Belarus Plane Crisis Tightens Lukashenko’s Awkward Embrace of Putin

MOSCOW — He may be the Kremlin’s closest ally, but his loyalty remains in doubt.

When Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the eccentric and brutal leader of Belarus, forced down a European passenger jet on Sunday to arrest a dissident, he ushered in a new and even more brittle phase in one of the post-Soviet region’s most convoluted and consequential relationships: the one between Mr. Lukashenko and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The two are increasingly leaning on each other in the face of conflict with the West, but they have sharply diverging interests. Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled for 26 years, relies on his iron grip on his country to assure his survival. Mr. Putin wants to expand Russian influence in Belarus, undermining Mr. Lukashenko’s authority in the process.

Now, with a summit meeting with President Biden looming in June, Mr. Putin faces a choice over how much political capital to expend to continue supporting Mr. Lukashenko, whose commandeering of the Ryanair plane has complicated the Kremlin’s efforts to smooth relations with the West. Russian officials and pro-Kremlin news outlets have taken Mr. Lukashenko’s side in the furor, but Mr. Lukashenko’s leading Belarusian opponents believe that the Kremlin’s support is only skin deep.

“In the Russian Foreign Ministry, in the Kremlin, I think that people can’t stand Lukashenko,” Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said in a telephone interview. “But at the same time, since there’s not anyone more pro-Russian, they prefer to keep Lukashenko for now.”

Roman Protasevich — who had been on a Belarusian list of “terrorists” because he co-founded a social-media outlet that galvanized and organized last year’s protests.

On Monday, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists in his regular daily briefing that he could not comment on the Ryanair incident. “It is up to the international authorities to assess the case,” he said.

It took another 24 hours for the Kremlin to formulate its final message; Belarus’s actions were “in line with international regulations,” Mr. Peskov said on Tuesday.

as directed by E.U. leaders who voiced outrage over what they called Mr. Lukashenko’s “hijacking.” But speaking in a marble-paneled hall of the Minsk House of Government, Mr. Lukashenko was defiant, claiming that a bomb threat against the plane had arrived from Switzerland.

“Don’t you cast blame on me!” Mr. Lukashenko thundered, jabbing his finger into the air. “I acted legally defending my people, and it will also be thus in the future.”

In Moscow, Mr. Lukashenko is widely seen as a frustrating and fickle partner. Despite his reliance on the Kremlin, for instance, he still has not recognized as valid the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which many Russians see as Mr. Putin’s crowning foreign policy achievement.

“It’s a pretty serious mistake to think that Moscow can snap its fingers to solve its problems in Minsk,” said Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat who resigned last year in protest against Mr. Lukashenko’s policies. “Lukashenko will try to avoid further dependence on Moscow in every possible way.”

Andrei Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow research institute co-founded by the Russian Foreign Ministry, likened Mr. Lukashenko to the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, another difficult Kremlin ally.

After Russia propped up Mr. Lukashenko in his hour of need last summer, long-sought benefits were expected to accrue to the Kremlin. Mr. Lukashenko could have signed an agreement for a Russian military base in Belarus or allowed Russian investment into major Belarusian enterprises on favorable terms. But despite three face-to-face meetings between Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Putin since last September — a fourth is expected in the coming days — none of that materialized.

“You’d think: The regime was saved, and he should have paid,” Mr. Kortunov said of Mr. Lukashenko. “But we’re not seeing that.”

Continuing to prop up Mr. Lukashenko could be costly for Mr. Putin, Mr. Kortunov warned. As Mr. Putin prepares for a summit meeting with President Biden scheduled to take place in Geneva on June 16, Russian officials have telegraphed that they want to lower tensions with the United States. One factor is domestic politics: Amid protests and discontent over economic stagnation, the Kremlin faces a public disapproving of foreign adventurism.

“The social contract of, ‘We won’t give you sausage, but we’ll make Russia a great power’ — this no longer works,” Mr. Kortunov said, describing Mr. Putin’s approach. “He understands that he needs to change the agenda. He won’t win any more with foreign policy.”

Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents are now pushing for the United States and Europe to enact more sanctions against Belarus that would further isolate him and perhaps provoke a split in the elite. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader, spent nearly 40 minutes on the phone earlier this week with Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, her aide, Mr. Viacorka, said.

