ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday insisted Russia sought to be “neutral” when it came to events in Belarus, seeking to distance his country from the uproar over the forced diversion of a passenger jet with a Belarusian dissident aboard.
Mr. Putin’s comments at Russia’s flagship economic conference in St. Petersburg came a day after the arrested dissident, Roman Protasevich, appeared on Belarusian state television with bruises on his wrists. Mr. Protasevich confessed to having organized antigovernment protests — an interview that his family, supporters and Western officials said had been made under duress.
“Belarus has lots of problems, domestic ones, and we actually want to take a neutral position,” Mr. Putin said.
Mr. Putin’s restraint in backing the Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Russia’s closest ally, showed how Mr. Lukashenko’s crackdown and Mr. Protasevich’s arrest are putting pressure on him. While Mr. Putin fears that Mr. Lukashenko’s downfall could be a geopolitical loss for Russia, the Belarusian leader’s erratic and brutal repression is also turning into a problem for the Kremlin.
On Friday, Western officials condemned the interview with Mr. Protasevich, and the European Union went ahead with previously planned sanctions banning Belarusian airlines from flying over E.U. territory. Joining the St. Petersburg conference by video link alongside Mr. Putin, the chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, called Mr. Protasevich’s “forced confession” something that “we do not see as acceptable in any way.”
To Mr. Putin, Belarus is a key ally, perhaps the last post-Soviet country in Europe that has clung steadfastly to Moscow. When hundreds of thousands of Belarusians rallied against Mr. Lukashenko last summer, Mr. Putin’s support proved critical to keeping him in power.
But Mr. Putin has also had a strained relationship with Mr. Lukashenko, and he appears keen to prevent the furor over the diverted flight from derailing his summit meeting with President Biden that is scheduled to take place on June 16.
Asked whether he believed Mr. Lukashenko’s claim that the Ryanair plane Mr. Protasevich was flying in was brought down because of a bomb threat, Mr. Putin responded: “I don’t want to evaluate what happened with this airplane. To be honest, I don’t know.”
He also denied that Russia knew in advance about Belarus’s operation to bring down the commercial flight carrying Mr. Protasevich between the capitals of two E.U. countries, Greece and Lithuania.
Understand the Situation in Belarus
- Belarus in the spotlight. The forced landing of a commercial flight on Sunday, is being seen by several countries as a state hijacking called for by its strongman president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians were met with a violent police crackdown when they protested the results of an election that many Western governments derided as a sham.
- Forced plane landing. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk with the goal of detaining Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Mr. Protasevich confessed to taking part in organizing “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
Despite his lukewarm comments, Mr. Putin showed no sign of withdrawing his support for Mr. Lukashenko, who claims the protests against him have been engineered by the West. Echoing Russian state TV talking points, Mr. Putin compared the protests in Belarus to the siege of the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, criticizing the West for condemning the violence of the riot police in Belarus but not the arrests of the Capitol rioters in the United States.
“It’s all a matter for the people of Belarus,” Mr. Putin said. “Over there, this is all evaluated in one light and key, and then the same thing happens in the States, but it’s all evaluated differently.”
Underscoring Russia’s continued support, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the S.V.R., on Thursday met with his counterpart in Belarus, who heads a spy agency still called the K.G.B. The two pledged to “consolidate forces” in resisting “the aggressive activities of the West,” the official news agency of Belarus reported.
Mr. Protasevich, the 26-year-old dissident journalist, is the former editor of NEXTA, an opposition account on the social network Telegram. Just last month, he described Mr. Lukashenko as “a dictator” and compared him to Hitler.
On May 23, Mr. Lukashenko scrambled a fighter jet to intercept the Ryanair flight — a move that the international community and leaders across Europe condemned — and after it landed in Minsk, security forces spirited away Mr. Protasevich and his girlfriend. He is being held in a K.G.B. jail, his father and lawyer have said.
A tearful Mr. Protasevich appeared anxious and exhausted in the interview aired on Thursday night, which was conducted by the head of a Belarusian state television station. He said he “undoubtedly” respected Mr. Lukashenko, before lavishing praise on him.
European leaders condemned Mr. Protasevich’s interview. A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called the confession “completely unworthy and implausible,” and Britain’s foreign minister, Dominic Raab, said on Twitter that “those involved in the filming, coercion and direction of the interview must be held accountable.”
On Friday, as expected, the European Union officially implemented some of the sanctions that its leaders agreed last week to impose. It banned all Belarusian airlines from overflying the bloc’s airspace and landing in airports on its territory. Individual European countries had already applied similar measures.
“E.U. member states will therefore be required to deny permission to land in, take off from or overfly their territories to any aircraft operated by Belarusian air carriers,” the E.U. Council said in a statement.
Mr. Protasevich said in the interview he had organized unauthorized mass rallies, a charge that carries up to three years in prison. He said he had voluntarily decided to give the interview, and that no makeup had been applied to hide any traces of torture.
His apparent confession, which some observers likened to Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s, described the Belarusian opposition as worms living luxurious lifestyles in Lithuania and Poland on those countries’ payroll. He also described his opposition colleagues as accomplices in his crimes and provided specific names.
Mr. Protasevich’s turnaround is not unusual in Mr. Lukashenko’s Belarus. Several opposition activists and media figures have made similar abrupt turns in their public statements after time spent in Belarusian prisons. Yuri Voskresensky, a former political prisoner, described his own detention as “hell.”
Speaking with TV Rain, an independent Russian television station, Mr. Protasevich’s father, Dmitri Protasevich, called the interview “a propaganda video.”
“It is very hard for him to say these things, and I am sure he was coerced and intimidated to do so,” he said. “He has been under pressure for more than a week.”
Dmitri Protasevich said that Belarusian law enforcement could also apply pressure on his son through his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who is also being held by the K.G.B.
“She might be held in the cell next to him,” he said.
The conditions inside such prisons are bleak, former detainees say. Yegor Dudnikov, a Russian citizen, was detained by the Belarusian law enforcement in early May and has since been held in a K.G.B. prison. In a letter to his lawyer, he described having been subjected to beatings and torture in order to prompt a confession.
Mr. Dudnikov, who said he was a technical specialist who helped opposition activists with videos, described having been coerced to make a statement to the state-run television channel that interviewed Mr. Protasevich.
“On May 25, they brought me to a room where they gave me answers already prepared by the television crew,” he said in a letter published by Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper. “They gave me time to learn them by heart — on May 28, television people came and made the recording.”
But Mr. Putin, speaking at an in-person international conference that brought together thousands of delegates despite the ongoing pandemic, said he cared little about Mr. Protasevich’s plight.
“This Roman Protasevich, I don’t know him and I don’t want to know him,” Mr. Putin said.
And Belarus was not on the list of topics Mr. Putin said he planned to discuss with Mr. Biden when the two meet in Geneva this month. Those topics, Mr. Putin said, would include strategic stability and arms control, international conflicts, fighting terrorism, the pandemic and the environment. Mr. Putin said Moscow and Washington needed to improve their relations from today’s “extremely low level,” but stuck to his oft-stated view that the United States alone was responsible for the tensions.
“We have no disagreements with the United States,” Mr. Putin said. “They have only one disagreement: they want to hold back our development, they talk about it publicly. Everything else flows out of this position.”
Anton Troianovski reported from St. Petersburg, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow. Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.