How the West Must Handle Lukashenko’s Threat to the International Order

Designating the Belarusian dictator as a terrorist would be one step. But leaders must also pressure Vladimir Putin.

Alexander Lukashenko’s 27 years in power in Belarus have been marked by murder, brutality, and repression. Most of the international community deems him illegitimate, especially after his efforts to steal last August’s presidential election. Now Lukashenko, the head of Europe’s last dictatorship, has written a new chapter in the authoritarians’ playbook titled “State Sponsored Air Piracy and Hijacking.”  

On Sunday, Lukashenko ordered a military aircraft to intercept a commercial airliner as it flew over Belarus’ airspace and forced it to land on the pretext that there was a bomb aboard.  On the Ryanair flight passenger manifest from Athens to Vilnius Sunday was Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarusian journalist and founder and former editor-in-chief of the popular Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, and his Russian girlfriend. Lukashenko had been pursuing Protasevich as a “terrorist”—a trumped up charge that merely acknowledges his criticism of the regime.  

Belarusian and/or Russian agents—and the exact Russian role here is fuzzy, but the two countries’ spy agencies work closely together—had tracked Protasevich at the airport in Athens and on board the flight. They, in turn, alerted the security forces in Minsk that Protasevich was on board, along with his Russian girlfriend. As the plane flew over Belarusian airspace, Belarus air traffic control authorities notified the pilots about a possible security threat on board—there was no such threat—and directed the pilots to land in Minsk. In effect, the Belarusian state hijacked the plane. Pratasevich and his companion, Sofia Sapega, were immediately arrested and taken away by the authorities. 

On Sunday, Lukashenko clearly crossed a line into a new form of state-sponsored terrorism that presents an enormous challenge to the rules-based international order.  Anything less than a condign punishment by the international community will surely encourage other authoritarian leaders —Erdogan, Putin, Xi, etc.—to carry out similar acts of air piracy to repress human rights and democracy activists in the future. This would build on a growing trend of transnational repression of dissidents that has been shockingly documented by Freedom House over the past year.   

The international community should designate Lukashenko and his regime as state sponsors of terrorism. Removing him from power should become the explicit goal of the West. One way to do that would be to demand an end to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vital support for Lukashenko. Such a demand, in fact, should become a precondition for President Biden to agree to the anticipated summit with the Russian leader next month. After all, how can Biden meet with a leader who condones, if not outright supports, terrorism?  If Putin chooses Lukashenko over Biden, he will tell the world everything it should have already known about the Russian leader. Putin and Lukashenko are scheduled to meet later this week in Sochi. 

But symbolic actions cannot be the end of it. Needless to say, ordering a military jet to intercept a passenger airliner and force it to land to enable the arrest of a passenger on board is an egregious violation of international law, including the Chicago Convention, which established the core principles of international aviation. That is both hijacking and kidnapping. Claiming falsely that there was a security threat on board solely to apprehend a critic of the regime placed the lives of all 120 passengers and crew in danger and should make all air travelers nervous any time they would fly over the territory of an authoritarian regime. 

The United States and European Union, along with every other law-abiding and democratic nation in the world, should immediately designate Lukashenko a terrorist and the regime as a state sponsor of air piracy. The implications of that mean no more interaction with him or his enablers ever again. The respectable part of the international community does not negotiate with terrorists. It also means the objective of the democratic community of nations should be his removal from power. Lukashenko has long been a threat to his own people, but Sunday’s incident reveals he represents a larger threat to the civilized values of Europe and to its citizens more broadly.

No international flights should fly over Belarus’ airspace. Flights in and out of the country should be suspended, and Belavia, Belarus’s national flag carrier, should be banned from operating anywhere outside of the country. We are seeing preliminary steps in that direction: The U.K. has suspended Belavia’s permit to operate and ordered U.K. flights to avoid Belarusian airspace. The EU, in a meeting on Monday night, requested that EU carriers do the same, and it called on member nations “to adopt necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports.” At the same time, land borders with neighboring states should remain open to afford those who must flee Lukashenko’s tyrannical regime that opportunity. 

The United States and EU should demand an immediate session of the U.N. Security Council to condemn Lukashenko’s actions and demand the immediate release of Pratasevich and Sapega. This would force Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. to defend Lukashenko’s actions and reveal for the world to see that Moscow stands with a terrorist leader. Let’s see if Beijing takes a similar position. 

Left unaddressed, this move by Lukashenko creates an incredibly dangerous precedent and it will only be a matter of time before other authoritarian leaders repeat Lukashenko’s gambit. Thus, NATO should consider forming a response mechanism wherein NATO military jets would react to any effort by Lukashenko—or any other authoritarian regime in Europe—to force down a passenger plane. 

This, of course, gets risky, since no one wants to see NATO aircraft engage militarily with a hostile air force from another country and some of those countries may actually be NATO members– but nobody should want to see what happened over Belarus air space on Sunday ever to happen again.  NATO members may, perhaps, think better of this idea as they consider it but even a discussion in the North Atlantic Council and the Military Committee would have a beneficial effect on would-be copycats.

This is not a time for expressions of concern, stern condemnations, and hand wringing by the international community. This is a time to take action and move to rid Belarus and the world of Lukashenko once and for all. The Kremlin won’t like it, but if they continue to support him, they will be backing a terrorist. Putin provided $1.5 billion in financial assistance to Lukashenko last fall when the Belarusian leader was under sanctions pressure from the West and massive popular protests at home. The Russian leader has stuck with his like-minded Belarusian counterpart for years—even though the two don’t like each other—and doubled down since events of last August, when Belarus’ KGB—yes, that’s what it is still called—and other security services viciously cracked down on the opposition and demonstrators protesting Lukashenko’s theft of last August’s election.  

In response to Sunday’s hijacking, Russian officials made clear they stood with Lukashenko the terrorist and air pirate. Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, insisted that “the international aviation authorities need to evaluate whether or not this followed or did not follow international norms. I cannot comment on anything in this situation.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists that Belarus had treated the incident with an "absolutely reasonable approach." 

There were plenty of reasons why Biden’s offer to hold a summit with Putin was a bad idea before Sunday’s incident. The internal situation in Russia is getting uglier by the day, as evidenced most prominently by the appalling treatment of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Russian forces continue to threaten Ukraine, and Putin continues his support for the murderous Assad regime. Russian hackers continue to wreak havoc with elections, pipelines, and other Western targets. Just last week, Putin declared, “Everyone wants to bite us or bite something off us, but those who would like to do so should know that we would knock their teeth out so that they couldn't bite. The development of our military is the guarantee of that.” That doesn’t sound like a leader interested in improving bilateral relations. 

Now Biden should insist that Putin end in word and deed his support for Lukashenko and make that a precondition for any summit next month. Biden already has agreed that Putin is a killer—will he still meet with the Russian leader if he’s also supporting a neighbor pioneering a new and improved method for undermining and challenging the law-based international order? 

David J. Kramer, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the George W. Bush administration, is senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Center for Human Rights and Diplomacy and director of European and Eurasian Studies at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. Eric S. Edelman is a former undersecretary of defense for policy and counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.