Star bright, star bright, you got the lovin’ that I like;
Turn this crazy bird around…
Should not have got on this flight tonight
From “This Flight Tonight“, by Nazareth
For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.
When news happens, there is a rush on the part of the press to get it out there, hopefully so that their paper or reporter is the one to bring it to you first. This race to be your headline eye-candy king is greatly simplified by having a preformed narrative bias – if we did it, or one of our close allies did it, it was either good or it was an honest mistake; you have to laugh, really, our intentions were so good and look how it turned out. If our enemies did it, or even those who are in arrears on their friendship dues, it’s because they are rotten to the marrow of their wicked bones, and of course there was the basest of evil intent behind it. The story almost writes itself, you just need to plug in a few assumed facts here and there, wind up with a bit of soulful off-the-cuff analysis, maybe a reasonably-safe prediction (“there will be consequences”, said a government source who cannot be named…), et voila!
I usually don’t like to do that. Well, partly it’s because I am often too busy to sit down and write the moment I hear something; I just don’t have the time. But also, I like to give it a couple of days – often, there are major changes in the original storyline, which I often heard entirely one side of anyway, and sometimes there is a complete and embarrassing reversal, in which I would have been complicit had I jumped on the bandwagon.
This story is not like that. There have been some major revelations and mitigations, but we are still left with a lot of questions. Let’s start out with what we know, or think we know. The description of events lifted straight from TASS seems to me to describe the ‘known knowns’ – to borrow from legendary cold warrior Donald Rumsfeld – as well as any I have seen, or at least it more or less encapsulates what I know;
Protasevich was detained on May 23. On that day, a Vilnius-bound Ryanair plane that took off from Athens made an emergency landing at Minsk International Airport after a reported bomb threat. After the landing, the plane was inspected and no bomb was found on board. Among the passengers on that flight was Protasevich who was wanted by Belarusian authorities. Protasevich was detained by law enforcement agents once the plane had landed in the Belarusian capital. Russian national Sofia Sapega was also detained together with him.
However, there is a great deal more to the story than that, and you can usually make a fairly safe bet that when an immediate western pile-on ensues – given its typically lackadaisical organization where domestic and international affairs are concerned – there is something about it that plays directly to its interests, rather than the non-partisan by-Jove-we-will-have-fair-play-wot-wot that it pretends.
And there was a lot of that; a lot of fist-shaking and blustering about ‘air piracy’ and ‘hijacking’, a lot of hyperbole by sources who would pretty much be living on government assistance programs if hyperbole was not allowed. Serial fabricator and English gasbag Luke Harding, for instance. He has more or less abandoned journalism altogether in favour of waiting for major events to fall in his lap, and simply stringing together a series of comments on them. Here’s a fine example:
Friends have wryly noted that the thunderous and very public manner of his arrest is in keeping with his outsized career and personality. “Everything he does is loud,” Nicolai Khalezin, who has known him for a decade, said. “The riot police came and arrested me. Roma got a fighter jet.”
Anyone with an ounce of journalistic integrity, and a brain that exceeded roughly the same deadweight, would know a couple of things which would have precluded putting one’s real name to such tosh. One, the riot police do not patrol or execute offsite arrests; they provide security at events which have the potential to turn into riots, and when they do, arrest people who showed up; therefore, Khalezin has attributed ‘came’ to the wrong authority. If he ‘came’ to a protest and it got out of hand, perhaps the riot police arrested him there. If he was arrested somewhere other than at such an event, it probably was not by the riot police. But that’s semantics. What I particularly wanted to point out is that escort of civil aviation which is making an emergency landing, owing to a potentially dangerous situation onboard, by a military aircraft is standard procedure since the momentous events of 9-11. The polite and peaceful Canadians go so far as to suggest sending two fighter planes is ‘an appropriate response’.
