Report

Russia Blocks 2 Airlines Over Belarus Spat

Not all airlines have been affected, but Air France and Austrian Airlines have been forced to cancel flights.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
An Air France Boeing 777
An Air France Boeing 777 is shown at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Roissy, France, on March 28, 2003. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Russia is upping the ante on the European air wars. At least two European airlines were forced to cancel flights to Russia on Thursday after they were denied permission to enter Russian airspace, as they sought to reroute to avoid flying over Belarus. Airlines are bypassing Belarus after a Ryanair flight was essentially hijacked and forced to land in Minsk on Sunday in a ploy to arrest an opposition journalist who was on board. 

On Wednesday, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency urged European carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace over safety concerns. A Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled to accompany the Ryanair flight to Minsk after pilots were falsely warned by Belarusian air traffic controllers that there was a bomb on board. 

The Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, who has lived in exile since 2019, was taken off the flight following the emergency landing in the Belarusian capital and arrested alongside his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, as they flew from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania. 

Russia is upping the ante on the European air wars. At least two European airlines were forced to cancel flights to Russia on Thursday after they were denied permission to enter Russian airspace, as they sought to reroute to avoid flying over Belarus. Airlines are bypassing Belarus after a Ryanair flight was essentially hijacked and forced to land in Minsk on Sunday in a ploy to arrest an opposition journalist who was on board. 

On Wednesday, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency urged European carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace over safety concerns. A Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled to accompany the Ryanair flight to Minsk after pilots were falsely warned by Belarusian air traffic controllers that there was a bomb on board. 

The Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, who has lived in exile since 2019, was taken off the flight following the emergency landing in the Belarusian capital and arrested alongside his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, as they flew from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania. 

Both Air France and Austrian Airlines said that Russia had yet to approve their requests to amend their flight routes into Russian airspace. A spokesperson for Austrian Airlines said that one flight was canceled on Thursday, but it was unclear whether permission would be granted to prevent future flights from being disrupted. “It is not yet possible to say when a decision will be made for the next flight. Currently, only today’s connection had to be canceled,” they said. 

In a statement, Air France said that a flight from Paris to Moscow was canceled on Thursday for “operational reasons linked to the bypassing of Belarusian airspace requiring a new authorization from the Russian authorities.” An Air France flight to Russia was also canceled on Wednesday. 

Any prolonged disruption is likely to further dial up tensions between Moscow and the West and test the ability of the EU to remain united in the face of Russian pressure. 

“This is classic Russia looking to drive wedges,” said Tim Morrison, who was previously a top advisor on Russia and Europe in former President Donald Trump’s National Security Council. 

Morrison said he saw it as no coincidence that airlines from Austria and France had been affected, describing them as the “more pro-Russian” countries in Europe that may be more likely to break ranks. The leaders of both countries have pushed for improved relations between the EU and Russia. 

Several European airlines including Lufthansa, Iberia, and KLM have announced that they will no longer fly over Belarusian airspace, but it is unclear whether they will also be impacted. Flight trackers show that a British Airways flight successfully flew from London to Moscow on Wednesday evening, bypassing Belarusian airspace, while Poland’s LOT airline traveled without disruption from Warsaw to Moscow on Thursday evening. At the time of publication, a KLM flight from Amsterdam was not reporting any expected delays to its upcoming flight to Moscow. 

Maxim Pyadushkin, managing director of the Russian magazine Air Transport Observer, said he believed the disruption stemmed from the fact that airlines have to agree a new point of entry into Russian airspace if they are to avoid Belarus. “I hope it is a technical issue that can be resolved very quickly,” he said. “I don’ t think that Russia has any reasons to dispute with the EU about Belarussian airspace.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Belarus has long been a close but problematic ally of Russia. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is set to travel to Russia on Friday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The EU announced Monday that it would prepare further economic sanctions over Belarus’s unprecedented decision to ground a civilian flight in pursuit of a government critic. 

Protasevich is a co-founder and was the editor in chief of the Nexta channel on the encrypted social networking app Telegram, which played a key role in coordinating anti-government protests last August in the wake of rigged Belarusian presidential elections. Belarusian security services labeled Protasevich a terrorist last year, and he could face the death penalty if convicted of terrorism charges.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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