The backdrop is the Belarusian election of last August. The dictator Alexander Lukashenko failed to produce a victory for himself, but remained in power anyway. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians rallied peacefully for clean elections and a peaceful transition of authority. For nine months, they have been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by Lukashenko's security services. Protasevich worked for Nexta, an internet medium that helped Belarusians follow their own protests. From a Belarusian perspective, his arrest was the latest in a series of oppressions of cultural figures and journalists.
From a European perspective, it was an assault on established principles. The flight was from one EU capital to another; the airline was Irish and its local filiate Polish. Most of the passengers on the hijacked plane were Lithuanians, so citizens of an EU member-state. The issues raised are indeed international. If it is acceptable to use military force against civilian airliners because a person of interest to a government is on board, where exactly would that logic stop?
An air traffic controller has now told a whole series of lies to a pilot. Even the edited version of the transcript released by Belarus makes that clear. How can pilots now trust air traffic controllers over Belarusian air space, or over the air space of countries that regard Lukashenko as a model? The struggle against terrorism evokes something like an international consensus. But when agreed tools of anti-terrorism are abused, as they just were, then terrorism is easier to carry out.
Russia, an ally of Lukashenko's regime, has been quite supportive. On 26 May, the Kremlin endorsed Lukashenko's version of events. Russian diplomats expressed neither surprise nor displeasure when a Russian passenger, Sofia Sapega, was also abducted, arrested, and imprisoned. She now faces a possible sentence of twelve years. Normally diplomats have a negative reaction to this sort of thing.
Perhaps Russian authorities had prior knowledge that the hijacking would take place, and that one of their citizens would be arrested. They certainly have their own problem with protests and implausible election results; perhaps they wish to send a message to young people (Sapega is 23, Protasevich is 26) to stay out the way between now and the Russian elections this September. However that may be, the absence of condemnation of a clear violation of international law is striking.
Russia tried to help Lukashenko to stir up confusion. Belarusian and Russian media both reported that some of the passengers on the Ryanair flight caused a disruption that forced the plane to land. This did not happen. Russian and Belarusian media propagated a second false version: the plane had to land because of a bomb threat from Hamas. It is not surprising that Russian media throws up contradictory versions of events. That is the normal Russian tactic.
At the top of the Russian propaganda pyramid there was nothing but admiration for Lukashenko. Margarita Simonyan, who runs the foreign-language propaganda sender RT, was beside herself with pleasure at the chain of events. She praised Lukashenko, and even owned to being "jealous" of Belarus. In television discussions, the idea was that Lukashenko was a pioneer in methods that Russia might itself use. This amounts to the public presentation, on Russian state media, of state hijacking as a legitimate tool.
The Western response must be specific to Belarus, but also broad enough to support the norm that people who board an airliner need not to confront the fighter jets of countries they overfly. The European Union ceased flights over Belarus and banned flights by the Belarusian national carrier; it will also impose further economic sanctions. The United States will soon apply its own sanctions, which will focus on major Belarusian companies and a list of individuals.
The European sanctions were focused on the release of the kidnapped passengers, which is unlikely to happen. Both Protasevich and Sapega have been forced to confess publicly, in a humiliation which can only be seen as another violation of their basic rights. When the next round of European sanctions is announced, it would make sense to think of the long run. Perhaps the EU should withdraw the sanction restricting flights from Belarus, which mainly targets the population; the list of personal sanctions can be extended so that anyone with any involvement in repressions and the hijacking is forbidden from traveling. The EU might consider banning overland trade between Belarus and its member states Lithuania and Poland.
Above all the EU (and the United States) should think about how Belarusians in general can be supported. Protasevich and Sapega are two among tens of thousands of people who have been oppressed in recent months by the Lukasenko regime. Even as Europeans and Americans seek to protect the basic principle that air travel should be unencumbered by fake threats and real hijacking, they should make sure that their actions respect the desires of the victims of Lukashenko's repressions: the Belarusians. A Belarusian government that represented its people would not have taken an action that violated international law and outrages others. It is important to think not just of punishment that matches a crime, but of a positive outcome down the line.
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
First published on Timothy Snyder’s Substack “Thinking About...”