“When the Belarusian issue is discussed in the context of the Russian one, it becomes impossible to solve,” Mr. Viacorka said.

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Biden Administration Hopes to Learn Fate of U.S. Hostage in Syria

Other partners, like the Vatican, also failed to secure Mr. Tice’s release. The Trump administration had even talked to an unidentified Hollywood actor about reaching out to the Syrian government. While some Trump administration officials thought Moscow could intervene, Russia was also ultimately unhelpful.

Two other Americans who had been held by the Syrian government have been released. Kevin Patrick Dawes, a freelance photographer, was released in 2016 after nearly four years in captivity. Sam Goodwin was freed in 2019 after being held for two months. Both men were held for far shorter times than Mr. Tice. Mr. Dawes said he was brutally beaten, while Mr. Goodwin said he could hear “others being tortured around me every day.”

Discovering the fate of Mr. Tice remained elusive to administration officials, including Robert C. O’Brien, the former hostage negotiator who rose to be Mr. Trump’s national security adviser in the fall of 2019. Mr. O’Brien, who had lost his own son in an accident, pushed to get Mr. Tice home.

In March 2020, Mr. Trump wrote a letter to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria asking for Mr. Tice’s release and proposing a direct dialogue.

Following up, the Trump administration in August 2020 dispatched two senior officials to Syria: Mr. Carstens, the hostage czar, and Kashyap Patel, who held senior White House, Pentagon and intelligence posts. Besides securing Mr. Tice’s release, the Americans had also hoped to cut a deal to free Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American.

A retired Army lieutenant colonel who has held senior State Department posts, Mr. Carstens has been deeply involved in the Tice case, and he and Mr. Patel met with Mr. Mamlouk.

Mr. Mamlouk told them he wanted American troops out of Syria and relations between the two countries normalized before Syria would allow any progress on the Tice case. Still, the spy chief never acknowledged that the Syrians were holding Mr. Tice, continuing a pattern of almost nine years.

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Czechs Blame 2014 Blasts at Ammunition Depots on Elite Russian Spy Unit

The Czech Republic on Saturday blamed a series of mysterious 2014 explosions at Czech ammunition depots on an elite unit of Russia’s military intelligence service — a group that Britain has linked to a 2018 attack with a nerve agent on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said at a Prague news conference that his government would respond by expelling 18 Russian diplomats, whom it had identified as spies. He said there was “clear evidence,” assembled by the Czech intelligence and security services, showing “reasonable suspicion” that the Russian group, known as Unit 29155, had been involved in the blasts in late 2014, which killed two Czechs.

The announcement underscored the breadth of Russia’s efforts to expand its influence and pursue aggressive actions around the world, including military-style operations, assassinations and cyberattacks.

The elite Russian unit has operated for at least a decade, focusing on subversion, sabotage and assassination beyond Russia’s borders. It first came to light after the March 2018 attack in Salisbury, England, on a turncoat Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, using the nerve agent Novichok. Both fell gravely ill but later recovered.

The Czech police also released photographs of the two men, who looked like the men shown in photographs released in 2018 by Britain. The police said the men had used at least two different identities and asked anyone who had seen them or knew anything about their movements in the Czech Republic to call a hotline.

Mr. Babis, the prime minister, did not accuse the two Russians directly of involvement in the arms warehouse explosions, but he said there was “unequivocal evidence” that agents working for Russian military intelligence had been involved.

“Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must react accordingly to those unprecedented revelations,” Mr. Babis added.

The Czech Republic, a member of NATO, has expelled Russian diplomats in the past but has never ordered as many out as it did on Saturday. The expulsions came just days after Washington expelled 10 Russian diplomats over interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election and the hacking of computer systems used by government agencies.

Poland, another NATO member, also expelled Russia diplomats in recent days, ordering three to leave on Thursday in what Warsaw said was a gesture of “solidarity” with the United States.

The Czech action, however, was more severe and unusually sweeping.

“I am sorry that Czech-Russian relations will suffer, however, the Czech Republic must react,” the acting foreign minister, Jan Hamacek, said in Prague.

What caused the ammunition depot blasts, which began in the village of Vlachovice and resumed at a nearby depot in December 2014, has never been fully explained.

They coincided with efforts by Ukraine to increase its supply of weapons from abroad as it struggled to recover eastern territory seized by Russian-backed rebels in the summer of 2014.

