3 June 2021 — Moon of Alabama
(Amended at the very end on June 3 4:00 utc.)
The fallout from the bomb threat against the Ryanair flight 4978 from Greece to Lithuania continues to hit people who were not at all involved in the incident. That is sad as the ‘western’ perception of the case is based on a completely false narrative which was planted by foreign paid ‘activists’ who aim for regime-change in Russia and Belarus.
While previous Moon of Alabama posts, listed at the end of this one, went into the details of the case this one will present a broader timeline of the event and look at some of the involved characters and organizations. It will be the reference thread for possible future posts.
Franak Viačorka is a Belarusian journalist and media expert. Franak works as a digital media strategist at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (contractor). He has worked as a creative director for the Belarus service of Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty and Vice President for Digital Communication Network. Franak is a frequent speaker and an advocate for democracy and personal freedom. He graduated from American University in Washington D.C. (M.A.) and Warsaw University in Poland (B.A.).
Viacorka has long worked on regime changing Belarus. He was at the core of the U.S. financed organization Nexta who directed the protests in Belarus after its 2020 election.
Viacorka is currently assigned as the chief minder of the rather hapless Svyatlana Guiado-Tsikhanouskaya, an exiled English teacher and wannabe president of Belarus.
After the election the EU had imposed some sanctions on Belarus. But then the whole effort somehow stalled. On May 13 Viacorka was asked about this:
The first package of EU sanctions against Lukashenka’s entourage was adopted on October 2, 2020, the second — on November 6, and the third — on December 17. Since then, the fourth package is also expected to be adopted. However, five months later, there are no new EU sanctions. Why?
According to Franak Vyachorka, international affairs advisor to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, there are countries where Belarus is first on the agenda. But, then, there are those with other priorities: the coronavirus pandemic, peace in the Balkans, or security in North Africa.
Some countries, especially in Southwest Europe, he says, “believe that the Belarusian issue has calmed down: the crisis is not solved, but there is no escalation. Therefore, the issues in Belarus are being solved more slowly.
In an interview on May 22 Guiado-Tsikhanouskaya also lamented about the situation:
“Europe did a great deal in the beginning and offered a great deal of moral support, and afterward, the question is how far and how quickly they could go in implementing aggressive actions against the regime,” she said. “Since December , that is for six months, we have had no new concrete actions on sanctions or movement on more civil society assistance. We call on the European Union to be braver.”
The expected fourth wave of targeted European sanctions against Minsk regime officials lost steam as street protests across Belarus shrank in the face of cold weather and continued arrests and beatings.
On May 23 a bomb threat against a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was emailed to airports and authorities in Lithuania, Belarus and Greece. It is not know who has sent the email. The consequences it had may give a hint to it senders.
Belarus Air Traffic Control, through whose airspace the plane was flying at that time, contacted the pilot, informed him of the threat and recommended to land the plane in Minsk. The pilot contacted Ryanair management and then decided to follow the advice. The plane landed at 10:15 utc (13:15 Belorussian time), the passengers disembarked and a lengthy bomb search was carried out. No bomb was found.
After landing, the aircraft, in accordance with the established international and national requirements in aviation security, was assigned to a special isolated parking lot, where the corresponding actions for inspection and interrogation were carried out in relation to the aircraft, crew, passengers, baggage, cargo, mail.
These actions are provided and must be performed by states in accordance with the Standards set out in Chapter 5 of Annex 17 to the Chicago Convention.
By 13.20 UTC all the procedures established by international and national legislation had been completed and the aircraft could take off, however the flight FR4978 departed from National Airport Minsk at 17.48 UTC and at 18.27 UTC made a safe landing at Vilnius airport.
Why the departure of the cleared plane was delayed so long has not been explained.
To re-board the airplane the passengers had to pass through passport controls. Two passengers were found to have outstanding arrest warrants against them and were detained. The other passengers flew to their original destination.
The handling of the bomb threat by Belarus was by the book. Such bomb threats against planes happen quite often and are handled by all local authorities in accordance with ICAO rules and regulations.
