Outrage is quick and easy. Formal EU moves to hold Belarus accountable for intercepting a passenger jet — not so much.
EU diplomats and officials warned Monday that Brussels has limited means to respond swiftly and forcefully to Belarus and its strongman leader, Alexander Lukashenko, over his move to intercept and land a commercial passenger jet before arresting an anti-government journalist on board.
It was a note of caution that came half a day after European leaders initially voiced fury Sunday night. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised “consequences” for the behavior, and heads of state and government added the matter to the agenda at a previously scheduled European Council summit that starts Monday night. EU officials said the leaders would consider numerous punitive steps, including banning all flights to the EU by Belavia, the state-owned Belarusian national carrier, and potentially halting flights of EU airlines through Belarusian air space. EU officials may even explore suspending land transits from Belarus to the EU.
But officials and diplomats warned it would be difficult, legally and practically, to move swiftly on the formal response. Even accelerating a new round of sanctions on Belarus already in the works before Sunday’s mid-air interception would likely face bureaucratic challenges, they cautioned. Meanwhile, some in the private sector are not waiting for the EU to act — Latvian carrier airBaltica said Monday it would no longer fly over Belarus.
Given the hot rhetoric from leaders, any delays would cast another unwelcome spotlight on the EU’s struggle to craft a coherent and unified foreign policy — especially when it comes to delivering effective deterrence against lawless, authoritarian behavior in its own backyard.
Years of sanctions against Russia have failed to reverse the annexation of Crimea, or stem Moscow’s malign activities. Just last week, EU foreign ministers failed to develop a united position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rendering Brussels largely irrelevant in the discussion.
The EU has previously gone after Lukashenko, to little result. Last fall, after three months of debate and delays, Brussels imposed an array of sanctions related to the country’s fraudulent presidential election in August, which had led to months of protests as well as mass arrests and allegations of human rights abuses by Lukashenko’s government. The EU was already planning to add further sanctions over the matter, but it’s unclear how effective they would be, or whether they would now also target individuals responsible for the aircraft’s interception.
Several top officials have branded the interception of the flight between Athens and Vilnius as a “hijacking” or state-sponsored act of terrorism, and they have demanded the release of the Belarusian opposition figure, Roman Protasevich, who was arrested along with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen, when the plane was forced down in Minsk.
“We’re talking about a European plane, from an EU airline, that was flying between two capitals of the European Union, so it’s an act of state piracy that can’t remain unpunished,” Clément Beaune, France’s minister for European affairs, said Monday morning on BFM TV.
Yet the contours of that punishment are still in the discussion phase. One initial idea has been to speed up the Belarus sanctions package that was already in the works but not yet finalized.
“Sanction packages, which were under review, were not yet decided,” one EU diplomat said. “It was a fourth package — will it be accelerated or not? Will it be targeted? Will the target be different? … We shall see what comes out of the European Council tonight.”
“As you know … it’s rather difficult to establish a credible and weatherproof sanctions package,” the diplomat noted, adding that officials want to know more about what Lukashenko’s “precise role” was in diverting the plane.
“Did he play a direct role in it? Is there outside interference? It’s difficult to advance too quickly,” the diplomat said.
Other officials said crucial details required urgent investigation, including whether four government agents who disembarked the aircraft in Minsk were Belarusian KGB officers, or potentially from the Russian special services. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly voiced strong support for Lukashenko and warned the West not to interfere in his country’s internal political affairs.
“I’m confident that something like this could not have happened without Russian involvement,” said one senior official, a sentiment others echoed.
And in clear sign of Moscow’s continued support, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, on Monday accused Western leaders of hypocrisy. She pointed to the forced landing of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in 2013 when the U.S. believed the fugitive Edward Snowden was aboard, and the forced landing of a Belavia jet in Kyiv in 2016 by Ukrainian authorities who wanted to arrest a passenger.
“Either they should be shocked by everything,” Zakharova wrote in a post on Facebook, “Or they should not be shocked by the analogous behavior of others.”
Russia was already on the European Council summit agenda as a main topic of discussion for the leaders’ dinner tonight, and diplomats said the conversation would undoubtedly be connected to Belarus.
“The discussion on Belarus will impact the one on Russia, it’s natural to expect that,” a second EU diplomat said. “To what extent is still unclear. It will depend on what else comes out”
Leaders are clearly eager to establish a deterrent against both Lukashenko and Putin. Russia “must face such a strong EU position so that people like Lukashenko should not dare to think they will be allowed to behave as international hooligans,” said one senior EU diplomat, describing the leaders’ overarching sentiment.
Beyond coordinated action in Brussels, there are potentially definitive steps that individual EU governments could take in short order, ranging from expelling diplomats to taking legal action, including criminal prosecutions. And there were indications on Monday that some countries, including Lithuania and Poland, were already considering such moves. As a first step, Lithuania on Monday said it would bar flights to or from Lithuanian airports from going through Belarusian airspace.
In a brief telephone interview with POLITICO on Monday, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary echoed some of the harshest assessments of Sunday’s incident.
“This is a case of state-sponsored hijacking, state-sponsored piracy,” O’Leary said. He said his company was also considering diverting aircraft from flying over Belarus, but that such a decision would depend on the findings of investigators, including from the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the response of EU and other government officials.
O’Leary was making the media rounds Monday after his company took heat for its initial response Sunday night, which made the forced landing sound more like an unfortunate weather delay — out of its control — rather than an international incident, in which two passengers were forcibly taken hostage. In addition to O’Leary’s interviews, Ryanair issued a follow-up statement condemning the Belarusian authorities for their “aviation piracy,” and noting the company wouldn’t comment further “for security reasons” as it cooperated with EU and NATO investigators.
Rym Momtaz, Shawn Pogatchnik and Simon Van Dorpe contributed reporting.