Czech media reports on Saturday also linked the blasts to what they said may have been a Russian drive to halt the delivery of Czech-made weapons to forces fighting in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Moscow.

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They ‘Bombed My Dream’: Denmark Strips Some Syrians of Residency Status

Ghalia al-Asseh had just begun studying chemistry and biotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark when the country’s immigration services summoned her for an interview.

For five hours, immigration officers asked about her proficiency in Danish, which she speaks fluently. They inquired how well integrated she was in Denmark, where she has lived with her family since fleeing Syria in 2015.

During the interview, in February, officers also told Ms. al-Asseh that the security situation in her hometown, Damascus, had improved, and that it was safe for her to return to Syria, she recalled in a telephone interview last week.

Ms. al-Asseh, 27, was losing her right to live in Denmark — even as her four brothers and parents could stay, and she had nowhere else to go.

not stable enough to be considered safe for returnees.

Those being asked to leave include high school and university students, truck drivers, factory employees, store owners and volunteers in nongovernmental organizations. All risk being uprooted from a country where they have built new lives.

“It is as if the Danish immigration services has bombed my dream, just as Bashar al-Assad bombed our homes,” said Asmaa al-Natour, 50, referring to Syria’s president. “Only this time the bombing is psychological.”

“ghettos,” and doubled punishments for certain crimes in these areas.

They have also overhauled the country’s legal apparatus on immigration, shifting it from integration to the accelerated return of refugees to their native countries. Hundreds of Somali refugees have also lost their residence permits after Denmark deemed Somalia safe to return to.

Per Mouritsen, an associate professor of political science at Aarhus University, said the government had toughened its stance on immigration in recent years to avoid losing votes to the right wing, a dilemma that several center-left parties across Europe have faced.

“The only way to beat the right-wing in Denmark is to sell your soul to the devil and be as tough on immigration in order to have support for social welfare policies in return,” Mr. Mouritsen said.

Last year, the number of refugees leaving Denmark exceeded the number of arrivals. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has vowed to go further, saying that Denmark will aim to have “zero asylum seekers.”

said in February.

For those willing to return to Syria, Mr. Tesfaye said that Denmark would offer “a huge bag of travel money.” The authorities say that hundreds decided to return voluntarily.

Michala Bendixen, Denmark’s country coordinator at Refugees Welcome, a nonprofit, said the policy threatened to tear Syrian families apart. “The only purpose is to make Denmark the last place to choose as an asylum seeker,” she said in an interview.

Because the Danish government does not maintain diplomatic relationships with Mr. al-Assad’s government, the authorities cannot forcibly deport refugees. Since most of them are unwilling to return voluntarily, those who lost their appeals after their residency was revoked are likely to be sent to departure centers.

The Danish authorities did not respond to questions about why the policy was implemented for Syrians and how many had been sent to departure centers.

collapsed economy and half of its prewar population displaced. Mr. al-Assad has reclaimed control of two-thirds of its territory, including the Damascus area. He has also called on Syrians to come back, but many say they won’t for one reason: Mr. al-Assad himself.

Syrian Network for Human Rights, and the European Union’s asylum body has warned that voluntary returnees are at risk of detention, torture and death.

“The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can go back safely,” said Ms. Slente of the Danish Refugee Council.

Ms. al-Asseh, the chemistry and biotechnology student, said she had tried to focus on her studies since learning that her residency permit would be revoked. Yet she said the thought of starting over again terrified her.

“I’m not a danger. I’m not a criminal,” she said. “I just want to live here.”

Rick Gladstone contributed reporting.

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Syrian Refugees in Rebel Controlled Idlib Are Stuck in Limbo

IDLIB, Syria — Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their towns, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones are 150 families squatting in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in rickety tents under the stands or in the rocky courtyard.

Work is scarce and terror grips them whenever jets buzz overhead: New airstrikes could come at any time. But the fear of government retribution keeps them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last bastions under rebel control, eating up farmland, stretching along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families squat in damaged units with no windows.

“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before they go live under the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” said Okba al-Rahoum, the manager of the camp in the soccer stadium.

On a rare visit to Idlib Province, examples abounded of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could attack at any moment, they struggle to secure basic needs in a territory controlled by a militant group formerly linked to Al Qaeda.

bused them here after conquering their towns. They drove in with trucks piled high with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possession besides the clothes they wore.

Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by its Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.

About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last of two strips of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled from other parts of the country. That influx has transformed a pastoral strip of farming villages into a dense conglomeration of makeshift settlements with strained infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.

SHINE, an education organization, urged a group of women at an event in Idlib to refuse polygamous marriages, which are permitted under Islamic law.

The next day, gunmen closed SHINE’s office and threatened to jail its manager, Ms. Kisar said.

a cease-fire between Russia and Turkey has stopped outright combat in Idlib, but on one day last month there were three attacks. A shell hit a refugee camp; an airstrike ignited a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells struck a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan boy who had gone for a vaccination, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.

While the area’s displaced struggle to survive, others try to provide simple pleasures.

In the city of Idlib, the Disneyland restaurant entices visitors to dine on salads and grilled meat, and to forget their woes with video games, bumper cars, air hockey and stuffed animal claw machines.

The basement storeroom doubles as a shelter when the government shells nearby, and the terrace is enclosed with plastic sheeting instead of glass so it doesn’t shatter on diners if something explodes nearby.

The manager, Ahmed Abu Kheir, lost his job at a tourist restaurant that shut down when the war began, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government shelling.

He opened another restaurant, but left it behind when the government seized the area last year and he fled to Idlib.

Like all of Idlib’s displaced, he longed to take his family home, but was glad to work in a place that spread a little joy in the meantime.

“We are convinced that normal life has to continue,” he said. “We want to live.”

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In a Syrian Rebel Bastion, Millions Are Trapped in Murky, Violent Limbo

IDLIB, Syria — Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their towns, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones are 150 families squatting in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in rickety tents under the stands or in the rocky courtyard.

Work is scarce and terror grips them whenever jets buzz overhead: New airstrikes could come at any time. But the fear of government retribution keeps them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last bastions under rebel control, eating up farmland, stretching along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families squat in damaged units with no windows.

“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before they go live under the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” said Okba al-Rahoum, the manager of the camp in the soccer stadium.

On a rare visit to Idlib Province, examples abounded of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could attack at any moment, they struggle to secure basic needs in a territory controlled by a militant group formerly linked to Al Qaeda.

bused them here after conquering their towns. They drove in with trucks piled high with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possession besides the clothes they wore.

Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by its Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.

About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last of two strips of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled from other parts of the country. That influx has transformed a pastoral strip of farming villages into a dense conglomeration of makeshift settlements with strained infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.

SHINE, an education organization, urged a group of women at an event in Idlib to refuse polygamous marriages, which are permitted under Islamic law.

The next day, gunmen closed SHINE’s office and threatened to jail its manager, Ms. Kisar said.

a cease-fire between Russia and Turkey has stopped outright combat in Idlib, but on one day last month there were three attacks. A shell hit a refugee camp; an airstrike ignited a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells struck a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan boy who had gone for a vaccination, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.

While the area’s displaced struggle to survive, others try to provide simple pleasures.

In the city of Idlib, the Disneyland restaurant entices visitors to dine on salads and grilled meat, and to forget their woes with video games, bumper cars, air hockey and stuffed animal claw machines.

The basement storeroom doubles as a shelter when the government shells nearby, and the terrace is enclosed with plastic sheeting instead of glass so it doesn’t shatter on diners if something explodes nearby.

The manager, Ahmed Abu Kheir, lost his job at a tourist restaurant that shut down when the war began, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government shelling.

He opened another restaurant, but left it behind when the government seized the area last year and he fled to Idlib.

Like all of Idlib’s displaced, he longed to take his family home, but was glad to work in a place that spread a little joy in the meantime.

“We are convinced that normal life has to continue,” he said. “We want to live.”

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The Iran Nuclear Talks Explained

BRUSSELS — In Vienna on Tuesday, the signers of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will come together with what would appear to be a simple task. They want to restore compliance with an agreement that put strict controls on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon, in return for the lifting of punishing economic sanctions.

Both Iran and the United States insist that they want to return to the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A. But nothing about the meeting will be simple.

President Donald J. Trump pulled the United States out of the accord in May 2018, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated,’’ and restored and then enhanced harsh economic sanctions against Iran, trying to force it to renegotiate.

