Many were shocked to hear about the Ryanair flight between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, being forced to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The details of what happened are astonishing. Belarus discovered that dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, known for his strong condemnation of the regime in Belarus, was on the flight. Reportedly, some Belarusian security officials were on the flight too — unbeknown to Protasevich. As the commercial airliner, with around 150 people onboard, was starting its final approach through Belarusian airspace to land in Vilnius, somebody claiming to be from Hamas called in a bomb threat. The plane was escorted by Belarusian fighter jets and forced to land in Minsk. Of course, there was no bomb on board. It has transpired that the fake bomb threat came from someone in Belarus. Once the plane was on the ground, the passengers were evacuated and Protasevich and his girlfriend were promptly arrested. The remaining passengers were allowed to continue their journey to Vilnius but Protasevich remains in prison on charges that could lead to the death penalty. Make no mistake: The actions of Belarus were nothing other than a state-sponsored hijacking of a commercial airliner. The current leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is desperate. Often described as the last dictator in Europe, Lukashenko has held power since 1994. Since the fraudulent presidential elections last September, there has been a steady stream of civil unrest and protests on the streets across Belarus. While it is unlikely that Lukashenko will be leaving power anytime soon, he no longer enjoys the relative calm that he did before the elections. Even the slightest criticism of him or his government results in arrests, beatings, or even death. Since last autumn, the protests have become more commonplace, as Lukashenko’s security services have also become more brutal in their crackdowns. Over the past several months, thousands have been arrested for peaceful protests. Opposition leaders and journalists who do not toe the state line are thrown into jail. Consequently, many of them, including the de facto leader of the opposition movement Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, have taken refuge in neighboring Lithuania. This explains why Protasevich was on a flight from Greece to Lithuania. Belarus’ state-sponsored hijacking is notable for three reasons. Firstly, it is a reminder that the issue of Belarus is not going away for Europe. Many European policymakers had hoped that there would be change after last September’s elections and that the Belarus problem would go away. When this did not happen, Belarus quietly fell off the agenda for many in Europe. While dealing with the pandemic, the last thing most European leaders wanted to do is deal with Lukashenko. However, after the forcing down of a commercial airliner on dubious pretenses, ignoring Belarus is no longer a viable strategy for Europe. Secondly, if there are no consequences, Belarus’ actions might establish a new norm around the world for belligerent governments. If government security services can orchestrate the hijacking of a commercial airliner simply to arrest a member of the political opposition in Europe, then this could happen anywhere in the world. There is no difference between Iran’s behavior in the Gulf when it stops commercial shipping vessels or Belarus’ behavior in European skies when it hijacks a commercial airliner. When the world lets Iran get away with reckless behavior, it inspires other countries such as Belarus to act similarly. Thirdly, even though Russia has tried to distance itself from what Belarus did, Moscow knew exactly what Minsk was doing when it forced the commercial airliner to land. For all intents and purposes, the airspace above Russia and Belarus is shared. For example, in 1997 the two countries signed an agreement on “ensuring regional security” stating that “authorized bodies approve order of interaction when using airspace, air traffic control and air navigation, communication and single system of search and rescuing in case of combined use of aircraft in the region, and also develop conditions and procedure for use of airfields for the benefit of aircraft of the parties.” Clearly, Belarus would not have acted in such a cavalier way without Russia’s knowledge. So what can be done about Belarus?
In terms of the hijacking, the most important thing that Europe can do is act swiftly and in unison. The UK was first to announce a ban on Belavia, the state airline of Belarus, entering British airspace. The EU days later announced similar measures. US Secretary of State Tony Blinken also released a strong statement of condemnation. But of course, the US does not have direct flights with Belarus so did not take any measures against flying in its airspace. This is a good start, but more needs to be done. The US and Europe need to coordinate and find ways of sending a strong message to the Kremlin as well. The most obvious way would be for the US to reverse its recent decision to waive sanctions on companies completing Nord Stream 2 — the pipeline that will deliver Russian gas directly to Germany. This move would be very unpopular with Berlin but would be celebrated by most other capitals in central and eastern Europe. Also, President Biden should cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Switzerland next month. Such a meeting is likely to accomplish nothing except boosting Putin’s standing at home in Russia. Of course, further economic sanctions should be considered against Belarus and Russia too. It is extraordinary to think that in 2021 a state-sponsored hijacking of a commercial airliner could take place in the airspace between two EU countries. Unless a strong message is sent that such reckless behavior is unacceptable, this will probably not be the last time it happens. Other rogue regimes, such as Iran and North Korea, will be watching closely.