Maj. Holly Apostoliuk said NORAD officials don’t have time to verify a threat is genuine before responding. “Considering the time available when information is received about a potential threat to an aircraft, one does not have time for a full investigation, and neither would anyone want us to do so,” Apostoliuk told The Canadian Press. “The point is, based on the information, to do all we can to ensure a safe landing of the aircraft.”
Quite. This would seem to be affirmed by Air Traffic Organization policy guidance in the event of a bomb threat received while the aircraft is airborne.
- When information is received from any source that a bomb has been placed on, in, or near an aircraft for the purpose of damaging or destroying such aircraft, notify the supervisor or facility manager. If the threat is general in nature, handle it as a suspicious activity. When the threat is targeted against a specific aircraft and you are in contact with that aircraft, take the following actions as appropriate:
- Advise the pilot of the threat.
- Report the threat to the Domestic Events Network (DEN) Air Traffic Security Coordinator (ATSC) via (202) 493-4170. If unable to contact the DEN ATSC notify the Transportation Security Administration/Transportation Security Operation Center (TSA/TSOC) directly at 703-563-3400.
- Ask if the pilot desires to climb or descend to an altitude that would equalize or reduce the outside air pressure/existing cabin air pressure differential. Obtain and relay an appropriate clearance considering minimum en route altitude (MEA), minimum obstruction clearance altitude (MOCA), minimum reception altitude (MRA), and weather.
NOTE − Equalizing existing cabin air pressure with outside air pressure is a key step which the pilot may wish to take to minimize the damage potential of a bomb.
- Handle the aircraft as an emergency, and/or provide the most expeditious handling possible with respect to the safety of other aircraft, weather conditions, ground facilities, and personnel.
NOTE − Emergency handling is discretionary and should be based on the situation. With certain types of threats, plans may call for a low-key action or response.
- Obtain and relay clearance to a new destination, if requested.
- When a pilot requests technical assistance or if it is apparent that such assistance is needed, do NOT suggest what actions the pilot should take concerning a bomb, but obtain the following information and notify the supervisor who will contact the DEN ATSC or TSA/TSOC as explained in a2 above.
Going back for a moment to Harding’s gasbaggery, there was nothing ‘thunderous’ about the manner of his arrest; it is even possible the Belarusian authorities did not know Protasevich was aboard. He managed to get off the plane without any extra attention at all; it was when the passengers were invited to re-board the aircraft after it had been searched for the bomb that, unsurprisingly, was not discovered that passengers had to present their passports. And it was at this point that Protasevich and his Russian squeeze were arrested. But Protasevich is Belarusian, and has frequently claimed he intends to return – presumably when Guaido-Tikhanouskaya has made a wealthy democratic freedom paradise of it. There was theoretically nothing to prevent him from simply walking away from the holding area, and disappearing in the country of which he is a native, exiting at some later point when security might be expected to be a little less alert.
Much attention has focused on the message received which warned of a bomb aboard. As soon as I saw the map of the air track, I asked, “Why didn’t they simply go on to Vilnius? It’s much closer, and obviously the airport is equipped to handle aircraft of that size”. But apparently the crew of the aircraft were specifically threatened that if they tried to land at Vilnius, disaster would ensue. That left Minsk – conveniently, some say – the closest airport able to handle large international aircraft and having all the necessary emergency organization and equipment, such as crash wagons and so forth.
Some quickly suggested Minsk sent the email itself, so as to concoct an excuse to grab Protasevich, and that the whole thing was a setup established with the goal of getting him.
However, questions quickly arise around that as well, and an excellent resource for resolving some is the material posted by Bernhard Horstmann at the comprehensive newsblog Moon of Alabama. As some have commented, Moon of Alabama has far more about it of investigative journalism than the assembled bobblehead ‘journalists’ of the western press, and this effort is no exception.
As detailed therein, the email was sent to the address of the Minsk International Airport from a protonmail address. The message read as follows:
“We, Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union abandon its support for Israel in this war. We know that the participants of Delphi Economic Forum are returning home on May 23 via flight FR4978. A bomb has been planted onto this aircraft. If you don’t meet our demands the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius. Allahu Akbar.”