But just an hour after the plane had landed Frank Viacorka, who is followed by many ‘blueticks’ on Twitter, presented a narrative of the incident which strongly diverted from reality but allowed for a new push of the stalled regime change agenda.
Franak Viačorka @franakviacorka – 11:35 utc · May 23, 2021
BREAKING! The regime landed @Ryanair plane, which was flying from Athens to Vilnius,in order to arrest the famous Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich. In Belarus, he faces the death penalty. Belarus has seized a plane,put passengers in danger, in order to repress an opponent
9,307 Retweets – 2,076 Quote Tweets – 17.5K Likes
The widely shared tweet and the ones following it implied that the Belorussian government ordered the plane down to arrest the regime change agent Protasevich.
When one looks into the details of the case it soon becomes obvious that the narrative is false.
The Foreign Minister of Belarus, Vladimir Makey, says the the authorities did not even know that 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.”
Just eight hours after Frank Viacorka had planted the false narrative he proudly presented screenshots of the front pages of the Washington Post, New York Times, El Pais and Euronews to show how all ‘western’ media had taken up his fairy tale.
Franak Viačorka @franakviacorka @franakviacorka – 19:15 utc · May 23, 2021
The world is talking about Belarus. Lukashenka’s military hijacked @Ryanair plane & took Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich hostage. From now on, no one can feel safe in Belarus airspace – the regime possesses total control over it & doesn’t care about the legal obligations.
One aim of Viacorka and other anti-Russian agitators have is to impose sanctions against Belarus and Russia. A day after the flight incident the former oligarch and tax evader Mikhail Khodorkovski made a big push:
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who fell foul of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, said European countries should punish Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for his act of air “piracy” by sanctioning oil and potash producers.
“Roman Protasevich must be freed and the dictator punished,” Khodorkovsky said in a statement to Reuters. “The dictator should be hit where it hurts the most: his wallet.”
“European countries should join U.S. sanctions against Belneftekhim and sanction Belaruskali,” Khodorkovsky said. Belneftekhim is Belarus’s state oil company. Belaruskali is one of the world’s largest producers of potash.
European leaders threatened on Monday to limit international air traffic over Belarus and possibly restrict its ground transport, after a Ryanair passenger plane was forced to land in an incident denounced by Western countries as “state piracy”.
Viacorka’s false narrative has had for now the desired outcome. As Foreign Policy headlined yesterday:
Lukashenko’s Air Piracy Has Revitalized Belarus’s Opposition
An exhausted movement finds new support abroad.
But that will only hold if the narrative Viacorka provided will not fall apart.
On May 25, just 48 hours after the incident had happened, the Aviation Directorate of Belarus published a complete record of what had happened in Russian and English language. It also included the transcript of the radio traffic between the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) and the pilot.
On May 23, 2021, a written message with the following content in English was sent to the e-mail of the National Airport Minsk from the e-mail address protonmail.com:
“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.”
Taking into account the seriousness of the threat received, the information from the National Airport Minsk was forwarded to the relevant air traffic control services of Belaeronavigatsia State-Owned-Enterprise.
In accordance with the requirements of the Annex 17 to the Chicago Convention and the National Program for the Protection of Civil Aviation from Acts of Unlawful Interference in the Republic of Belarus, a response actions mechanism was put into effect in connection with acts of unlawful interference in the civil aviation activity.
The report by the aviation administration threatened to destroy the regime changer’s narrative.
To keep that narrative alive Mikhail Khodorkovsky pulled some strings.
On May 26 the Dossier Center, an anti-Russian outlet in London financed by Khodorkovsky, threw doubt on the official report. It published a short report which insinuated that a copy of the bomb threat email, which Belarus had said started the incident, had been received only after the plane had diverted to Minsk.
The Dossier Center is little know so we first need to learn a bit about this organization. In July 2018 AP portrait it:
Over the past three months, a handful of highly placed Russians have discovered their secrets seeping onto the web.
A key source for the recent stories has been Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s new project, dubbed the Dossier Center . Launched in November, the center is billed as an investigative unit. Its website features a sprawling, interactive diagram of interconnected Russian officials described as the “main beneficiaries” of Russian corruption.
“We have no shortage of material we’re currently evaluating,” Khodorkovsky said in a television interview last week from his office in central London.
