Minsk’s shameful kidnapping of an opposition journalist


Yesterday brought the extremely odd news that a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius, carrying much the usual Ryanair crowd, had been forced to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Why would Belarusian authorities mess with a low-cost carrier transporting passengers within the European Union? An opposition journalist — no longer living in Belarus — was on board and was detained by the Belarusian authorities. This shocking incident is yet another example of grayzone aggression, where an unscrupulous country can inflict damage without resorting to war.

When Ryanair flight FR4978 took off from Athens on Sunday morning local time, the Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich was not a household name. He is now. While FR4978 was in Belarusian airspace, it received a warning from Minsk Air Traffic Control of a “potential security threat” on board and was instructed to divert to Minsk Airport. When it landed, Belarusian authorities detained Protasevich. Later in the day, FR4978 was allowed to leave Minsk and continue to Vilnius — but without Protasevich.

Ryanair Boeing 737 SP-RSM lands in Vilnius from Minsk at about 21:30 local time on Sunday 23 of May 2021. Earlier today this Boeing with 171 passengers on board operating regular flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius was forced by Belarus officials to divert to Minsk while flying in Belarus air space. Media reports that Belarus Air Force fighter jet Mig29 forced pilots to change destination couple of minutes of flight before crossing Lithuanian border. Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich, who was on board, was immediately detained by Belarus officers.
Every single minute of every single day, aircraft en route between different countries travel through the airspace of yet other countries. While countries may not be the best of friends, the airliners are allowed to pass through the airspace, because it’s in everyone’s interest that civilian air traffic can continue with as little risk as possible. Western airliners regularly and safely traverse Russian and Chinese airspace. During the Cold War, the Soviets and Chinese were much more restrictive, which forced flights between East Asia and North America to refuel in, for example, Anchorage. In 1972, when Korean Airlines Flight 007 from Seoul to Anchorage strayed into Soviet airspace, the Soviets mistook it for an intelligence flight and shot it down.

On May 23, the Belarusian authorities played an exceptionally devious game. The “security threat” appears to have been a ploy to get FR4978 to land in Minsk, because when it did land, no threat to the flight was found — but Protasevich was detained by the Belarusian authorities, and FR4978 was instructed to leave for Vilnius without him. It was the sort of conniving game in the gray zone between war and peace to which the West has been increasingly exposed in recent years. It is, however, safe to say that no Western intelligence analyst had considered a plot that involved a country’s aviation authorities communicating a bogus threat to a civilian airliner operated by a company in one EU country and traveling between cities in two other EU member states, forcing the airliner to land on the first country’s territory so that authorities could detain an individual citizen.

The EU has been weakened by the incident, which signals that commercial flights traveling between its cities are no longer safe. Commercial aviation is weakened, because various authoritarian regimes may draw inspiration from Belarus. But Ryanair can clearly not avenge the disruption: Governments have the monopoly on power. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, meanwhile, declared the abduction “totally inadmissible.” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel didn’t announce any retaliation.

And how can the EU, NATO, or the West retaliate? Sneaky actions like Belarus’s Ryanair trick are the very nature of grayzone aggression. The grayzone offers the aggressor the opportunity to use any manner of uncouth methods — but since they’re not acts of war, affected countries can’t respond by military force. This reality makes it even more important that Western leaders use the only effective response available: asymmetric retaliation so decisive that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his ilk think twice. Most of them, for example, have assets in the West. For now, Western leaders will probably stop at declaring their outrage — which will enable Lukashenko and others to avail themselves of the grayzone even more. But the time for outrage as a policy may soon be over.

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