Lukashenko’s air piracy must be punished

Even by the thuggish if capricious standards of Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight in order to arrest one of its passengers is an outrage. The Boeing 737 flying from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday was rerouted to Minsk after being notified of a bomb threat invented by the Belarusian authorities. A Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled to ensure the airliner complied. When it landed in Minsk, the authorities arrested Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist and opposition activist, on terrorism charges. The operation, which Belarusian media said Lukashenko personally ordered, amounts to nothing less than state piracy. It demands a swift and robust riposte.

Western powers, and particularly the EU, have struggled to muster an adequate response to Lukashenko’s theft of last year’s presidential election and repression of the pro-democracy movement that erupted in protest. Belarus’ limited economic ties to its western neighbours and its heavy dependence on Russia left the EU with little leverage. European leaders were rightly wary of imposing sanctions that brought more hardship on the Belarusian people. Held back by internal divisions, they have also struggled to take a robust stance on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s aggression abroad and crushing of opposition at home.

But the official hijacking of a European aircraft carrying mostly EU passengers cannot go unpunished. Just as the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 by a Russian missile over Ukraine in 2014 spurred the EU into imposing tougher economic sanctions on Moscow, so must this episode worthy of a rogue state. Additional sanctions against Lukashenko and his officials are unlikely to be any more effective than the EU penalties imposed last autumn — a slap on the wrist.

Stopping flights through Belarusian airspace and banning national flag carrier Belavia from serving European destinations — a decision for national capitals — would be a suitable response to Lukashenko’s flagrant breach of aviation law. It would of course penalise Belarusians if other carriers were unable to offer replacement services. Sanctions should be targeted as much as possible. But it is wealthier, elite Belarusians — often aligned with the Lukashenko regime — who enjoy air travel. Conversely, restricting land crossings into the EU, especially to Poland, would cut off an existing route for Belarusians looking for work or political freedom.

Sanctions against Belarusian oligarchs who are helping to prop up Lukashenko’s regime would send a more powerful message of disapproval. Crony businessmen will have to pay a price for their support. Even this is insufficient. Belarus’ opposition is now calling for wider economic sanctions, including against key exports of fuel and potash, which are an important source of revenue for Lukashenko’s rule. The EU, with UK and US support, should be prepared to impose them if the oppression of democracy and human rights campaigners does not relent, and activists such as Protasevich are not released.

In the past, the argument against sectoral sanctions was that it would drive Belarus further away from the west and into Russia’s orbit. That argument no longer applies. Lukashenko survives at Putin’s whim. He is now entirely dependent on the Kremlin. That makes it unlikely Moscow had no knowledge of Lukashenko’s hijacking plot; suspiciously, several Russian nationals left the Ryanair flight in Minsk. If Russian involvement is demonstrated, retaliation will be needed against Moscow as well. Lukashenko’s rogue regime belongs to Putin too.

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