The exiled former energy executive is funding the Dossier Center himself and said it was born out of frustration with the inability of journalistic investigations to lead to real change in a Russia dominated by his foe, President Vladimir Putin. He wanted the project to produce more than occasional stories and to gather enough actionable information on the Kremlin’s leadership to bring its members, eventually, to court.
AP notes that the center is using very shady sources:
The provenance of the Dossier Center’s data remains a mystery.
Khodorkovsky said some of his sources — the ones that asked for money — identified themselves, but many others didn’t. At least one of the Russians exposed by the center’s work, Veselnitskaya, has alleged the emails Khodorkovsky’s group relied on had been hacked.
In September 2020 the American Conservative noted the role the Dossier Center had played in promoting baseless Russiagate claims:
Elites charge Trump with being under the sway of those in Moscow, but they’re guilty of the exact same thing.
There is no need to dwell further on Khodorkovsky’s biography, except to underscore exactly who he is: an exiled Russian oligarch with an active stake in Russian politics. Khodorkovsky is, today, arguably the world’s leading benefactor of anti-Kremlin efforts. But his operations extend far beyond Russia’s borders—in fact, he is deeply invested in lobbying foreign governments to adopt a hardline stance against the Kremlin. Beginning with his Open Russia Foundation, Khodorkovsky established a growing list of proxy groups—among them, think tanks, news outlets, and NGO’s—to marshal Western support for regime change in Russia.
Then came the 2016 election. In the months following Donald Trump’s blowout November victory, the contours of the Russiagate narrative began to take shape
The Dossier Center is only the tip of a sophisticated influence operation, helmed by an interconnected web of think tanks working to shape U.S. foreign policy. There is the previously-mentioned Open Russia Foundation, the umbrella organization used by Khodorkovsky to funnel money toward his numerous media, education, and activism projects. The Institute of Modern Russia (IMR), nominally headed by Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel, comprises one part of his reach in the Washington D.C. think tank orbit. Open Russia is also associated with the D.C.-based think tank Free Russia Foundation, through their shared work with Russian opposition movement “Living Politics” (Zhivaya Politika) and close professional cooperation.
These groups are linked by a revolving door of staffers who are regularly shuffled between the three and often occupy multiple roles. Take, for instance, Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition figure and Khodorkovsky associate who serves as vice-chairman of Open Russia, senior advisor to IMR, and vice president of Free Russia. There is a strong research continuity between these groups, partly because they share an overlapping pool of authors. A typical example is journalist Michael Weiss, who was a research fellow at IMR before becoming “director of special investigations” for Free Russia.
It was the neo-conservative ‘journalist’ Michael Weiss who wrote an English version of the Dossier Center claims published by the Daily Beast.
The Dossier Center claims (machine translation):
On May 23, at 12:25 pm Belarusian time, the administration of the “Lithuanian Airports” received a letter with a threat of a bomb explosion on board the flight FR4978, sent from the address email@example.com.
At 12:47 the plane changed course and flew towards Minsk. The official statement of the Aviation Directorate of the Ministry of Transport of Belarus did not disclose details about the time of receipt of the email, but Dossier found out that a copy of the letter from user Ahmed Yurlanov came to the email of the National Airport of Minsk ([email protected]) at 12:57 pm Belarusian time – that is, almost half an hour after the transmission of the message about the possible mining of the side.
Note that Dossier Center does not directly claim that Minks did not receive a copy of an email sent at 12:25 local time to Lithuania. It just claims that Minsk receive a copy of that email at 12:47 and presents a screenshot of that email. This is obfuscation as it does not exclude that Minsk received the 12:25 email which was obviously the base on which Minsk acted.
The headline the Daily Beast used, ‘Bomb Threat’ That Justified Belarus Hijacking Came 24 Minutes After, is thus false as that is not what the Dossier Center claims.
The question is did or didn’t Minsk receive the 12:25 email. The Dossier Center does not answer that question. In an interview published on May 26 Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko said that the first email was sent to three recipients:
In the case with the Athens-Vilnius flight a bomb threat came from abroad – from Switzerland, the president said. The message was sent to the airports of Athens, Vilnius and Minsk simultaneously. Belarus promptly communicated the information to the crew of the plane in accordance with international rules.