Again, convenient, many will smirk. But I submit it is believable. So far as I am aware nobody has denied that participants in the Delphi Forum were aboard, although their list of supporters raises no particular red flags of corporate sponsorship of Israel (except, perhaps, for Lockheed-Martin, but they tend to spread donor cash with a generous hand). A particularly atrocious series of airstrikes against the Palestinians by Israel had indeed just taken place. The specific flight is identified by number. It might indeed have been a fake, but…who’s going to be brave enough to dismiss it as a fake and do nothing, when every international procedure demanded that Minsk behave exactly as it did?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Center quickly pumped out a mocking accusation that the email had actually been received by Minsk, according to its metadata, after Minsk had already announced the threat to the flight and recommended it divert to Minsk. I think you will agree it is unlikely anyone who could dream up such an elegant trap would have stumbled owing to such a stupid mistake. According to the official statement by the Belarusian government, they were not aware Protasevich was on board.
“According to the Belarusian top diplomat, the country’s authorities did not know that Roman Protasevich, one of the co-founders of the Nexta Telegram channel, which was recognized as extremist in Belarus, and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were among the passengers. “These two persons were detained after they had passed through customs and border control to board the plane after it had been checked. So, there are no links between these events. I think that we see deliberate attempts to link these things to the plane’s landing after a bomb threat,” he stressed.
He rejected allegations that the plane’s landing had been organized by the Belarusian authorities to detain Protasevich. “I learned about the plane’s landing and the detention of these persons from the news,” the minister noted. “Many officials, those who are in a position to know about such things, knew about the bomb threats but the detention was reported in the evening. Initially, we had no information about it.”
Confusion has arisen over the apparent transmission of two emails, one of which was the original and upon which Minsk claims to have acted immediately as international procedures mandate, and a ‘copy’, which was received somewhat later. I recommend readers read all of MOA’s post. As he also points out, the version in which Minsk came up with a phony email after it had already contacted the plane is the one currently assumed to be accurate in the west, appealing as it does to confirmation bias – that’s just what they would do, so they probably did, because they are not freedom-lovers like us.
This might be a good place to discuss – if the Belarusian government actually did make the whole thing up just to snare Protasevich…what of it? Absolutely it flies in the face of international aviation procedures to deliberately do such a thing. But has that ever stopped those who are shouting the loudest over what a crime it is? Let’s review, again using Moon of Alabama’s excellent resources; mmm…in 1954, Israel forced down a Syrian plane so it could use the captured passengers as hostages to exchange for Israeli soldiers. Illegally detaining civilians to exchange them for soldiers presumably captured on combat operations: what was that about The Most Moral Army In The World? France diverted a Morocco-Spain civil air flight to French-owned Algiers in order to arrest an Algerian Independence leader in 1957. In 2010 the USA closed its airspace to an Aeromexico flight from Paris to Mexico City, and the flight was diverted to Canada, where a passenger was arrested and extradited to the United States; we’re quite a reliable partner for that sort of thing, and international travelers should keep it in mind – just avoiding the United States is probably not enough. More recently, and much better known, all of Europe collaborated with the United States to force down the official presidential aircraft of the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, on a flight from Moscow because furious US government officials became convinced that famous domestic-surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden was hiding onboard. Totally and completely against diplomatic and common-international procedures, but I didn’t even see an official apology, never mind an acknowledgment that it was illegal. In 2016, in a case of mistaken identity, Kiev sent military aircraft after a flight which had departed Kiev and forced it to return, on suspicion a passenger it wished to arrest was aboard. And only last year, Kiev concocted an elaborate ruse to capture Russian mercenaries it had contracted itself through advertising, by diverting their flight from Minsk to Turkey and forcing it to land in Kiev. It should be pretty clear by now that the west and its allies do not give a tin weasel about obeying the law or following procedure when the possibility of a dramatic arrest is in the offing. What’s that old parable? When the law is in your favour, pound on the law. When the law is against you, pound on the table.
