Belarus diverts passenger plane, Evolution of Russian narratives about Ukraine, COVID-19 and more – Weekly Update on Ukraine #18, 17 – 23 May 2021

Situation in the combat zone

On May 23, Ukraine’s Joint Forces recorded six ceasefire violations, the Joint Forces command said in a morning report. One serviceman was wounded in action. 

Russia-backed militants fired from 120-mm mortars near Avdiivka, and 82-mm mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers near Novhorodske. 

There were similar attacks throughout last week. 

Belarus diverts passenger plane, detains opposition journalist: an act of state terrorism?

On May 23, co-founder of the Telegram channel Nexta Raman Pratasevich, 26, was detained at the Minsk airport. He was on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius. Raman was returning from a vacation with his girlfriend. The plane was diverted by a Belarusian fighter jet, and landed in Belarus due to a suspected bomb threat. Lukashenko personally ordered to send the fighter jet, said Paviel Latushka, member of the presidium of the Opposition Council, and former Minister of Culture of Belarus.  

“A MiG-29 fighter jet of the Belarus Armed Forces was scrambled,” Latushka wrote on Facebook on May 23. 

The passengers on the plane underwent security checks, and Pratasevich was detained. His girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, was detained too. Sapega is a Russian citizen and a student of international law at the European Humanities University in Vilnius. She was to defend a master’s thesis upon the return in Vilnius. 

The plane then continued the flight to Vilnius. According to the Belarus opposition members, six people did not re-embark the flight – Raman and Sofia, and four Russian nationals. It is unknown who they are. 

What is known about Pratasevich? Telegram channel Nexta became popular following the presidential elections in Belarus. It provided daily updates and announced upcoming rallies. On October 20, 2020, a district court in Minsk labeled Nexta and its logo “extremist materials”.  

Nexta was co-founded by Stepan Putilo and Raman Pratasevich. They were put on the international wanted list, and added to the terrorist list in Belarus. Also, criminal proceedings were started against them on charges of organizing mass disorder, disturbing the public order, and inciting hatred.     

Pratasevich co-founded other Telegram channels that were also dubbed “extremist” in Belarus, particularly, “Belarus of the Brain”. Lately, he lived in Lithuania in exile and was part of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s team. 

Ryanair explains. Commenting on the diversion of the Ryanair flight, the Irish airline said the plane landed due to “a potential security threat on board”. Initially, it did not mention Pratasevich’s detention or the fighter jet escorting the plane over Belarus. 

Belarus opposition reacts. Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Pratasevich might face the death penalty. The reprisal by Lukashenko’s regime endangered the passengers and the entire civil aviation, Tsikhanouskaya said.  

How the world reacts. Parliaments of eight countries called to stop all flights above Belarus following Pratasevich’s detention. These are the U.S., the Czech Republic, Latvia, Germany, Lithuania, Ireland, Poland, and the UK. They also condemned the violence against a civil aircraft over Belarus.

In a statement released shortly after the plane diversion and Pratasevich’s arrest, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens. (…) Given indications the forced landing was based on false pretenses, we support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events.” 

How Ukraine reacts. On the day of Pratasevich’s arrest, activists rallied in front of the Foreign Ministry in Kyiv.

Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry called his arrest an attack on the freedom of expression by the Belarus government. “More worrying news coming from Belarus as we learned Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich has been detained in Minsk. This is yet another attack on freedom of expression by Belarusian authorities. We demand his immediate release. While in detention, his rights must be upheld,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko twitted.

On May 24, the “Servant of the People” (Sluha Narodu) faction of the majority party expelled the notorious MP Yevhen Shevchenko who spoke in support of Lukashenko’s regime. A day earlier, Shevchenko welcomed Pratasevich’s arrest in Minsk. In late April, Shevchenko met with Lukashenko in Minsk. The “Servant of the People” denied that they delegated their member.

On May 24, the Ukrainian Parliament cut diplomatic ties with Lukashenko’s regime, a statement released by the inter-faction group “For Democratic Belarus” says.

Evolution of Russian narratives about Ukraine and their export to Ukrainian media space – research 

Ukraine has been a target in Russia’s information warfare that sees information used as a weapon. The goal is to make Ukrainians buy into the Kremlin’s narratives. Some of them say: Ukraine is fighting a civil war, fascism and russophobia are common sentiments, Ukraine is under external governance by the West, and Ukraine is a failed state. Unfortunately, those messages find their audience, the research entitled “Evolution of Russian narratives about Ukraine and their export to Ukrainian media space” finds. The research of Ukraine Crisis Media Center was conducted within the project “Countering disinformation in the south and east of Ukraine” in partnership with Detector Media, Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership, and with the support of the European Union. It was presented to the public by UCMC’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group on May 18. 

Strong international support to Ukraine is one of the best ways to address the information warfare, the research team said during the presentation. Still, strengthening media literacy, improving critical thinking skills of journalists, and ensuring government information protection policy is not less important. Follow the link to read the research in English.  

How Ukraine is fighting COVID-19

Cases hit record low in 2021. On May 24, Ukraine recorded 1,334 new coronavirus cases, a level last seen on August 12, 2020. There were 6,999 recoveries, and 68 deaths.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ukraine has reported 2,183,855 COVID-19 cases, 1,957,560 recoveries, and 49,436 deaths.  

According to Worldometer web site, by the daily number of infections, Ukraine ranks 28th in the world, and fifth in Europe. 

Vaccinations. Since vaccine distribution began on February 24, 978,352 people have received one dose of a vaccine, and 75,787 people have been fully vaccinated.