The interception of a Ryanair plane by Belarus is a breach of international right.
The crew was told by Belarusian officials there was a bomb threat, and they needed to divert to Minsk. It was a ploy to kidnap opposition blogger Roman Protasevich, who was traveling on the flight from Greece to Lithuania.
The Western response has so far been one of shared indignation. This must be followed by concrete action against dictator Alexander Lukashenko — not in the least to send a strong message to his protector in Moscow.
The foreign policy spokesman of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats, Norbert Röttgen, has called the incident an “act of state terrorism.” The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, used the same words.
Officials across Europe and in the United States have condemned the diversion of the airliner as an act of piracy.
EU leaders have called for sanctions and urged airlines to avoid Belarus’ airspace; a notably tougher, and quicker, response than to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in southeastern Ukraine that same year.
Kill the chicken to scare the monkey
It’s easier to punish a small Belarusian dictator than to get in trouble with his Russian master, but Vladimir Putin is still an actor in this. The actions aimed at Belarus must also be understood as a message to Moscow: there are still rules to be followed in international relations.
How — if at all — Russia reacts could tell us if Putin is willing to weather this crisis and continue to back Lukashenko. If so, Belarus would take another step toward “Koreanization”. Akin to what North Korea is to China, Putin is nurturing his own rogue state in Eastern Europe.
The opportunities for such a puppet regime are manifold as the example of North Korea has proved for decades. Using a small ally as proxy, the major power can test the limits of the international order without being immediately held to account. And by negotiating through whatever crises the little ally causes from time to time, the patron state can demonstrate its ability to contribute to the stability of international relations.
If that is what Putin has in mind for Belarus, this will not be the last crisis.
The EU has to project strength, otherwise a source of permanent quarrel will foster on its eastern border. After the rigged Belarusian election last year, and the repression that followed, the EU was far too silent. Decisive action must be taken now.
One thing EU leaders can count on: as much as Belarus is backed by Russia, they have the support of Joe Biden’s America. Maybe this will help some politicians turn proclamations into action.