Imagine you are flying over Europe in a European air carrier on your way home from a Greek vacation in the post-coronavirus era.
Suddenly, your plane does a 180-degree turn and lands in Minsk, Belarus. You see from your window that it is being “escorted” by a MiG-29 fighter jet. You are held for seven hours at the Minsk airport, while an exiled Belarusian dissident and his girlfriend are seized from among the passengers and hustled off by security police.
This act of air piracy was not a movie plot or the work of Mideast terrorists. It took place Saturday, when an (Irish-owned) Ryanair passenger jet flying from Greece to Lithuania was forced — on direct orders from Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko — to land in Minsk as it crossed through Belarusian airspace. The goal was to kidnap prominent Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, who has been living in exile in Lithuania and was flying home.
In other words, Lukashenko thinks he can carry out a political hijacking in a European country. And neighboring Russia is openly supporting this crime.
If Lukashenko gets away with “state-sponsored hijacking” — the term used by Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary — any future flight might be taken down for political reasons while flying over Russian, or Chinese, or Iranian airspace. This would be one more step toward the ongoing breakdown of the most basic international norms by authoritarian leaders — who want to play by their own rules.
Already, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has succeeded in annexing neighboring Ukraine’s territory — in Crimea — the first such territorial seizure by force in Europe since WWII.
“Arguably, this [Ryanair] incident is the biggest thing to happen in Europe since the seizure of Crimea,” says former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst. “This is a government breach of international law.”
Meantime, China is nibbling at territory across its border in India and Bhutan and has blatantly grabbed islets in the South China Sea claimed by multiple countries. And Putin has used banned nerve agents to poison Russian dissidents in Britain, as well as his leading opponent Alexei Navalny.
What makes these violations of international law even more egregious is that Beijing and Moscow brazenly deny them or dismiss them. Western sanctions haven’t worked.
Lukashenko issued a transparent fiction about a bomb threat to the Ryanair flight. But Ryanair’s O’Leary believes there were Belarusian KGB agents on the flight who had been following Protasevich from Athens, Greece. There was also a massive security presence on the ground to grab him as he disembarked.
Also telling is that, in Russia, the hijacking was cheered by Putin backers. The New York Times reported that Margarita Simonyan, editor of the pro-Kremlin RT television network, wrote on Twitter that Lukashenko “played it beautifully.” And Vyacheslav Lysakov, a parliament member of a pro-Putin party, described Protasevich’s arrest as a “brilliant special operation.”
A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman labeled Western protests hypocritical, citing a 2013 incident when a plane carrying Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, was refused permission to fly over several European countries on suspicion that whistle-blower Edward Snowden was on board. But that episode, however misguided, cannot be used to justify blatant air piracy by a wannabe dictator.
As Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted: “[The] hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished.”
So the question facing NATO nations is what kind of punishment will grab Lukashenko’s attention, and more importantly, that of Putin. It’s hard to believe Lukashenko would have seized the airliner without at least a Kremlin green light, despite Russian denials.
Sandwiched between Russia in the east and NATO members to the west and northwest, Lukashenko looks to Putin for his lifeline, and the Russian leader wants to pull former Soviet states like Belarus back into its orbit.
So the response to Lukashenko’s crime must be sufficiently strong to capture Putin’s attention as well.
Stunned by the hijacking, the European Union quickly agreed to bar EU airlines from flying over Belarus and ban Belarusian airlines from landing at its airports or flying over its airspace. But isolating Belarus, while necessary, will hit ordinary citizens the hardest. The EU also promised to impose new sanctions on Belarus. Hopefully, these will be aimed at the big state-owned companies that keep Lukashenko’s government afloat.
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Yet the EU — and the Biden administration — must not forget that behind the Belarusian despot stands Putin. “Even with all we have done, we haven’t really changed Putin’s behavior,” says Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and deputy secretary general of NATO.
And Putin has no interest in current international norms.
So to prevent air piracy from becoming new tool of dictators, NATO members must make Lukashenko pay a high enough price (and release Protasevich). The price must be one that will force Putin to take notice.
“If Biden doesn’t galvanize NATO members no one else will,” says Vershbow.
Joe Biden will meet Putin for a June 16 summit in Geneva, and the hijacking should be top of his agenda. Otherwise, state-sponsored air piracy may become a new international norm.