Behind Belarusian despot stands Putin

Imagine you are flying over Europe in a European air carrier on your way home from a Greek vacation in the post-coronavirus era.



May 27, 2021 - 7:54 AM

Russia's President Vladimir Putin Photo by Nikolsky Alexei/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS

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 Raman Pratasevich, 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 John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine . “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 Pratasevich 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 Pratasevich’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 whistleblower 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.