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The lines that keep getting crossed in international politics

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics, The Fletcher School

What happened in Belarusian airspace over the weekend was bad. Russia’s reaction to it was worse.

Over the weekend Belarusian authorities diverted Ryanair Flight 4978 from Greece to Vilnius from its flight path with a fake bomb threat. The plane was closest to the Vilnius airport and standard operating procedure would have meant the plane would have landed there. Instead, Belarus forced the plane to land in Minsk. It did this with the assistance of a MiG-29 fighter jet designed to coerce the pilots into landing.

Once the Ryanair flight was on the ground, Belarusian authorities arrested Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist, along with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. All told, five people exited the plane in Minsk, with three of them likely agents of the Belarusian KGB. According to the BelTA state news agency, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered the fighter escort that forced the commercial jet to land.

In the history of commercial air travel, there have been terrorist hijackings and the accidental shooting down of civilian planes by militaries. This — a recognized state using military force to ground a plane and then abduct a passenger — is something new and altogether unsettling. The chief executive of Ryanair eventually described the event as a “state-sponsored hijacking.”

It was definitely illegal. Over at the Monkey Cage, Yuval Weber explains, “Belarus is a signatory to the 1971 Montreal Civil Aviation Convention and the 1988 Airport Protocol, which obliges it to suppress unlawful acts to civil aviation.” Weber also explains why this event does not compare to the 2013 grounding of Evo Morales’s plane. Social media attempts to make comparisons to that event do not really hold water:

After an inauspicious first start, European officials are now reacting negatively and vigorously. According to the New York Times, “The Lithuanian government called for Belarusian airspace to be closed to international flights in response to what it called a hijacking ‘by military force.’ ” My Post colleague Ishaan Tharoor has an excellent roundup of initial reactions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also issued a strong condemnation.

If anything, however, the full implications of this incident are not completely appreciated. The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman explains:

Belarus is a small country with a population of just under 10m. But this hijacking and kidnap by the Lukashenko regime sets a dangerous global precedent. It will be watched closely by much larger countries that also like to pursue their domestic enemies overseas — in particular Russia (which is Belarus’s closest ally), China and Iran.
Passengers flying from Europe to Asia will often have glanced at their flight maps and realised that they are crossing over Russia or Iran. What was once an interesting geographical observation may now be a cause for slight concern. If even tiny Belarus can demand that a plane divert to Minsk, what is to stop the Iranians from compelling a plane to land in Tehran, or the Russians from forcing a jet down over Siberia?

Russia is of particular interest for a variety of straightforward reasons. After Lukashenko’s grip on power was threatened, Russia was his security lifeline. Russia’s response to this action will be pivotal for any coordinated global response. Furthermore, anyone who has flown to Asia or the Middle East from North America is keenly aware that Russian airspace is usually involved. If the Russians approve of what Belarus did, it means they conceive of it as a possible course of action.

Unfortunately, initial Russian reactions are not encouraging on this front. According to my Post colleagues Michael Birnbaum and Isabelle Khurshudyan: “a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said that ‘what’s shocking is that the West calls the incident in the airspace of Belarus “shocking.” ’ ” They go on to note:

A number of Russian officials praised the move. Lawmaker Vyacheslav Lysakov wrote on his Telegram that it was a “brilliant special operation” by Belarus’s state security services. Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the government-funded TV channel RT, formerly Russia Today, said on Twitter that Lukashenko “performed beautifully,” adding that she is envious of Belarus.

If Russia supports Belarus on this, it will only be the latest incident in which Russia has demonstrated a willingness to violate long-standing norms of behavior in international politics. From its forcible seizure and annexation of Crimea to its targeted assassination campaigns in the United Kingdom, the pattern is clear. As Anne Applebaum noted in the Atlantic:

This is a story that belongs alongside the Russian use of radioactive poisons and nerve agents against enemies of the Kremlin in London and Salisbury, England; Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of one of its citizens inside a consulate in Istanbul; Iranian assassinations of dissidents in the Netherlands and Turkey; and Beijing’s kidnapping and detention of Chinese nationals living abroad and foreign citizens of Chinese origin. The human-rights organization Freedom House calls these new practices “transnational repression,” and has compiled more than 600 examples.
All of these cases form part of what is becoming a new norm: Authoritarian states in pursuit of their enemies no longer feel the need to respect passports, borders, diplomatic customs, or—now—the rules of air-traffic control.

Putin will be meeting with Lukashenko next week in Sochi. I suspect he will provide Lukashenko his support. And yet another small piece of civilized norms will crumble into dust.

This piece was republished from The Washington Post.

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