State-sponsored air piracy: Belarus dictator tests the international community

European leaders agreed to a series of sanctions measures against Belarus on May 24, the day after the East European nation sparked uproar by forcing an EU passenger jet to land in Minsk and abducting a high-profile dissident passenger. The rapid EU decision to press forward with a new round of sanctions underscored widespread alarm over Belarus dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s actions and the challenge they pose to the rules-based international order.

Belarus stands accused of using a terrorist bomb hoax on May 23 to divert a Ryanair flight from Athens to Lithuanian capital Vilnius while it was passing through Belarusian airspace. The flight was ordered to reroute to Minsk and escorted to the Belarusian capital by a fighter jet.

On board was Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich, who, as co-founder and former editor of the Nexta channel, played an instrumental role in mobilizing mass protests against Lukashenka in the aftermath of Belarus’s deeply flawed August 2020 presidential election. Pratasevich and his girlfriend were taken offer the flight and straight into custody by the Belarusian authorities.

The incident has provoked widespread condemnation. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary branded it “state-sponsored piracy,” while UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused Lukashenka of “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law.”

Attention has also focused on possible Russian involvement. Unconfirmed initial reports indicated that a number of passengers disembarked during the unscheduled stop in Belarus, fueling speculation that members of the Russian or Belarusian secret services may have boarded the flight in Athens to help coordinate the abduction operation. While details of a Russian role have yet to emerge, the forced downing was applauded by prominent Putin regime propagandists.

Many observers expect the crisis to deepen Lukashenka’s dependency on the Kremlin and anchor Belarus even more firmly in the Russian orbit. During his 27-year reign, the Belarusian dictator has earned a reputation as a wily operator for his ability to play Russia and the West off against each other. However, since nationwide anti-regime protests erupted in August 2020, Lukashenka has overseen a brutal crackdown that has left him internationally isolated and increasingly reliant on Moscow.

EU sanctions are expected to be finalized in the coming days, while other nations will also impose measures such as flight bans. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave the order to stop air traffic with Belarus on May 24. Zelenskyy’s decision will have significant regional repercussions as Minsk had previously served as the preferred route for passengers traveling between Ukraine and Russia following the cancellation of direct flights in 2015.

Lukashenka’s decision to intercept an EU airliner traveling from one EU city to another threatens to set an ominous security precedent for the entire international air travel industry. Unless the Belarusian strongman is severely punished for his actions, there are fears that other authoritarian regimes including Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China may adopt similar tactics in order to target exiled opponents or international enemies such as journalists and whistle blowers.

The Atlantic Council invited a range of experts to share their views on this dramatic development and asked how the international community should respond.

John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council: You have to wonder about Alyaksandr Lukashenka. After months of mass demonstrations challenging his theft of the August 2020 presidential election and his quarter-century rule in Belarus, he seemed in the past couple of months to have stabilized his position. Yes, he did this the old-fashioned, authoritarian way by increasing repression, and with some help from his Kremlin neighbor. He paid a price for this, with the US and the EU levying some sanctions on Belarus. So why would he risk his already parlous international position by forcing down a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, and removing opposition Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich from the plane?

The question almost answers itself. The young Pratasevich has played an important role in the Belarus opposition as the former editor of the Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, which organized and galvanized the mass protests in Belarus that almost brought down Lukashenka. So seizing and “interrogating” him in the Lukashenka style both demoralizes the opposition and may yield information enabling him to take down those channels.

But what about the risks involved in committing this act of air piracy? Wasn’t Lukashenka afraid of the possible consequences? Sadly, the short answer is “no”. The sanctions levied on Belarus over the past six months for the theft of the 2020 presidential election and subsequent domestic crackdown have been substantial but manageable. The Belarus opposition has been actively seeking additional sanctions, without result.

Meanwhile, over the past two years, Lukashenka has witnessed the Kremlin murder a Chechen opposition figure in Berlin in 2019, poison and then arrest Alexander Navalny in 2020 and 2021, and pay no price. Saddest of all, last week he saw the Biden administration, which claimed it would strongly oppose Moscow’s aggressive foreign policy, make a major concession to both Merkel and Putin by waiving sanctions on Nord Stream AG, the firm running the gas pipeline project that would enable the Kremlin to squeeze Eastern European countries. When you make concessions to the big dictator, you also lose the respect of the little dictator.

So what’s next? The US and the EU must impose sanctions on Lukashenka that catch his attention. There are sanctions experts that could identify the major firms in Belarus that Lukashenka depends upon to meet his regime’s cash needs. They should certainly be consulted. I would also back an immediate and complete embargo on all Belarusian flights into the EU and the US, and perhaps other G7 countries Canada and Japan, until Pratasevich is released.

