Belarus’ Descent into State-Sponsored Terrorism

On Sunday, May 23, Ryanair flight 4978 carrying Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich was forcibly diverted to Belarus in what was described as an act of “state-sponsored piracy” by the carrier’s CEO Michael O’Leary. Originating in Athens, Greece and bound for Vilnius, Lithuania, Belarusian air traffic control notified the commercial aircraft’s pilots of “a potential security threat on board.” Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jets scrambled escorting the Ryanair plane to the National Airport Minsk. Officials from Belarus’ security and intelligence services (KGB) had placed the pro-democracy activist on a list of terrorists.

Once on the ground, the officials arrested Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen, for “inciting hatred and mass disorder.” There is further speculation that Russian security officials (FSB) also participated. Protasevich reportedly told passengers that he would be “facing the death penalty,” a plausible prospect as Belarus is the only country in Europe that still practices capital punishment. The Belarusian government has already released Protasevich’s forced video confession.

Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old Belarusian dissident, co-founded and edited NEXTA, an encrypted Telegram social media and messaging app, that has served as an information lifeline for Belarusians who oppose Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal authoritarian rule. Like many Belarusian millennials for whom exile is preferable to life as a political prisoner, Protasevich fled Belarus in 2019 for Lithuania.

Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” has led the former Soviet Republic since 1994. His presidency has been marked by political repression, economic stagnation and an uncommonly tempestuous relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Controversy surrounding Belarus’ fraudulent August 2020 presidential elections ignited the latest round of protests in Minsk. Lukashenko’s most formidable political challenger was Sergei Tikhanovski whom Lukashenko imprisoned when it appeared Tihkanovski might win. Tikhanovski’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, replaced her husband on the ballot and is believed to have defeated Lukashenko at the polls. Tikhanovskaya left Belarus for Lithuania days after the vote to avoid being seized by Belarusian authorities but has continued her activism while exiled.

Using NEXTA and other encrypted platforms, Protasevich was instrumental in remotely mobilizing peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations that intensified in the weeks following the elections. Belarusian authorities made more than 32,000 arrests and at least four demonstrators died, however, open protests gradually subsided as Belarusian fear of government reprisal increased. Yale University Professor Timothy Snyder observed that in Belarus, “Violence and the lie work together. Violence was needed to confirm the lie that Lukashenko won the elections. And then the lie is needed to confirm that violence was justified.” For more on last year’s Belarusian presidential elections, access ALEC’s Belarus at a Crossroads: Authoritarian Rule or Liberal Democracy.

Steps have been taken to address the air travel implications of this crisis. The EU demanded that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) launch an investigation into this singular instance of an ICAO member skyjacking. It might have violated the Chicago Convention, a 1944 agreement governing international aviation that prohibits civil aviation activities that may endanger safety, as well as a 1971 treaty signed by Belarus forbidding the seizure of aircraft or communicating false information that could endanger aircraft safety. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) which represents 280 airlines is calling for “a full investigation by competent international authorities” as well. Since dual US citizens were on board the flight, the United States can criminally charge the Belarusian government under a federal statute on behalf of the American passengers.

Transatlantic condemnation has been swift and united. President Biden referred to the episode as a “direct affront to international norms,” and a “shameful” assault “on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.” The US will also reimpose economic sanctions on Belarusian state-owned enterprises. The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has described the incident as “utterly unacceptable,” and the 27-nation European Union (EU) rapidly banned Belarus from EU airspace and airports – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy followed suit. NATO issued a statement echoing the EU’s – ALEC NATO model policy is here – and the Lithuanian government described Belarus’ actions as “an unprecedented attack against the international community.”

However, unless the West exacts painful sanctions for this international offense, the perpetrators will emerge emboldened rather than chastened.  Timothy Snyder notes that international adventurism is a common tactic used by autocrats whose popularity is waning to project strength, and the Russian government clearly approves of and likely aided Lukashenko’s state-sponsored terror. Putin ally, Russian Parliament Member Vyacheslav Lysakov, praised Protasevich’s capture as a “brilliant special operation,” and Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russian state television station RT described Lukashenko’s misconduct in a tweet as a “beautiful move” for which she envies Belarus. Isolating Lukashenko to secure his Kremlin allegiance is a longstanding Russian goal. Russia and Belarus share a unified air structure, so Russo-Belarusian coordination was required to engage Belarus’ fighter jets. In a show of solidarity, Russia is banning European flights to Moscow that intentionally skirt Belarusian airspace. Further, targeting political opponents overseas and on Russian soil is right out of Putin’s playbook. Moscow is widely believed to have orchestrated the following incidents:

Authoritarian regimes around the world are monitoring the West’s response, and to deter future aviation piracy and other acts of terror, consequences for both Belarus and Russia must be immediate and severe.

An obvious starting point is to reverse the Biden Administration’s lifting of the Trump Administration’s sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline running from northwestern Russia to northern Germany. Biden defended his policy shift claiming it would strengthen transatlantic ties, however Europe’s dependence on Russian energy gives Moscow dangerous leverage over US allies. Russia supplies 45% of the EU’s natural gas. The Nord Stream project also creates direct strategic vulnerabilities by enabling Russia to place surveillance technology along the pipeline’s route and to restrict access to the Baltic Sea.

Additional responses being floated by foreign policy experts include:

  • Identify and target businesses and prominent oligarchs on which the Lukashenko regime relies for its survival;
  • Sever oligarchs’ overseas financial lifelines;
  • Legitimize Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s presumed electoral victory by inviting her to the June 2021 G7 Summit followed by an invitation to the White House;
  • Signal that Ukraine’s sovereignty is inviolable as the revived Russo-Belarusian partnership could foreshadow more Russian aggression toward Ukraine; and
  • Never forget Protasevich and the other political prisoners held by the Lukashenko government.

Biden and Putin will hold their first in-person summit in Geneva on June 16. The US President’s stated goal for the meeting is “building a stable and predictable relationship with Russia.” However, by prioritizing stability and predictability over demanding Russian accountability, Biden risks repeating the mistakes his predecessors have made over the last 20 years. From Obama’s famously amateurish Russian reset to Bush’s hopelessly naive belief that he had “a sense of [the Russian autocrat’s] soul” to Trump’s 2018 Helsinki Summit expressions of confidence in Putin’s denials of Russian interference in America’s 2016 elections, contradicting US intelligence officials and his own sanctions – each leader sought to normalize US-Russian relations, and each failed. Autocrats around the world are increasingly engaging in what Freedom House calls “transnational repression” to capture and kill purported enemies. Authoritarian regimes conduct these rogue actions to silence dissent and to inspire respect, and frankly fear, within their own populations. The West must punish Lukashenko’s illegal action decisively to discourage other dictators from staging ever more brazen and outrageous violations of international law.