ANKARA — Getting its way again with the defense alliance, pressure from Turkey made NATO dilute a denunciation for Belarus hijacking a flight from Athens so that a dissident journalist could be arrested, no hard sanctions yet imposed.
The Reuters news agency said that it was told by two diplomats who weren't named that Turkey's insistence in going easy on Belarus strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, often called Europe's Last Dictator, was approved by all 30 members, who include Greece and the United States.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had been among the first to call for swift and severe penalties for the skyjacking and arrest of Roman Protasevich, who had appeared at the Delphi Forum in Athens.
On orders of Lukashenko – who later denied it – a fighter jet made the Ryanair flight to Lithuania's capital of Vilnius land at Minsk under the ruse of a bomb threat, with The Daily Beast reporting the fabricated hoax arrived in an email 24 minutes after the plane was already on the ground.
Lithuania had also demanded penalties as the flight was almost in its air space when made to land but also backed off from going tougher, the report said, with the bloc so far only not allowing Belarusian planes land in EU countries.
The report said that Turkey – Turkish Airlines has daily flights to Minsk – pushed NATO into watering down an official reaction and not include any punishment despite critics saying no plane is safe flying over Belarus.
Baltic countries and Poland had joined Greece in pushing for sanctions but all of them then agreed to the softer statement, the report said, with no explanation of why 30 countries would give in to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He has repeatedly made the EU back down from him under the threat of flooding the bloc, mostly through Greece, with more refugees and migrants who went to Turkey as a jumping off point to reach Europe and seek asylum.
The statement was also softer than NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s public remarks who called the incident a “state hijacking” and “outrageous,” but didn't speak up after Turkey made the alliance members back off.
Turkey, the report said, demanded the statement not include support for sanctions or calls for the release of political prisoners in Belarus, with Lukashenko cracking down on all dissent and jailing journalists during months of protests against his rigged re-election in August, 2020.
Language threatening a suspension of NATO’s cooperation with Belarus was also removed, the diplomat added and while the report it wasn't clear why Turkey wanted to protect Lukashenko – who has the unwavering support of Russian President Vladimir Putin – diplomats said Turkey wants tighter ties with Moscow after buying Russian S-400 missile defense systems.
BACKING UP, BACKING DOWN
Those could be use against Greece in a conflict and undermine the defenses of NATO, which has said nothing about it nor about Turkey repeatedly violating Greek airspace and waters.
The US barred Turkey from buying F-35 fighter jets over the S-400 purchase and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had castigated Belarus for the skyjacking but didn't break away from the softer wording.
Turkey is also said to want Russian tourists this summer during the COVID-19 pandemic, Erdogan showing he doesn't care about human rights as he jailed dozens of journalists and purged civil society, the military, courts and the school system after a failed 2016 coup attempt against him.
The Turkish foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, said Reuters and an unnamed NATO official refused to give any details or reasons for the tepid reaction.
“The statement by the North Atlantic Council on Belarus was agreed by all 30 Allies by consensus. We do not go into the details of discussions in the North Atlantic Council, which are confidential,” was the only reply.
But one of the diplomats said that Stoltenberg, reluctant to tangle with Erdogan under any conditions, sided with him and got the other 29 countries to agree so there wouldn't be any rancor or division, letting Turkey win the day.
Turkey’s insistence on a watered-down text upset a number of allies, particularly Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which had pushed for tougher wording, the diplomats said, but those countries also gave in.
A third diplomat said Turkey's pushback was mainly aimed at using a different wording to that of the European Union, which detailed proposals for sanctions that included a ban on the overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines, preventing Belarusian airlines from using EU airports and calling on EU airlines to avoid Belarus, only a few agreeing so far.
Turkey is not an EU member, though it has been a candidate since 2005, the prospects growing dimmer under Erdogan's strong hand and the bloc repeatedly walking away from clashing with him.
“Many allies were very frustrated with Turkey. It was important for NATO to respond and it is not clear why Ankara should want to defend (Belarusian President Alexander) Lukashenko,” said a European diplomat present at the discussion who didn't want to be named.
Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO and is in a strategic location between Europe and the Middle East and with coasts on the Black and Mediterranean Seas, is too big and important for the EU or the United States to ignore, was the argument against trying to stop Erdogan from often doing what he wants.
Erdogan has also said he will again send Turkish warships and energy research vessels off Greek islands to hunt for oil and gas, the EU three times backstepping from any idea of sanctions that Mitsotakis wanted after he said that he didn't.