That again debunked the narrative which Frank Viacorka and Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Center tried to plant and to keep alive.
New help for them came in form a mealy mouthed May 27 statement by ProtonMail, the anonymous email provider through which the bomb threat emails had been sent:
An email cited by Belarusian authorities containing a purported in-flight bomb threat was sent after a plane was diverted to Minsk with a prominent Belarus opposition journalist aboard, Swiss email provider ProtonMail said Thursday, further challenging the Belarusian regime’s version of events.
“We haven’t seen credible evidence that the Belarusian claims are true,” ProtonMail, a privacy-focused provider, said in a statement. “We will support European authorities in their investigations upon receiving a legal request.”
A European intelligence official shared a copy of the email with The Washington Post. The time stamp on the email indicates it was sent 24 minutes after the Ryanair flight crew was ordered by Belarusian air traffic control to land in Minsk, despite the plane being much closer to Vilnius’s airport at the time.
In Twitter discussions with ProtonMail, which admits that two bomb threat emails were sent at different times, I have tried to clear up the issues. ProtonMail seems to insist that the first email was not received in Minsk but the company refuses to resolve the issue and to show evidence for this highly dubious claim:
The only email sent to Belarus was published by dossier.center to demonstrate that the “bomb threat” was sent after Ryanair flight 4978 was redirected.
ProtonMail is using linguistic hairsplitting in making that claim. “Sent to:” and “Copy to:” are typical entry field in email client software. The first email seems to have been “Sent to:” Lithuania with a “Copy to:” Belarus and Greece. The second email was “Sent to”: Belarus with unknown, if any, “Copy to:” entries.
ProtonMail’s anonymous service had been used for several criminal threats against entities in Russia and Belarus and both countries have blocked access to it. ProtonMail does not like that. Together with its sister companies it has actively supported ‘western’ regime-change efforts in Hong Kong and Belarus. Previously two Swiss encryption providers had been busted as being controlled by the CIA. Judging from its behavior ProtonMail might well be a third one.
On May 27 the Director of the Directorate of Aviation in Belarus has sent a letter to the International Civil Aviation Organization. It clearly states that Minsk received two emails:
Currently in Belarus, as required by the National Programme for the Protection of Civil Aviation from Acts of Unlawful Interference, an ad-hoc commission is investigating circumstances of the event. I would like to present preliminary results of its work to you.
As we informed earlier, on May 23, 2021 at 09.25 UTC and at 09.56 UTC a message in English was received at Minsk Airport e-mail address from protonmail.com, which we already cited.
That directly contradicts ProtonMail’s claim and again destroys the regime changer’s narrative.
Unfortunately that narrative is now ingrained in ‘western’ media reporting. It will however not withstand a diligent investigation.
Belarus has asked the ICAO to investigate the unlawful interference with the Ryanair flight. The ICAO has agreed to do so. Results are expected at the end of June.
A day after the Dossier Center had published the dubious email claim Mikhail Khodorkovsky seemed to get cold feet. He suddenly closed down his influence organization in Russia:
Open Russia, an organization founded by disgraced former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is to close its operations and shut its regional offices over concerns its members and supporters may soon be targeted for prosecution.
The move comes as the group’s executive director, Andrey Pivovarov, says the Russian government’s plan to strengthen the law on foreign “undesirable” organizations could lead to people involved being targeted by the courts.
“All members of Open Russia have been expelled from the organization, and their membership has been revoked to avoid possible prosecution. We don’t need any new fines or criminal cases, and we want to protect our supporters,” Pivovarov explained to Moscow daily Kommersant.
On May 29 the Presidents of Russia and Belarus met in Sochi:
Putin agreed with Lukashenko’s opinion that the reaction to the Ryanair landing demonstrated an “emotional outburst,” and added there were many other common fields of interest both leaders could discuss, according to the statement.
Lukashenko in turn told the Russian leader he would show him documents related to the recent emergency landing of the Ryanair flight.