Iran responded in part by enriching uranium significantly beyond the limits in the agreement, building more advanced centrifuges, and acting more aggressively in support of allies in the Middle East, like Hezbollah, Hamas, Shia militias in Iraq and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

intended to create a road map for a synchronized return of both Iran and the United States to compliance with the 2015 deal. It has been at risk of collapse since Mr. Trump repudiated American participation.

The accord was the outcome of years of negotiations with Iran. Under the chairmanship of the European Union, Britain, France and Germany made the first overtures to Iran, joined by the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: Russia, China and the United States.

But it was not until the United States started secret talks with Iran under President Barack Obama and agreed that Iran could enrich uranium, though under safeguards, that a breakthrough occurred. Even then, the deal was widely criticized as too weak by many in Congress and by Israel, which saw Iran’s possible reach for a nuclear weapon — an aspiration always denied by Iran — as an existential threat.

The Europeans tried to keep the deal alive, but proved unable to provide Iran the economic benefits it was due after Mr. Trump restored American sanctions that had been lifted under the deal’s terms. The American sanctions, based on the global power of the dollar and the American banking system, kept European and other companies from doing business with Iran, and Mr. Trump intensified the pressure by adding many more sanctions.

agreed in late February to keep recording information on its inspection equipment for three months, but without granting I.A.E.A. access. If economic sanctions are not lifted in that time, Iran says, the information will be deleted, which would leave the world in the dark about key parts of the nuclear program.

Iran insists it can return to compliance with the deal quickly, but wants the United States to do so first. The Biden administration says it wants Iran to go first.

Trust is one big problem. The Iranian regime was established by a revolution more than four decades ago that replaced the American-backed Shah of Iran with a complicated government overseen by clerics and the strong hand of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ayatollah only reluctantly agreed to the 2015 deal with the “Great Satan” of America. After Mr. Trump pulled out, Mr. Khamenei’s mistrust only deepened.

Mr. Trump also imposed many economic sanctions on Iran beyond those originally lifted by the deal, trying “maximum pressure” to force Iran to negotiate much more stringent terms. Iranian officials now say as many as 1,600 American sanctions must be lifted, about half of them imposed by Mr. Trump. Some are aimed at terrorism and human rights violations, not nuclear issues. Lifting some of them would create opposition in Congress.

Many in Washington, let alone in Israel and Europe, also disbelieve Iran’s assertions that it has never pursued a nuclear weapon and would never do so.

Further complicating restoration of the accord are its “sunset” clauses, or time limits, that would allow Iran to resume certain nuclear enrichment activities. The Biden administration wants further negotiations with Iran to extend those time limits as well as put limits on Iran’s missile program and other activities.

Iran says it simply wants the United States to return to the deal it left, including the lifting of sanctions, before it will return, too. It has so far rejected any further talks.

Even under the Islamic regime, Iran has politics, too. There are presidential elections in June, with candidates approved by the clerics. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, who cannot run for another term, and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are considered relatively moderate and negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal. But powerful forces in Iran opposed the deal, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The moderates hope that quick progress on lifting economic sanctions will help them in the presidential elections; the hard-liners are expected to oppose any quick deal in Vienna that might benefit the moderates.

Iran has lived with tough Trump sanctions for three years now and survived popular discontent and even protests, and hard-liners will argue that another six months are not likely to matter.

The meeting of senior diplomats is formally a session of the Joint Commission of the deal, called by the European Union as chairman. Since the United States left the accord, its representatives will not be in the room, but somewhere nearby. Diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran will meet, with a European Union chair, and start to discuss how to revitalize the accord.

Iran refuses to meet face-to-face with American diplomats. So the Europeans suggest that they will either meet the Americans with proposals, or that the Iranians will leave the room before the Americans enter. This process of indirect talks could take time.

But European diplomats say that after a few days, the job will be left in Vienna to working groups on the complicated political and technical issues. If a rough agreement can be reached on a synchronized return to compliance, the expectation is that officials of Iran and the United States will meet to finalize the details.

The talks may take a long time, and some in Washington hope at least for an agreement in principle in the next few months that would bind any new Iranian government after the June elections.

But some European diplomats fear that too much time has already elapsed, and that the deal is effectively dead, and will essentially serve as a reference point for what may be a fundamentally new negotiation.

So the timeline is unclear, as is the prospect for success.

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