Did Minsk have any reason to detain Protasevich, other than his efforts as a minor irritant at the helm of NEXTA, another of those “stand up for freedom of the oppressed” outlets which endeavor to foster the belief that expat candidates who performed dismally in an election actually won it, but were just faked out by the ‘authorities’? I’ll say they did. By his own admission in this interview – in Russian, selected English translation by Moscow Exile – he was an active-service combatant, in Eastern Ukraine, of Azov Battalion.
“When the war broke out in eastern Ukraine, I couldn’t stay away…I tried to join the “Donbass” battalion, but it didn’t work out: I couldn’t get through to the phone numbers listed on the social network. Then I learnt that the Belarusian squad “Pagonia” was recruiting volunteers to take part in the fighting in the ATO. I wrote to them…After some time, I was invited to an interview. I had no military education and no experience in combat. I’m a journalist.
“Pagonia” is not an independent combat unit. It is rather a popular organization, an association of warring Belarusians. After the volunteers have been selected, they are sent to the Ukrainian volunteer battalions…The selection process consists of questionnaires, interviews, and psychological tests. The questions are designed in such a way that sooner or later a person will be exposed by some trifling matter if he is lying.
Then the volunteers go through combined-arms training, but without weapons…I had the opportunity to get into “Azov”, “Aidar” or “Donbass”. I was in the very first set, so I ended up in Azov . I arrived in the Ukraine in July. We received tactical and medical training in the battalion. Then there was a training course for a new recruit and then his deployment in the ATO. Now recruits train according to the latest methods: they take the “Azov-Spartan” course. This is based on the United States Navy SEAL training course . This is a serious test. People who have problems with psychological endurance are eliminated at this stage.”
Plenty of photographs have emerged of Protasevich in military fatigues, armed and festooned with extra ammunition magazines, and on parade with combat units at a national ceremony with military participation. It’s perfectly true that you can do anything with PhotoShop these days, and I encourage the unconvinced to thoroughly explore any possibility the photos are faked, but I suggest it is an unlikely prospect given his own proud admission of having served with Azov.
Is Azov a terrorist organization? Agencies in the United States and Ukraine have pretzelated themselves in attempts to argue it is not, using comically-specious arguments such as the ideological Atlantic Council’s deflections that since it is now a regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, it cannot correctly be called a ‘paramilitary unit’.
“What the authors call a “Ukrainian Azov Battalion,” where they add a description of it as “a paramilitary unit,” is, in fact, a Special Operations Detachment “Azov”—a regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard that is part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This means that Azov is neither a paramilitary unit nor has any independence from the state, but that it is an integral part of official structures and that it follows orders given by the Interior Ministry…But the authors produce no clear proof of ongoing links between American right-wing terrorists and a unit within Ukraine’s Interior Ministry. To label that unit “a foreign terrorist organization under federal law” would be a grave mistake and a gift to the Kremlin. “
My, yes; if you do this, you’re only doing what Putin wants, I swear that is getting competitive for The Oldest Trick In The Book. I ask you to note also that while the article appears under the auspices of The Atlantic Council – which is already nutty enough on the subject of everything evil in the world having its roots in Russia – it is by a Ukrainian author who has a more specific genre; all the Nazi extremists are in Russia. Not in Ukraine. There are no Nazis there, especially not in Azov…whatever they are. Certainly not a paramilitary organization.
Similarly, the Counter-Extremism Project argued loudly that Azov must not be designated a terrorist organization. Kind of makes you wonder why, although their regimental symbol is the Wolfsangel or ‘Wolf’s Hook’ of Nazi distinction – never, to the very best of my knowledge, worn by an military unit other than German SS infantry and armored divisions, until now – western organizations argue strenuously that they are not white supremacists or Nazi aficionados.
Anyway, the Counter-Extremism Project presents a similar argument – originally, they might have been Nazi fans, but that’s not the same organization at all as the one which currently exists, and isn’t even called Azov Battalion anymore.
