Aleksandr “Bat’ko/Daddy” Lukashenka has just muscled into the business of hijacking planes. The mission objective was to snatch an exiled dissident journalist, 26-year-old Raman Protasevich.
On May 23, Daddy’s security services falsely radioed a Ryanair plane, registered in Poland, en route from Istanbul to Vilnius, that there was a bomb aboard. Belarus scrambled a jet which compelled the landing of the airliner in Minsk. Protasevich was dragged out and put in jail. The Belarusian KGB also arrested his girlfriend, Sophia Sapega, an ethnic Russian.
This was a typical Soviet-style provocation accompanied by a disinformation operation.
Lukashenka’s narrative of the events was predictably mendacious. Palestine’s Hamas plotted to destroy the plane. There was a bomb on board and a terrorist. The bomb was set to explode in Vilnius. Only a swift action by the air force and security services of Belarus prevented the tragedy. The terrorist was duly apprehended. And everything was Poland’s fault anyway.
This brazen act of aerial piracy stems from Daddy’s local concerns but its implications are regional, continental, and global.
The Minsk dictator brokers no opposition at home. Last year’s mass demonstrations unnerved him. Hence, he has repeatedly cracked down on dissidents, free journalists in particular.
Protasevich ran a news hub Vkontakte out of Vilnius. He caused Lukashenka much grief. There are others, of course. For instance, Minsk has also arrested online newsman Alaksei Shota of hrodna.life.
Snatching dissidents abroad is rather common. For instance, Turkey’s sultanic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has just kidnapped from Kenya the nephew of one of his major detractors.
But hijacking a plane takes the art of seizing dissidents to a new level. Why would Daddy go through so much trouble and risk international opprobrium?
One answer is that he wants to show the world that he does what he pleases. The more crazy he appears the less likely a Western attack on Belarus.
Further, there are domestic and regional factors. Some of Daddy’s ire concerns the Polish minority of Belarus and its protector, neighboring Poland itself, his on-and-off favorite boogeyman.
In late February the Poles both at home and abroad remembered their anti-Nazi and anti-Communist resistance, the Home Army (AK), including at a Polish community center in Belarus. Daddy flew off the handle; he charged that the AK was “fascist,” expelled a Polish diplomat, and arrested five top Polish minority leaders. Now, Lukashenka has agreed to expel three of them to Poland. Two remain imprisoned. Lukashenka’s KGB also apprehended a few visitors from Poland, and tortured them.
But Minsk’s real beef with Warsaw is that the Poles, in conjunction with the United States, sponsor Belarusian dissident activities. This includes, among other things, a free TV station Belsat beaming from Poland and Vkontakte operating out of Vilnius (sponsored jointly with the Lithuanians).
So snatching the Ryanair aircraft was a calculated swat at Warsaw and Vilnius, where the plane was bound and Protasevich enjoyed political asylum. The hijacking laid bare the impotence of the neighboring democracies. Their intelligence services failed egregiously to protect Protasevich and to prevent the boarding of the Ryanair flight by Minsk’s KGB black ops team.
Furious, Poland demanded accounting for Daddy and, for once, the European Union reacted rather swiftly. France leads the way. All foreign flights to and from Belarus are cancelled. Belarusian airlines are denied permission to enter French airspace and they were rerouted back home. Acting on its own, Great Britain has banned all Belarusian flights as well.
Enter Russia. It has announced that it would back Belarus unconditionally. Moscow limited a number of Western planes, in particular Air France and Austrian Air, that can fly into the Russian Federation. Whoever avoids the airspace of Belarus will be sanctioned by the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin also assured Lukashenka that Russian troops would be deployed to protect Daddy within 24 hours.
Thus, the coils of dependency of Minsk on Moscow have tightened. You can bet that Lukashenka will endeavor to loosen them again in a foreseeable future, or Belarus will lose its sovereignty.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s reactions to air piracy were rather limp and confused. They match the White House’s response to Nordstream-2. Sure, Washington condemned Lukashenka. It promised new sanctions. But it is not going to jeopardize Biden’s summit with Putin for the sake of Belarusian dissidents.
Thus we have “Reset 2” in the making: the 1970s revisited, essentially. We can only cheer up because Ronald Reagan came soon after and put things right.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here
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