode over Vilnius airport. The threat was dubious; Hamas has never blown up planes, but it used suicide bombers to blow up buses in Israel so no one could guarantee it was a hoax.

All over the world, in the East and the West, all bomb threats are treated as though they were real even if they are much more often a hoax. Last year, Russia suffered thousands of hoax bomb threats; usually claiming a school was booby-trapped. These hoax threats are often traced to the Ukraine, where is an active and rabidly anti-Russian neo-Nazi network. Despite the near certainty that it is a hoax, Russian authorities invariably treat these threats as the real thing. So does the West. In August last year, British RAF scrambled two fighter jets to intercept a Ryanair liner because of a security threat; it turned out to be a mobile phone forgotten in a toilet.

Thus it is standard procedure to take security measures. In any case, it is the captain’s right and duty to decide. The captain decided to turn towards the Minsk airport. This is a fact – there is a record of the conversations between the aircraft and the airport. On the way to Minsk airport, a Belarusian fighter jet accompanied the plane. It had been scrambled, according to standard procedure, as the airliner drew close to Minsk airport and passed near the nuclear power plant. Ryanair records confirm that the fighter jet did not intercept the liner, did not threaten it, and was not perceived by the captain as a threat. While it is possible Belarus knew about the hoax (or even arranged the hoax) there is no way to prove it.

After the plane landed, the passengers got off and were taken to the terminal. While they were waiting for the immigration inspection, Ms Sapega, the NEXTA guy’s girlfriend, took a photo of him on her smartphone and sent the photo to their mutual friend. He posted the photo on Telegram, saying their leader is in Minsk! This is how the Belarusian authorities learned that this person, who had long been wanted by police, was found on their territory. He was therefore detained. This is the story coming from Belarusian authorities, and it could be true (or not). In any case, there was no hijacking of an aircraft, no forced landing, no other questionable acts. Whether Belarusian authorities knew from the start that a wanted man was on board does not matter at all. After the publication of the photo of the man on Telegram, they could not even pretend that they did not know.

And what if they had known of the young man’s presence onboard? Even if it were so, they were still acting in their own right. Any country has the right to land any civil aircraft flying in its own airspace. This not only follows from the idea of sovereignty, but is also confirmed by practice.

In 2016, Kiev authorities scrambled jets and, under the threat, forced a Belavia flight on its route to Minsk to return and land in Kiev. After landing, they removed and detained a passenger – the Russian-Armenian expert Armen Martirosyan. Why? Because he (jokingly, according to him) said by phone from the airport before take-off that he was carrying dirt on Ukrainian President Poroshenko with him. He in fact did not have any documents; he was later released; but the act of forcing the plane to land did not cause any international reaction.

The United States insists on its right to land any civilian vessel. In 2004, the United States forcibly landed a private plane in which a member of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber and a former deputy minister, Andrei Vavilov, was flying. He was taken for interrogation directly from the airport.

The most famous case was in 2013. The plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales took off from Moscow. US intelligence agencies suspected Snowden was on board. The president’s plane was forced to land in Vienna, where the plane was searched. Snowden was not found, so the plane was released. Afterwards, the United States publicly and officially declared its holy right to detain and search all the world’s civilian ships.

The United States was not alone in landing planes. In 2012, Turkey forced a Moscow-Damascus plane to land. But it was a Russian plane, so nobody cared.

Whom did the Belarusians detain? A Belarusian citizen named Roman Protasevich, the founder and head of the NEXTA telegram channel, who organized the riots in Minsk in 2020. I watched Roman P. in real time on my smartphone screen as he directed the riots in Minsk during the 2020 Belarusian events. The thought occurred to me then that Israel would have immediately sent a missile to this cosy studio if he were commanding rioters to attack Israeli police. If a missile is too strong a message, then several Israeli paratroopers would knock on his door. Such interference cannot be tolerated. What NEXTA did was an act of rebellion and sedition, and rebellious TV and radio stations are liable to be bombed. Like Israel just bombed the Associated Press and Al Jazeera offices in Gaza. Like the Americans bombed TV stations in Belgrade, Baghdad, and Kabul.

By foul means or fair, Belarus has neatly managed to capture the organiser of NEXTA. Well done! Israel has kidnapped people for less, for example, the whistle-blower Moti Vanunu, who exposed the secrets of the nuclear arsenal – taken from Rome. The United States has recently forced a plane landing to arrest an alleged participant on January 6 Capitol events.