“It is not my intention to go into semantics here as “Azov Battalion” no longer exists. I recognize Rep. Slotkin’s effort and will assume she meant the Azov Regiment or to be more precise—the Azov Movement, a much broader and amorphous entity. The intention to designate such a social movement, however, is challenging.”
Also includes the jaw-dropping avowal, “Ukraine has nothing to gain from hosting any entity that could be deemed by the United States as terrorist as Ukraine seeks U.S. security assistance.” Ukraine had already burned dozens and perhaps hundreds of unarmed protesters alive in the Trade Union Building in Odessa; onsite video recorded armed Ukrainians shooting at people huddled on ledges outside flame-belching windows although the official Ukrainian account swore devoutly they were there to help with rescue efforts. Fascist organizers set the building afire although it was afterward blamed on the protesters inside trying to throw firebombs out the windows, despite the existence of videos showing young girls filling beverage bottles with gas outside in the courtyard after the protesters had already fled inside and could not escape.
The collective action of the western media was to pretend it never happened or to accept the official Ukrainian version that it was all a tragic accident perpetrated by anti-Ukrainian protesters.
Anyway, we were talking about Belarus, not Ukraine. The point I was trying to make is that Protasevich is linked, by his own admission, to an extremist military unit in Ukraine which 40 members of the US Congress petitioned to have designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Predictably, it went nowhere, as doing anything to tie the hands of anti-Russian allies is a non-starter in the United States. For Minsk, simply letting him go unchallenged would be like the United States letting a known al Qaeda footsoldier fly into Maine, enjoy a lobster dinner and buy some souvenir miniature lighthouse carvings, and fly out again. Not very likely. Once Minsk knew Protasevich was among the passengers, it was inevitable that he would be arrested, as he was a wanted man in Minsk – to do otherwise would be inexplicable for any country or authority under the same circumstances.
But when did they know – and how? Aaahh…now that’s a question, isn’t it? Few buy that it was merely coincidence that brought the KGB and Protasevich to the same point in space and time, and most believe it was a setup – note I did not imply that the cover story was true, merely that it is believable. Some have speculated that it was a western operation, and that Potato-head was sacrificed to the cause of ratcheting up sanctions against Belarus. If so, that was a pretty spectacular failure, if I must say so – although it greatly served the cause of convincing Lukashenko that he has no real friends in the west, and that his best chance of dodging the regime-change bandwagon lies in an alliance with Russia. But Protasevich has been singing like a canary. Among his disclosures is his accusation that he was indeed set up, but by his own side. According to him, the mastermind behind his denouement is one Daniel Bogdanovich, a ‘member of Svetlana Tihanovskaya’s entourage‘. In Russian, again translated to English by Moscow Exile:
“Former head of the Belarusian opposition resource NEXTA, Roman Protasevich, has named the man whom he suspects of being behind the aeroplane provocation. He spoke about this on Thursday, June 3, in a film, presented by the ONT TV channel.
“This person is Daniel Bogdanovich from Svetlana Tihanovskaya’s entourage. It was with him that there were conflicting relations. He also knew that I would be returning by a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius”, Protasevich told a journalist of the TV channel.”
Although airline passenger manifests are notoriously difficult to access unless you are the US Department of State, or an organization with similarly large ones to swing, I daresay quite a few people knew Protasevich would be on that flight; like most young liberal leaners, he is a prolific tweeter, and imagines his personal doings are of absorbing interest to the world. So simply knowing he would be on that plane is hardly evidence of culpability.
On the other hand, the Guaido-Tikhanouskaya opposition movement is faltering and rudderless; in February she wept for an international audience that the opposition had ‘lost the streets‘. The Belarusian government-in-exile badly needs a timely ‘incident’ to focus international attention once again on Belarus, and renew pressure on Lukashenko to step down. A tightening of sanctions against Minsk would be a Godsend.
Sometimes, the ‘largeness’ of one’s personality marks one down for the role of martyr rather than messiah. Sometimes, Roma…it’s just business.