Belarus is a tiny country nestled between Russia and Ukraine. Its government has operated under the influence of Russia for the last quarter-century and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is a Putin stooge.
Belarussian state security intercepted an Irish Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, and forced it down because a dissident journalist was on board. The flight crew reported that explosives had been placed on board and since the threat was delivered over Belarusian air space, it was diverted to Minsk.
Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land,” according to a press release from his office translated by the New York Times. The plane was searched and no explosives were discovered.
The flight crew knew that the Belarus government meant business when a MiG-29 fighter jet appeared on its wingtip and “escorted” the plane to its landing in Minsk. It’s not exactly clear how a fighter jet could have assisted the plane if a bomb had been on board but it’s crystal clear that the government wasn’t going to let that plane escape.
The EU remains true to form, sending the obligatory “strongly worded letter” to Lukashenko and the Belarussian government. The dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, became the immediate darling of all the human rights groups that have been saying mean things about Belarus. They even managed to slap some meaningless sanctions on Belarus’s economy.
It’s important what the EU is doing about the outrage because Joe Biden is graciously allowing the Europeans to take the lead in dealing with the situation.
The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich. This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press. The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime.
I join the many calls for an international investigation to ascertain the complete facts of the case. I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations.
The EU was in the midst of a summit to discuss Russia and the continuing problems with Great Britain’s exit. Needless to say, Belarus became the number one topic of discussion.
Throughout Monday, EU leaders denounced the interference with the flight taking passengers from one EU capital, Athens, to another, Vilnius. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it “unacceptable.” Council President Charles Michel called it “unacceptable, shocking and scandalous.”
Belarus moved to the top of the agenda. And leaders’ conclusions on Russia — intended as a sharp message to Moscow by condemning “the illegal and provocative Russian activities against the EU, its Member States and beyond” — were relegated to an after-thought.
Biden’s wait-and-see attitude about the EU’s response to the crisis is exactly what isn’t needed. If there was ever a time for American leadership to assert itself, this is it. What about banning all Belarus flights from entering U.S. airspace? Or applying biting, meaningful sanctions, like denying the Belarussian government access to international banking? That nearly brought the Iranian economy to its knees and was only saved by Barack Obama’s timely surrender in 2015.
Authoritarian and dictatorial governments have been getting away with this kind of impunity for many years. Putin’s poisonings, Iran’s assassinations — violating the norms of international behavior have weakened the entire post-World War II legal architecture. Bad governments continue to do bad things to people because there are no consequences to suffer. When Kim Jong-un had his own half-brother murdered in broad daylight in the middle of a busy airport terminal, that horrific act rated barely a mention from our state department.
If Putin, Iran, Kim, and the rest of the tyrants want to begin playing by the rules of the jungle, they will probably not live to regret it. They only thrive because the rest of the world stands by impotently while the few prey upon the weak.
Until that changes, we can expect more incidents like the one that took place in the skies over Belarus.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the fighter jet as an F-35. PJM Regrets the error.