After some European countries blocked access to Belarusian airlines after officials arrested an opposition journalist on a commercial flight, NPR asks an expert about Putin's support for Belarus.



A growing number of European countries are blocking access to Belarusian airlines. The response comes after Belarus intercepted a commercial flight and removed and arrested an opposition journalist who was on board. While Western democracies try to isolate Belarus, a neighbor to the east has the country's back. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, supports Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk.

Fiona Hill is a Russia expert who has worked at senior levels in the White House and the State Department, and she's now with the Brookings Institution.


FIONA HILL: Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: In the last week, as we have seen countries try to isolate Belarus from Western Europe to the United States, what has Russia been doing?

HILL: Well, Russia initially was watching what was going on in terms of the response. Obviously, Russia was supportive of the idea of the plane being diverted with the example of a bomb threat, counterterrorist operation...

SHAPIRO: Which we now know to have been false.

HILL: ...Which we now know was not the truth at all. And now Russia has, you know, basically backed up Lukashenko on the actions that he's taken but not in an overwhelmingly positive way from Lukashenko's perspective. I mean, they've been supportive of him on the importance of interdicting potential terrorists because that's now what he's calling the opposition figure, Protasevich. But they haven't been overwhelming in their support for Lukashenko. They've been watching very closely to see how everyone else reacts.

SHAPIRO: Why? What's in it for Russia? I mean, why support this guy?

HILL: Because Lukashenko is now extraordinary dependent on Russia, and Russia wants to keep Belarus very close. And in many respects, Russia's probably quite glad that the ties between Europe and Belarus have now been severed - and Belarus and the United States - because this means that Lukashenko and Belarus are entirely dependent on Russia. At the same time, Lukashenko has been a very difficult ally. He has often tried to kind of, in many respects, distance himself from Putin as much as possible. He's tried to play Russia off against the West when it suited him. He's tried to basically chart his own course. And, you know, he's quite willing to spend Moscow's money when it suits him but not necessarily give something back again when the Russians want it.

SHAPIRO: So this is obviously a complicated and nuanced situation, and it would be an oversimplification to call it just a microcosm of the tensions between the Democratic West and the sort of Russian strongman model. But to some extent, is that what we're seeing here - that this large geopolitical dynamic is playing out in this one situation in Belarus?

HILL: Yes, we are. This is really the geopolitics at play. It's an artifact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's the way that we've seen in some of - many of the former Soviet republics in parts of Eastern Europe are kind of backsliding in the direction of a more authoritarian system. But this is also a larger tale of a particular person and a very small group around him who want to stay in power no matter what. And, of course, we see that playing out in politics everywhere, including here in the United States, where people basically put an emphasis on their own self-preservation rather than on the interests of the country. So we have to separate out here Lukashenko himself - Alexander Lukashenko - from the people of Belarus, who clearly want something different. And none of this is very popular in Belarus itself, either keeping Lukashenko in power or having even a closer relationship with Vladimir Putin and with Russia.

SHAPIRO: So as Western Europe tries to isolate and punish Belarus, is Russia likely to try to water down those actions and undermine Western Europe's efforts to impose accountability?

HILL: Well, it is likely to do that. And the other reason is because this leaves Lukashenko with nothing other than Russia to prop him up. And although the Russians were always a bit irritated by Lukashenko trying to play off Europe against Russia, seeking European investment, flirting with the idea of closer diplomatic relations with the European Union, the United States as well - they don't want to foot the bill for Belarus. There's all kinds of escapades that the Russians have been up to recently that, you know, are not super-costly. But when you start to add them together, that increases the bill. And if now Belarus becomes financially dependent - and Lukashenko - on Russia, that's also extraordinary awkward for Vladimir Putin, who has himself said that he wants to stay in power somewhat indefinitely. But if Lukashenko goes as a result of a populist uprising, that's pretty bad for Putin.

SHAPIRO: If Russia's already overextended, is there a chance that Putin might say, look; this is not worth the hassle, and encourage Lukashenko to respond to the EU's demands and become less of an international pariah?

HILL: It's possible. It depends on whether they see, you know, a greater upside than a downside because, again, Putin will not want to see Lukashenko ousted from power as a result of a grassroots opposition movement. Now, if Lukashenko then becomes dependent on Russia and Russia helps orchestrate his removal or at least, you know, manages to get him completely subservient to them, then that is a different matter. But right now I think it's unclear. So the Russians are watching to see how everyone responds. And, of course, what Lukashenko has done is put the whole world on notice because if we let Lukashenko get away with this, we can be pretty sure in the context of the rest of the world, not just in Europe, that others will attempt this too.

SHAPIRO: I know you've been speaking with Belarusians in exile. How do they view this week's events?

HILL: Well, they're completely shocked, as are many of the citizens of neighboring countries and, you know, political activists from the Baltic states - Poland, you know, you name it. You have to also bear in mind that there are large Belarusian diasporas outside of Belarus, so there's a lot of countries with stake in what happens in the future of Belarus. People are very worried about the collapse of the country, a strong reaction to Lukashenko, people fleeing across the borders. And, of course, there's a great concern about the potential absorption of Belarus by Russia as well. And so there's an awful lot at stake here, and people are extraordinarily worried about the European Union, the United States and others not having a sufficiently robust response that puts Belarus on notice and anybody else who might be thinking of doing something similar.

SHAPIRO: Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, thank you very much.

HILL: Thank you, Ari.

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