Until the day of Roman P’s arrest, however, only that side, the side of the Israel-US hegemon, had ventured to act like a fully sovereign state. Lukashenko took an important bold step by claiming equality with Israel itself and equating Russia with the United States. It is high time. Russia has outgrown these self-imposed international restrictions.

Lukashenko’s action was not a great leap in the global struggle of titans, but surely it was a small step forward for Belarus and Russia. The RT Chief Editor Margarita Simonyan posted on Telegram that she envied Belarus. Who wouldn’t be envious of such an audacious leader? On the other hand, she could be proud of Russia. Without Moscow’s protection, Belarus would have already been fully democratised, like Syria and Iraq.

It is high time to apply international symmetry in full. Recently, US special services and their junior colleagues in Kiev were cooperating in an operation. They planned to ground an airliner en route from Minsk to Istanbul while it was crossing Ukrainian air space. Donbas fighters were to be enticed into boarding the liner in Minsk, ostensibly for the safe flight to Istanbul, which would then be “forcibly” landed in Kiev where they could be arrested and sentenced. When the plot was revealed, Western governments didn’t address what was technically a hijacking; they only regretted that the operation failed.

The Empire keeps Julian Assange under arrest for years. Dozens of Russian IT specialists (labelled “hackers”) have been arrested in third countries and extradited to the US; hundreds were snatched in the program of “extraordinary rendition” and taken to die in Guantanamo. Lukashenko demonstrated that two men could play this game.

Detained NEXTA guy, Roman P. has already begun to sing, and right away, within a few hours of his detention. We expect to learn how Poland and the Baltic states (and CIA) interfered in the internal affairs of Belarus, how they planned and attempted a “colour revolution” in Minsk. Photos in his smartphone revealed that some years ago, this young man volunteered to serve in the neo-Nazi battalion Azov in the Ukraine, taking selfies under a swastika. This is not necessarily a crime in Belarus; though Azov was well known for its war crimes in the Donbas conflict.

His girlfriend, Ms Sapega, the clever girl who snapped the unfortunate photo in Minsk airport, turned out to be editor of a site that doxxed Belarusian police and government sympathisers; she called upon the rebels to visit their vengeance on their families and homes. She has been detained for two months.

It is probable the government of Belarus will find out a lot of interesting stuff while questioning these two young people. In addition, this arrest is likely to cool off some hotheads in Belarus. Until now, they thought they were untouchable; now they have learned that the government can and will defend the country against rioters.

As a rule, I sympathise with rebels. But sometimes, the rebels are too sure of themselves. They think they are Elves fighting the Orcs. NEXTA carried its war against people of Belarus’ real economy, against its industry and agriculture, for the new digital world. Were they to win, as in Ukraine, Belarus’ industry would be robbed and sold for a song; as in Ukraine, Belarus’ workers would become unemployed, its great agriculture ruined. But Ukraine had a weak president, Mr Yanukovich, who fled to Russia when in danger. Lukashenko is cut from different cloth. He is more like Syria’s president Bashar Assad, the man who is still in power after years of being told he must go. His friendship would do a lot of good for Mr Putin.

UPDATE

Belarus TV broadcasted a film called ОНТ «Рейс «Афины-Вильнюс» (OHT Flight Athens to Vilnius) with full extensive timing of the event.

Apparently, Belarus authorities didn’t know of Roman P’s arrival to Minsk, until an opposition Telegram channel had broadcasted news report of Roman P detained in Minsk. At the time of news report, Mr P stood in the queue to immigration for checking out, after he quickly cleared customs inspection. In the absence of the report, it is highly likely Roman P would board the plane and continue his way to Vilnius. It took almost 30 minutes after the broadcast until Roman P was detained. These 30 minutes, Internet exploded. The man is still free, Belarus authorities didn’t understand what had happened, but already all opposition channels speak only of kidnapped Roman P. In 30 minutes, even sleepy Belarus KGB rose to the bait. Roman P was arrested. Roman P is convinced that he was doxxed by his own colleague, Franak Viačorka, or Frantishek Vecherko, an adviser to Svetlana T and an employee of the US Agency for Global Media. The timing is really impressive: the press release of Svetlana T calling to save Roman P had been broadcasted nine minutes after Roman has got to Minsk airport and over 20 minutes until he was detained. A Luka sympathiser would prefer to report of Belarus secret services’ excellent achievement, but it seems that the operation had been planned in Warsaw and Washington, while Luka only rose to the bait. Disappointing somewhat, but more realistic!

Israel Shamir can be reached at adam@israelshamir.net

This article was first published at The Unz Review.

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