“There has been an attempt to stir up the situation so it would end up being similar to that of August last year… It is simply clear what these Western friends want from us,” he said, speaking of mass election protests in Belarus in 2020.
Some of the documents Lukashenko provided might have been related to Khorkovsky’s activities. Russia now seems to have gone for a full bust of those.
On June 1 Andrey Pivovarov, who had run Khorkovsky’s operations in Russia, tried to leave the country:
Andrey Pivovarov, the former director of the dissolved Open Russia organization, is in police custody after being arrested on Monday night. He is suspected of cooperating with a foreign NGO officially listed as ‘undesirable.’
Pivovarov was pulled off an international flight to Warsaw, Poland at St. Peterburg’s Pulkovo Airport before the aircraft had the chance to take off. According to the activist, the plane had to be stopped on the runway for him to be detained. He was then taken to an Investigative Committee office to be interrogated.
Pivovarov now stands accused of sharing a Facebook post of another organization. The activist shared a notification from the ‘United Democrats’ in August last year, while in Krasnodar. United Democrats is a group formed in 2018 to support independent anti-Kremlin political candidates who wish to run for local office. Although it is also not listed as undesirable, it has previously been linked by Russian authorities to the British branch of Open Russia.
A day later, on Tuesday, three other opposition figures said that their property was being searched. The lawyers of another former head of Open Russia, Alexander Solovyov revealed he was being investigated as part of a case about the non-payment of debt on a non-residential premises. Some sources have suggested that he is considered a witness.
On Monday May 24, just a day after the Ryanair incident and with few if any details of the case known, the EU had urged its airlines to avoid Belorussian airspace. The fall out from that nonsense continues to hurt various airlines and their passengers:
Germany has blocked flights operated by Russian airlines from arriving in its territory in tit-for-tat action after Moscow failed to provide authorizations for Lufthansa, the transport ministry said Wednesday, amid tensions over Belarus.
Two Russia-bound Lufthansa flights that were due to depart earlier Wednesday from Germany had to be canceled because Russian authorities did not provide the necessary permits for them in time, said the ministry.
“Due to the reciprocal practice, the Federal Aviation Authority also did not issue any further permits for flights operated by Russian airlines as long as authorizations are pending on the Russian side,” it added.
Three Aeroflot flights were affected by the cancellations on Tuesday and another four on Wednesday, said the ministry.
While the ministry did not specify the reason for the blockade by Russian authorities, some flights operated by European airlines including Air France were canceled last week after Moscow rejected flight plans that would have skipped Belarusian airspace.
Lufthansa has confirmed that it is no longer flying over Belarus after the EU urged airlines to avoid the country’s airspace.
I am confident that the ICAO report will show that Belarus’ version of the issue is the correct one. That is unless ‘western’ members will are successful with their attempts to influence and to fudge it.
Added June 3 4:00 utc
The Belorussian ONT TV channel has uploaded a 55 minutes long documentation of the incident with lots of original footage.
- The email received at 12:25 is shown in a Mozilla Thunderbird frame (above) at 2:27 into the video.
- Original MAYDAY radio traffic at 6:03 min.
- 21:xx min Passengers, including Protasevich, pass through bomb scanner. Nothing abnormal.
- 25:xx min Protasevich being questioned by police. Smoking, joking, no torture.
- 31:30 min Two similar bomb threat emails shown in Thunderbird. One received at 12:25 the other at 12:56.
The video confirms our take.
Previous Moon of Alabama post on the Ryanair incident in Belarus:
- Lukashenko’s Revenge (Served Cold) – May 24 2021
- Roman Protasevich – Arrested In Belarus – Is A Western Government Financed Neo-Nazi – May 26 2021
- By The Book – What Really Happened With The Ryanair Flight In Belarus – May 27 2021
- Ryanair Incident – Email Warning Received Before Plane Entered Belorussian Airspace – May 28 2021
- How ProtonMail Lost The Public Trust It Needs To Do Business – May 29 2021
- ‘Like An Amoral Infant’ – How ProtonMail Contributes To False Media Claims About Belarus – May 30
- Ryanair Bomb Threat In Belarus – ‘Western’ Media Narrative Disagrees With The Facts – May 31