EU Must Send Strong Message to Belarus — And Russia

There are still rules to be followed in international relations.

Ursula von der Leyen Paolo Gentiloni Frans Timmermans
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaks with Paolo Gentiloni and Frans Timmermans, the commissioners for the economy and climate, in Brussels, May 12 (European Commission/Dati Bendo)

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.

One comment

  1. The problem here I think is far wider. The West is destroying by various motives a lot of basic understandings (I think simply by pure incompetence, I like the Cummings sentence about Johnson and Corbyn) and this is something that sooner than later comes back to you, like a boomerang. It’s not only the Morales affair with his presidential plane, it’s that Ukraine did exactly the very same a few years ago forcing a passenger plane to return to Kiev, and took prisoner an Armenian journalist. Nobody said nothing then, not even Belarus (nor Russia). They simply took notice.

    There is very few differences, if any, between this case and the Catalans in jail, well, there is fundamentally one: Spain is member of the EU and has breached a lot of laws -not my opinion, opinion of German and Belgian courts. Belarus isn’t even a member of the CoE.

    If Ukraine had received a strong advice, or Morales’ plane wasn’t been halted, it’s totally certain than this current case never had happened. Never forget Putin is lawyer. It is not the only problem we have, we have a lot of them of the same kind and they will be raining in the worst moment. But, we have very fine people in charge, haven’t we? Sometimes seems to be that incompetent amateurs are in charge, and, no, it didn’t happen in the past.

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