Steven Pifer, Fellow, Robert Bosch Academy: The Belarusian government engineered a fake bomb threat in order to force a Ryanair passenger plane to land in Minsk so that the Belarusian authorities could arrest one of the passengers, the journalist and regime opponent Raman Pratasevich. That is an unacceptable act of state-sponsored air piracy, which potentially endangered all the passengers and crew on board. It calls for an immediate Western response.

The Ryanair flight was flying between Athens and Vilnius, two European Union member state capitals, and Ryanair is headquartered in Dublin, a third EU capital, so the European Union should take the lead in responding. It should immediately suspend all flights by EU member airlines to or from Belarus. It should also ban all flights by Belavia, the Belarusian national carrier, to EU airports, and have all EU member states deny Belavia flights overflight permission. That would force Belavia to cancel a good portion of its schedule, likely including some of its more profitable routes. This should be the minimum. The European Union should make clear that additional sanctions will follow until Pratasevich is released.

Hanna Liubakova, Nonresident Fellow, Atlantic Council: Bloggers and independent journalists have long been among Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s key targets in his campaign to silence all dissent. The Belarus dictator is keen to promote the idea that it is digital technologies and not his own misrule, human rights violations, and mounting poverty that has mobilized Belarusians to protest against him.

Until Sunday’s incident, Lukashenka’s fight against his pro-democracy opponents had been an almost exclusively domestic affair. However, the forced landing of an EU airliner and abduction of a passenger flying from one EU city to another represents a major escalation. Lukashenka has now demonstrated that there are no limits to the lengths he will go in his crackdown.

This incident is a reminder that Lukashenka is not just an internal Belarusian issue. Ordering a jet fighter to escort a civilian passenger plane full of citizens from different countries makes him an international security threat. What happened with Sunday’s Ryanair flight must be thoroughly investigated.

The Western world should send a strong signal to Belarus by maintaining non-recognition of Lukashenka while introducing broader targeted sanctions. Lukashenka and his cronies should be cut off from their financial lifelines. At the same time, it is vital to increase support to Belarusian civil society and the country’s independent media. Finally, the West should make clear that it expects free and fair Belarusian presidential elections in order to resolve the crisis of legitimacy surrounding the current regime.

Brian Whitmore, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: With this act of state-sponsored hijacking, piracy, and kidnapping, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has crossed a line. The reaction of the international community needs to be swift and severe. Some Western countries have already banned their carriers from flying in Belarusian airspace and barred the Belarusian national carrier Belavia. More countries need to follow suit. Additional sanctions against Belarusian companies, including the potash giant Belaruskali and the Mazur Oil refinery, should also be considered.

One unanswered question remains what role, if any, Russia played in this incident. Russian and Belarusian air defense systems are integrated, which suggests that Lukashenka could not have made the decision to scramble a fighter jet and force the Ryanair flight to land in Minsk without Russia’s knowledge. Moreover, unconfirmed reports have claimed that four Russian citizens got off the aircraft in Minsk and did not fly on to Vilnius, sparking speculation that they were possibly security agents involved in the operation. Russia’s potential role in the incident needs to be investigated. If Moscow played any part in this international crime, the costs should be significant.

Jonathan Katz, Senior Fellow, Frontlines of Democracy Initiative, German Marshall Fund of the United States: Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s hijacking of a Ryanair passenger jet and kidnapping of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega deserves to be strongly condemned by the United States, European Union, and the international community.

A punitive response, including another round of sanctions, with Brussels already moving in this direction, is needed to respond to this act of air terrorism. The response of the West should also be targeted at potential accomplices in the Kremlin and their possible role in support of Lukashenka’s hijacking, as well as other ongoing repression against Belarusians.

This was not only a criminal act committed in violation of international law that threatened the lives of passengers. It also revealed how far this authoritarian regime will go to maintain power and violently suppress Belarusians including members of the country’s civil society, political opposition, and independent media.

If suspicions of Moscow’s participation prove correct, it will indicate the deepening involvement of Russia in Belarus’s domestic and foreign affairs, including the intelligence services. This should be of immediate concern for the security of the US, the Baltic countries, Poland, and all NATO allies.

Lukashenka’s henchmen in the KGB and other security services have declared in the last several weeks that they are targeting Belarusians outside of Belarus. This is eerily similar to Moscow’s ongoing efforts to brazenly assassinate and jail Russian political opponents.

The next Lukashenka-Putin meeting, which is scheduled to take place in the coming days, will underline the mounting costs of Lukashenka’s growing dependence on the Kremlin. This dependency is having a negative impact on the safety and well-being of Belarusians, and also on broader transatlantic stability and security.

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

Further reading

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Belarus dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka sparked international uproar on May 23 by forcing an EU airliner to land in Minsk and detaining a dissident Belarusian journalist among the plane's passengers. (Andrei Stasevich/BelTA/TASS via REUTERS)